Sanctions should be a means to achieving a larger end. Maybe the goal is to nudge Putin’s elite coalition — you know, the guys sitting at the other end of the long table — into forcing him out. Maybe it is to delegitimize Putin in the eyes of a country that remembers the pre-Putin 1990s as a time of humiliation.
If the goal is to compel, then the sanctioners need to be explicit about what Russia can do to get the sanctions lifted. I saw nothing in the joint statement that suggested any demands that could cause these sanctions to be lifted. That lack of clarity undermines coercive bargaining, because the targeted actor believes that sanctions will stay in place no matter what they do.
An exception to this rule is if the goal is not to coerce but to contain. If the aim is to weaken Russia’s long-term power projection capabilities, then no demand needs to be announced. If that is the case, however, then some thought needs to be given to how ordinary Russians beyond Putin’s elite circle will cope under this new normal. They are already paying a high price, and things are likely to get worse as the sanctions bite harder.
It is possible that ordinary Russians, who were not keen on invading Ukraine, will blame Putin for the economic collapse. But it is also possible that the Russian government, like most target governments, will successfully shift the blame onto the sanctioning countries. Indeed, the sanctions give Putin a perfect excuse to deflect blame for any future bad economic news.
I want to be very clear about what I am saying. Russia has engaged in egregious actions that warrant economic coercion. There are multiple reasons why sanctions are the appropriate policy choice. But whether the goal is to compel Russia into concessions or contain Russia’s capabilities, some thought needs to be given about how the sanctions are supposed to work and the conditions under which they can be lifted. Those thoughts need to be codified and articulated to Russia and the rest of the world. [Continue reading…]