The Biden administration, according to leaked information, is changing its attitude about U.S. sanctions policy. What motivated sanctions under Trump, how and why will this change under Biden, and how will the new approach to sanctions be much more helpful to Russia than the previous approach?
President Joe Biden’s team is conducting a complete review of its sanctions policy, as reported recently by The Wall Street Journal.
The review itself is expected to end in the very near future, probably during the summer. On the one hand, the terms of the review appear somewhat optimistic, given the sluggishness of the American bureaucratic machine that handles a variety of agreements between agencies and authorities; take Congress, for example. However, on the other hand, the timing is quite realistic; a revision of U.S. sanctions policy is long overdue. The direction this revision is going is not only predictable, but in principle, the American establishment itself agrees with it.
The Sublimation Experiment Failure
In fact, it is not so much a question of revision as it is of restoring sanctions to their original purposes. First, for punishment, where sanctions are predictably imposed for wrongdoings that everyone, including the perpetrator, understands. Second, for deterrence, when the main reason for sanctions is not so much to impose them upon but to threaten in an effort to prevent wrongdoing fro occurring. And finally, for mobilization, when the task of sanctions is to consolidate allied effort in exerting collective pressure.
Under Donald Trump, the United States took a different approach. For the former president, sanctions were not a means of diplomacy, but a tool for pursuing a coercive foreign policy of pressuring and harassing rivals. Therefore, there was no collaboration with any international partners. “During the previous four years, the U.S. mostly acted unilaterally and applied sanctions without much finesse, not taking into account the damage to allies and sometimes to American businesses themselves,” writes Ivan Timofeev, program director of the Russian International Affairs Council.
In addition, there was a complete lack of coherence in sanctions policy among the branches of the U.S. government, with Congress stamping its own sanctions on Moscow as part of the fight against Russian influence, while the administration wrote its own. Nor was there any predictability in terms of what conditions warranted imposition of sanctions, and sanctions were imposed on Russia for any reason.
As a result, no one took sanctions seriously any longer or considered them useful to the United States. The Kremlin and the Russian people began to perceive U.S. sanctions not as something dangerous or undesirable, but as a part of everyday life, from which there was no escape, and something that did not depend in any way on Russia’s own actions. Sanctions have lost their deterrent function and have become a kind of sublimation mechanism, a means of America’s escape from reality.
The fact is that U.S. policy on Russia has reached a dead end. It was impossible to change the regime in the Kremlin, and it was impossible to make Moscow dance to America’s tune; in Washington’s understanding, this meant changing its behavior in the foreign arena. At the same time, for various reasons, the American administration was unwilling and unable to change course in American-Russian relations and start a dialogue with Vladimir Putin. As a result, sanctions became a kind of political fig leaf, demonstrating that the United States was willing to continue a policy of containment.
In essence, it became a policy dominated by the main principle that participation is more important than results. Although it was an aimless waste of resources and the result was minimal, it allowed the United States to somehow save face when it came to Russian diplomacy, and demonstrate to its political supporters and allies its readiness to continue the opposition to Moscow’s evil behavior.
Do We Need Sanctions?
Under Biden, attitudes have somewhat changed. The current president has chosen to abandon the senseless escalation of relations with Russia for a number of reasons, such as an economy in foreign policy, promoting effective relations with the U.S. establishment and the secondary nature of the tasks under Russia’s direction. This means that Trump’s sublimated, showy and macho sanctions policy is no longer necessary. Instead, Biden is returning to the classic rules of the sanctions game.
To what extent will this change in direction benefit Russia? Domestic politicians treat the initiated revision of sanctions policy with caution and a limited amount of optimism. “The outcome is likely to be a more restrained application of new sanctions, rather than the repeal of those already imposed, with possible rare exceptions,” says Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov.
And indeed, one should not expect a mass elimination of restrictions. Let’s be honest, this will not happen under the current state of Russian-American relations. What we can expect is a change in the focus of sanctions. What does this mean?
Today, the most dangerous restrictions for Russia are, of course, economic; sanctions against Russian businesses, projects and financial institutions. But, to a greater or lesser extent, these sanctions concern the interests of American allies, such as Germany, which is now trying to work with Russia to launch the Nord Stream 2 infrastructure project. Or they concern Europe as a whole if we are talking about certain restrictions on Russian export-import operations, as well as investment activity. Meanwhile, one of Biden’s new principle policies is a collective approach to sanctions, which will be worked out together with key American allies and with their own interests in mind.
And since under the Biden administration, the United States will not rely on destructive anti-European and anti-Russian forces like Poland in European affairs, but on Old Europe like Germany, we can have no doubt that Berlin’s objections to unreasonably unleashing an economic war against Russia will certainly be heard in Washington and taken into account. “The administration is unlikely to use carpet bombings like the April 6, 2018 sanctions against major Russian businessmen without good reason,” Timofeev says confidently.
Instead, the United States is likely to emphasize the kinds of restrictions where its approach is similar to Europe’s: in dealing with human rights. “Targeted sanctions dealing with Democrats’ beloved human rights may be applied more aggressively. The Alexei Navalny case could be the main point of attraction for sanctions here. The impact will be more likely on government structures and officials than on business,” says Timofeev.
But then again, let’s be honest. First of all, this is still the lesser evil, and secondly, the Russian Federation has already become accustomed to criticism on human rights issues and is ready to put up with it.
In fact, the major downside for Russia in the Biden administration’s review of sanctions policy does not lie in the policy per se, but in the U.S. partially overcoming its serious trans-Atlantic rift with Europe, in somewhat mending U.S.-European relations and temporarily restoring Western unity, one in which the United States and the EU would work together again to restrain the Russian Federation from playing the contradictions between them.
Fortunately, the keyword here is temporary. The divergence of interests between the U.S. and the EU is too deep and touches too many points. Overall, Biden’s revised sanctions policy will benefit Russia.