Western diplomats say they expect Joe Biden, the projected winner of the U.S. presidential election, to mount an early review of the effectiveness of current sanctions on Russia.
The aim would be to readjust them to increase their immediate impact. A Western diplomat stationed in Washington told VOA “they will want to sharpen their bite.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Other Western diplomats say they have been left with the impression from conversations with Biden’s foreign policy advisers and reading their pre-election commentaries that a Biden administration will try to put forward a more rounded and consistent Western strategy toward Russia — one that aligns military, economic, energy, diplomatic and communications policies.
Sanctions would be the tip of the spear for the Democratic administration after January’s transfer of power from Republican President Donald Trump. There would be a stronger focus, diplomats expect, on launching a broad effort to counter Kremlin-sponsored disinformation and political influence campaigns, a move that likely would be welcomed by America’s allies.
Also expected would be a greater emphasis on reaching out to the Russian people, breaking the Kremlin’s domestic information stranglehold and offering subsidized study-abroad programs for the young.
European diplomats say a Biden administration likely would urge allied governments to avoid sending mixed signals by seeking to expand economic ties with Russia that would undercut the economic impact, and political symbolism, of sanctions.
That would suggest a Biden administration is likely to be as critical as the Trump White House has been of the Kremlin-favored multi-billion-dollar underwater natural gas pipeline known as Nord Stream 2, linking Russia with Germany. Critics say the pipeline will make Europe more dependent on the Kremlin for its energy needs and fear it could be weaponized for political blackmail.
Foreign-policy experts being tapped for roles in the projected new administration have outlined their thinking in articles and at think-tank events.
Michael Carpenter, a foreign policy adviser to Biden, and a former deputy assistant secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia at the U.S. Defense Department, wrote in the National Interest magazine in 2018 that sanctions have failed to persuade the Kremlin to alter its foreign policies.
“Russia continues to wage a brutal war in eastern Ukraine. It continues its military campaign to obliterate the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. And it continues to subvert Western democracies with cyberattacks, disinformation, and dark money. On none of these fronts is the Kremlin seeking to scale back its ambitions or moderate its behavior,” according to Carpenter.
“To make sanctions against Russia work, the United States and its allies need to dispense with symbolic gestures and impose stronger sanctions that will have an immediate economic impact,” he wrote. Carpenter said he favors targeting Russian banks and imposing financial sanctions that could be scaled up, moving from smaller banks to bigger ones, to put pressure on the Kremlin.
Citing aggression in Ukraine and Kremlin-backed meddling in Western elections, he argued sanctions should not be resorted to as the answer for every perceived Russian breach of international norms but should be more targeted with a clear pathway to sanctions relief, if behavior is altered. “Sanctions should also be reversible if they are to serve as an incentive for behavioral change,” he wrote.
Kremlin officials have downplayed the impact of the wave of Western sanctions that were imposed in retaliation for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, apparently hoping to persuade Western governments to abandon them on the grounds they are ineffective. Part of Moscow’s line has been sanctions are hurting Western countries much more than Russia itself — a position often echoed by business interests in the West.
While the Kremlin has downplayed their significance, it also has railed against them and insisted they should be lifted.
Opinion among members of the broad foreign-policy establishments in the U.S. and Europe have been divided about the effectiveness of sanctions in restraining the Kremlin in ways Western governments want, or how much they actually inflict pain in Russia.
The International Monetary Fund has estimated sanctions may have reduced Russia’s economic output from between 1% to 1.5%. A 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service, a unit providing analysis for the U.S. Congress, noted sanctions could have packed more punch but that policymakers in both the Obama and Trump administrations wanted to avoid harming ordinary Russian citizens, or adversely affecting U.S. or European businesses too greatly.
A slew of Western sanctions has been imposed since 2014 in response to Moscow-backed separatism in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and what Western governments see as malicious cyber activities. Sanctions also have been imposed for alleged human rights abuses and for the March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in England of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Russian officials have denied they had any involvement in the attempted assassination of Skripal and dismiss accusations of malign cyber activity as Western fantasy.
“If you look at all the efforts and time and energy the Kremlin has spent on trying to get sanctions lifted, then that would indicate that the Russians feel they have had an impact,” says David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush. He judges Russia may have been tempted to encroach further into Ukraine than the Donbas without them but added wider sanctions could be more effective.
Other former officials and analysts agree. “To change Putin’s behavior, you need to ratchet up sanctions on companies in the energy, defense and financial sectors — that would be more likely to force the Kremlin to shift its calculus,” says Edward Fishman, an analyst with the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in New York.
Several Biden advisers are of the same mind and are especially scornful of sanctions targeting high-profile individuals, from oligarchs to Russian government officials. They have argued sanctioned individuals are compensated by the Kremlin and aren’t going to lobby Russian President Vladimir Putin to modify policies as their status and wealth depends on loyalty to him.
Another foreign-policy expert being tipped for a job in a Biden administration, Victoria Nuland, also says sanctions need to be re-thought. “U.S and allied sanctions, although initially painful, have grown leaky or impotent with overuse and no longer impress the Kremlin,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine in July.
A former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the Obama administration, Nuland said the U.S. “must lead a campaign to harden democratic societies against Russia’s efforts to interfere in free elections, spread disinformation, inflame societal tensions, and conduct political influence campaigns.”
She added: “If Russia continues to stall, sanctions and other forms of political, economic, and military pressure should be increased.”