Smart Policy: How Should Russia Respond to US Sanctions?

02.08.2017

Diplomacy must be divested of the crusading spirit.

Hans Morgenthau

The expulsion of over 700 US diplomats from Russia has become the first tough gesture in response to the recent adoption of the bill on sanctions by Congress. No doubt, Congress will thoroughly monitor its implementation. Russia will not limit itself to the expulsion of US diplomats and the seizing of diplomatic property either. Despite the huge gap in potential, Moscow is fairly capable of disrupting life for the US government from time to time even at the expense of its own interests. All this raises important questions: what do Washington and Moscow hope to achieve with their sanctions? Can sanctions produce the expected results in both capitals?

In responding to these questions it is vital to realize that the United States and Russia have very different approaches to sanctions. Officially, Russia’s response to US sanctions is presented as mirror-like. But this is hardly the case because of the fundamental difference in sanctions paradigms. It is inaccurate to view Moscow and Washington’s sanctions as proportionate “challenges” and “responses.” It would be even less accurate to judge the results of the sanctions war.

What is the difference between the two approaches? The difference lies in the horizon of planning, the scale of goals and the ideological depth and systemic character of these approaches.

The US sanctions paradigm is distinguished by a long-term, strategic character. Although the cycles of the US political system are fairly short (four to eight years), the validity of the US’ sanctions will last for years and decades. They will loom over the executive power, programming a specific track for its policy towards Russia. Importantly, it will be impossible to change this track even if the Kremlin compromises on some issues (as the vitality of the Jackson-Vanik amendment has graphically shown). Russia’s actions are less predictable and more flexible. Its current measures are tailored to the actions of the other side. For the time being, Russia is not insisting on the long-term nature of its sanctions. It sees the West as a whole as a long-term challenge, but the link between this perception and the sanctions is not obvious.

The goals of the US bill regarding Russia may be considered extremely ambitious. To be clear, the sanctions are aimed at a fundamental change in Russian foreign policy and the overhaul of Russian statehood. In simple terms, the sanctions will remain valid as long as Russia remains a great and independent power. This does not exclude dialogue on common challenges, threats and interests that will not disappear. But common challenges will hardly lead to a reduction in or a lifting of the sanctions; that Russia is a rival to the US is now tightly defined by US legislation. On the contrary, Moscow emphasizes that its sanctions are only aimed at compelling the United States to adjust its foreign rather than domestic policy. By tradition and with good reason Russia insists that interference in domestic affairs with sanctions or any other actions is unacceptable. Nevertheless, this won’t have any influence on US policy.

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The US sanctions have a solid ideological background. Moreover, they are based on a consistent political philosophy – ideas of what is appropriate in international relations and domestic policy. It is possible to doubt the validity of US ideas about the world, democracy, freedom and other values, justifiably complaining about double standards and one-sided games. Russians know only too well from their Soviet experience where dedication to ideological doctrines and a crusading spirit can lead. However, there is no doubt that the US approach pays more attention to its legitimization, naturally fitting into its established political and philosophical discourse. This is not the Russian approach. The political and philosophical legitimization of our sanctions and foreign policy in general sooner looks like improvisation rather than a stable normative structure. At worst, in pursuit of America, Russia may develop some ideological concepts that will upset the already habitual pragmatism of its foreign policy. At best, tactical pragmatism will turn into a systematic normative doctrine of international policy.

Finally, the US approach represents an integral system. The Americans express in it a whole package of grievances – both real and fabricated. Relevant procedures, mechanisms for monitoring and even considerations of expediency are clearly defined as well as the targets of the sanctions – the government, companies, individuals, media and NGOs both in Russia and abroad. For now, only the negative response by US allies in Europe to the sanctions has evoked any public response. But de facto they can be applied to any country that is even remotely friendly to Russia. So far the Russian approach is not at all systematic on such a scale, either due to caution or to pragmatic considerations. By acting in kind Russia can tangibly damage its own interests.

In all probability, Russia’s sanctions approach will become more pronounced. While this process has not been completed, we can think about what exactly we want from sanctions. Obviously, the US anti-Russia sanctions are basically ineffective because their official goals cannot be fulfilled. Of course, the Kremlin will not display any goodwill in resolving the issues. Moreover, US policy is bound to make Russia more hostile to the United States. Moscow will come up with miracles of ingenuity and will adapt itself to the sanctions sooner or later. The question is whether we should follow the US road or should our policy be entirely different? The answer is obvious. Our response should be different and smarter.

By expelling an unprecedented number of American diplomats, Russia is loudly banging its fist at the table, showing its resolve to resort to tough measures in relations with the United States. Meanwhile, this step has considerably strengthened the positions of American Russophobes and hawks by equipping them with yet another argument in their favor. Moscow has many similar steps in its arsenal. They will be enthusiastically welcomed by the domestic audience but the results will be the same as those of the US sanctions. America will become even more radical and Russophobic. More importantly, this will create grounds for closer Atlantic consolidation even if it harms the economic interests of the Europeans. The bottom line is that under these conditions we will simply be unable to change the behavior of the United States and its allies to our advantage.

What should we consider instead and what should we prepare for?

First, we should prepare for the long game. In the past few years Russia has mastered tactical play. Now it must acquire a strategic long-term vision and learn to be consistent and patient in achieving its goals. A lack of these qualities will doom our policy to mere responses to actions of other countries. Tactics alone will not allow us to cope with a large-scale system of sanctions. 

Second, we will have to thoroughly analyze the US’ sanctions and subsequent political steps in the context of international law. Russia should be ready for long and meticulous work in upholding its interests in international agencies and institutions.

Third, Russia must be able to stand up to reality and be sustainable. It should in no way replace this by building fences and tightening screws. The efficiency of its own institutions is acquiring key importance for Russia’s national security under international pressure. The rule of law on the domestic scene, an efficient economy, an independent civil society and well-established institutions will be no less important than calibrated foreign policy steps and a capable army.

Fourth, Russia will have to continue diversifying its international contacts. In this context it will have to deal with the old gap between a high level of political ties and mediocre economic relations with countries such as China and India.

Fifth, it is necessary to restrain the temptation to break any remaining economic and humanitarian ties with America. Russia should increase manifold its investment in dialogue with US society, business, media and universities against the backdrop of the political decline in Russian-US relations. Naturally, this should have nothing to do with propaganda that the US sanctions bill is scaring electors with. It is essential to promote large-scale public, economic, scientific and educational cooperation in every possible way. Life shows that real communication between Russians and Americans is the best way to get rid of Russophobia and Americanophobia. This applies to dialogue with members of US Congress as well. We are chronically unable to maintain proper cooperation with them or grasp the domestic trends of US policy. There is no way Russia and the US can escape each other in the modern world. If we want to achieve results in our US policy, we need to be patient, study America attentively and learn to understand its politics and culture. A smart policy would substantially increase the demand for professional and unbiased American studies.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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