Gradual sanctions against Russia are a loser

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The Biden administration has been explicitly pursuing a strategy of “graduated escalation” in imposing sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine. This approach is virtually certain to be less effective in inflicting economic hardship on Russia than a more robust effort, thereby prolonging Ukraine’s agony and postponing Russia’s isolation. Gradual escalation in economic warfare carries precisely the same risks as in kinetic warfare; the enemy has a say in both cases. President Biden could be introducing us to the Vietnam of economic sanctions.

Indeed, to all outwards appearances, Biden’s graduated-escalation policy is motivated largely by domestic political considerations, especially regarding Russia’s energy sector. With US inflation high and rising, economic pain at home is the last thing the White House wants, particularly soaring oil and gas prices. Consumers feel the squeeze not only when they fill their gas tanks but in their other purchases that require transporting goods to stores or front porches, notably food.

A little history on sanctions and recent US foreign policy: It says something about today’s Democratic Party that Woodrow Wilson’s views are too hard-line to contemplate. Wilson, amidst his prolonged reveries about the League of Nations, strongly advocated using economic sanctions in lieu of military force to resolve international disputes. He called sanctions “a peaceful, silent deadly remedy” and “a hand upon the throat of the offending nation.” Too much for the Biden administration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
The US sanctions should be as sweeping and comprehensive as possible to Putin’s economy, John Bolton writes.
Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

America’s experience with sanctions has been mixed and suggests several conditions for effectiveness. First, sanctions should be imposed swiftly and by surprise if possible, to prevent targets from taking precautionary or protective steps to mitigate the impact. That obviously did not happen with Russia, international sanctions having been threatened for months and, even if not known in precise detail, easily imaginable. If Russia was not prepared for the measures imposed so far, the Kremlin is guilty of governance malpractice.


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Second, sanctions should be as sweeping and comprehensive as possible, since no sanctions will be completely effective. Lesser measures produce lesser results. Phrases like “targeted sanctions” sound good in diplomatic communiqués, but broad-gauge sanctions are far more likely to cause sustained pain. Even history’s most-extensive sanctions, the United Nations Security Council measures against Iraq after invading Kuwait, did not ultimately succeed in forcing Saddam Hussein out. Concern for second-order impacts of sanctions on America’s economy is warranted, but sanctions should maximize harm to the target, with other measures separately protecting the domestic economy. Dialing down sanctions to protect the sanction-imposer does far more to shield the target than Biden realizes.

Finally, sanctions should go for the jugular. With Russia, its very existence as a major threat relies on the revenues from its oil and gas production and exports. As some wags have said, it’s more a big gas station than a real national economy. Russian earnings from hydrocarbon sales internationally totaled 60% of its export revenues in 2019 and 40% of its national-government budget. Russia’s dependence on oil and gas revenues has grown steadily over the last eight years.

The Biden administration's tepid approach to Russian sanctions could prolong Ukrainians' suffering, Bolton warns.
The Biden administration’s tepid approach to Russian sanctions could prolong Ukrainians’ suffering, Bolton warns.
dia images via Getty Images

The Biden administration argues that blocking Russian hydrocarbon sales would not immediately damage Russia because of currency reserves accumulated in anticipation of just such sanctions. Of course, many more non-hydrocarbon sanctions are required than currently announced, also hastening expending the reserves. The aggregate effect of more robust and comprehensive sanctions, particularly oil-and-gas sanctions, would strangle Russia’s government and broader economy.

The administration’s misguided graduated-escalation strategy and failure to strike Russia’s energy sector, unfortunately, reinforce one another, providing Putin a lifeline. Postponing any sanctions now, especially against energy, only sustains Moscow’s war machine. If Biden wants to keep US hydrocarbon prices down for political reasons, he should consider the supply side: US production increases, quickly available through already-existing horizontal-drilling and fracking infrastructure, could substantially mitigate price rises on American consumers.

Ukrainian people and their supporters demonstrate outside Downing Street calling for the West to implement strong sanctions against Russia including ban on energy trade, exclusion from Swift payment network as well as more widespread sanctions targeting individuals and businesses associated with Kremlin after Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale military invasion into the Ukrainian territory on February 25, 2022 in London, England.
Ukrainian people and their supporters are calling for the West to implement strong sanctions against Russia, including a ban on energy trade and exclusion from the SWIFT payment network.
Future Publishing via Getty Imag

Europeans may have a harder time, entirely through their own fault and contrary to US warnings dating to Ronald Reagan against depending on Russian energy sources. And what better opportunity or higher motive for Germany and other governments to force their economies toward green energy than supporting the courageous Ukrainian people? No one is asking for unnecessary sacrifice, but no anti-aggression policy in Ukraine is cost-free. That is the reality of a globalized economy. Otherwise, the West’s policy is simply, “We support Ukraine, but not when it is inconvenient.”

It’s time to squeeze the Kremlin hard, not engage in semiotic warfare, gradual escalation and pearl clutching. Drive a stake through Russia’s energy sector. Now.

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Donald Trump from 2018 to 2019 and US ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006.



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