Beware the Sanctions Trap Over Russia

The Russian government’s recognition of the independence of the two separatist republics in eastern Ukraine and the decision to send its forces openly into those territories have prompted demands for the US and its allies to impose the harshest sanctions on Russia yet. It remains to be seen whether the Russian government will take any action beyond moving troops into the separatist-controlled areas, and any decision on further punitive measures should hinge on the extent of Russian military action. Russia’s recognition of the separatist republics is illegal, and so is its military presence on Ukrainian territory, but the US and its allies should be wary of launching a costly economic war in response.

Russia has for all intents and purposes settled for de facto annexation of these two statelets. While they are formally recognized as independent states, they are heavily dependent on Russian support and protection. That marks the end of the Minsk II diplomatic track, and it ensures that these territories are lost to Ukraine for the foreseeable future. It would have been better to resolve the lingering conflict through a political settlement that provided autonomy to these territories, but that isn’t going to happen now. The next best solution is to try to salvage a diplomatic compromise that paves the way for de-escalation. A massive economic war will make any such compromise impossible.

The US and its allies are used to waging economic war against states that cannot effectively fight back, but truly severe sanctions that seek to strangle Russian revenues would cause real economic harm to Europe, the US, and the rest of the world. While hawks like to dismiss Russia as nothing more than a glorified "gas station," Russian energy and mineral resources are considerable and cutting them off from the global economy would drive up prices and contribute to economic slowdowns around the world. It is hard to see how impoverishing the Russian people and potentially throwing our own economies into recession make anyone more secure. Just because broad sanctions are the default US response to many international problems does not make them the right response here.

A severe economic war could also lead to further military escalation. Economic sanctions may sometimes work on smaller states to discourage them from military intervention against a neighbor, but they have tended to backfire when used against major powers. Instead of deterring a major power from taking aggressive action, the imposition of severe sanctions can end up encouraging more of it. If the US and its allies inflict costs on Russia through sanctions, that could drive Russia to lash out. The current crisis stems in part from the ongoing Western inability to recognize and anticipate how Russia would respond to Western policies. Plunging ahead with a major economic war would repeat that mistake with potentially far-reaching, undesirable consequences.

In addition to weighing practical considerations about Russian retaliation against sanctions, the US should be wary of imposing broad sanctions that will mostly harm ordinary Russians. The main reason to reject broad sanctions is that it will punish the people that had no say in setting Russian policy, and it could prove to be a political boon for Putin and his allies. Experience shows that a heavily sanctioned country is one in which authoritarianism and repression grow stronger, and that means that economic war against Russia could serve mainly to tighten the current leadership’s hold on power.

The other danger that comes from broad sanctions is that they tend to become permanent. Whether through inertia or by design, US sanctions are almost never lifted once they are imposed, and they often become an insuperable barrier to repairing damaged relations with a targeted country. The more sanctions that the US and its allies pile on a country, no matter the reason for them, the harder it becomes to reduce tensions and establish a constructive relationship with the other government later on. Insofar as tensions with Russia have been fueled by Russia’s sense of exclusion from the security architecture of Europe, broad sanctions threaten to deepen that isolation and increase the mistrust and hostility that have brought us to the current situation.

Russia is too large and powerful of a country to be treated as a pariah permanently, and there are too many issues of global importance that require Russian cooperation for it to be subjected to its own "maximum pressure" campaign. As we can see from the other failed campaigns against smaller states, "maximum pressure" usually encourages greater instability and makes conflict more likely. That is dangerous enough when applied to other states, and if it were applied to a nuclear-armed major power it could be calamitous.

When considering how to respond to Russia’s latest actions, the US must keep in mind the practical consequences of any punitive measures and their implications for US interests and European security. The Russian government must also have some reason to believe that it can avoid harsher sanctions if it refrains from more aggressive behavior, or else they may conclude that they will be punished the same no matter what they do. The Biden administration will be under intense pressure in the coming days and weeks to wage a sweeping economic war, but for the sake of all concerned it must not fall into the sanctions trap.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.