The new US sanctions are still fraught with uncertainty. The key question is whether the United States is imposing restrictions on Russian sovereign debt obligations. Such a measure could cause more serious damage and have an impact on the world markets, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev.
The US and the EU have imposed new sanctions against Russia because of the so-called “Navalny case”. The European Union has activated the human rights sanctions mechanism approved by the EU Council in December 2020. On March 2, the EU added four Russian security officials to its sanctions list. The sanctions include a ban on entry to the EU, an assets freeze in the EU and a ban on economic transactions with persons involved in the lists. However, such officials are unlikely to have assets in the EU. Even if they exist, such assets are not significant for the Russian economy. The sanctions were introduced as a reaction to the arrest and then imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, while restrictions on the topic of the alleged poisoning were introduced back in October 2020. At the time, six high-ranking Russian officials and the Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technologies were subject to the restrictions. Such sanctions have zero impact on the Russian economy.
Unlike the EU, the US has refrained from imposing sanctions following the alleged poisoning of the politician last year. However, on March 2, they were introduced, both in connection with the poisoning and in connection with his subsequent arrest. That is, the topics of the use of weapons of mass destruction and human rights violations were combined. The blocking sanctions targeted seven Russian officials who were already affected by EU sanctions, as well as three research institutes. Trade sanctions were imposed against 14 companies. US government agencies have been prohibited from lending to Russia and a ban was introduced on the supply of weapons and on the provision of US financial assistance. These measures have no impact on the economy. These companies are not the backbone of the economy, Russia does not need US help, it does not buy weapons from the United States, and it does not take loans from US government agencies.
However, the new US sanctions are still fraught with uncertainty. The key question is whether the United States is imposing restrictions on Russian sovereign debt obligations. Such a measure could cause more serious damage and have an impact on the world markets.
The prospect of sanctions against Russian government bonds is related to the specifics of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991. Properly it is used as a legal basis for the imposition of sanctions in the event that a country uses chemical weapons (in the US and the EU, it is assumed that Navalny was poisoned with a substance from the Novichok group). The CBW Law envisages the imposition of sanctions in two stages. On March 2, 2021, the first stage was implemented (a ban on aid, military supplies and loans from government agencies). If, within three months after the first stage, the President does not provide Congress with evidence that the target country has not abandoned the use of CBW and has not given reliable guarantees of their non-use in the future, then the second stage of sanctions will be introduced. It is important to note here that guarantees of non-use should be determined by UN inspections or those provided by another international organisation. Obviously, Russia will not give such guarantees and will not allow any inspections. Moreover, according to the statements of the Russian authorities, Russian chemical weapons were destroyed long ago. In other words, the second round of sanctions is inevitable. The CBW Law obliges the US President to impose at least three of the six types of sanctions. The most unpleasant of these is the ban on American banks from lending to the Russian government.
There has already been a precedent for using CBW against Russia. The sanctions were imposed in connection with the Skripals case. In 2018, the first stage was carried out, and in 2019 — the second. It was secured by Donald Trump’s executive order No. 13883. The decree reflected two types of sanctions — a ban on lending to the Russian government and blocking aid through the IMF. Then trade restrictions were added. If the last two measures were symbolic, then the ban on lending potentially had more serious consequences. However, this measure was applied in an extremely limited manner. The ban applied only to Russian government bonds denominated in foreign currencies, while most of them are denominated in rubles. The sanctions also did not affect the debt of Russian state-owned companies.
In general, the issue of sanctions against Russia’s sovereign debt has been raised many times on other occasions. In 2017, within the framework of Art. 242 of PL 115-44 CAATSA, Congress ordered the US Treasury to give an opinion on the appropriateness of such sanctions. Officials noted in their report that such sanctions would hurt Russia, but were also fraught with market fluctuations and costs for American investors. Such sanctions have repeatedly been proposed in sanction bills, including the most famous ones — DASKA and DETER. However, they have never been passed into law. In 2019, the State Department criticised DASKA.
The forthcoming second round of sanctions over the Navalny case will again raise the issue of restrictions on Russian sovereign debt. Two alternatives are possible. The first is the preservation of the existing restrictions already adopted by Trump in 2019, or their cosmetic expansion. The second is a more radical tightening, including bonds denominated in rubles. The second alternative cannot be ruled out, especially if there is another escalation in the Navalny case. If the status quo is maintained, the first option is most likely.