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The U.S. warns Russia it faces sanctions if it invades Ukraine. Do sanctions work?


There are still as many as a hundred thousand Russian troops stationed along the border with Ukraine. The Biden administration has said it will, quote, "respond decisively" if the regime of Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. That includes putting more sanctions on Moscow. But David Cortright, director of the Global Policy Initiative at Notre Dame's Keough School of Global Affairs, says more sanctions won't work.

DAVID CORTRIGHT: U.S. sanctions alone will not have a high impact, mostly because the United States does not have a lot of leverage with Russia. Actually, our leverage is very limited. Our trade with Russia is fairly minimal. The Europeans, for example, have more than six times as much trade with Russia as we do.

However, if we are able to work with the Europeans and if the European Union joins in the sanctions, well, then that could be effective and, as a threat, might be useful in diplomacy to try to move the process away from conflict towards some kind of settlement. If Russia does indeed invade into Ukraine overtly, then my guess is the European Union will impose additional measures.

MARTIN: So take that a step further if you could. Explain why cooperating with Europe in a set of sanctions against Russia - why is that more effective?

CORTRIGHT: Well, the European Union has a much more extensive trading relationship with Russia than we do. There is a significant amount of dependency in Europe on Russian energy supplies and gas, especially. So a threat to cut off some of that supply or interrupt Russian's energy exports to Europe could be significant on Russia. But it also, of course, would have a big and harmful impact in Europe.

So the European Union did join with the sanctions we imposed in 2014 over the Crimea crisis and the East Ukraine crisis. But those measures have been in place now for six or seven years, and they really haven't had much effect in deterring Russia from once again stirring up concerns in Eastern Ukraine.

MARTIN: So I hear you saying that even multilateral sanctions aren't that effective or have weaknesses - vulnerabilities at least.

CORTRIGHT: Part of our issue, I think, in the United States is we think of sanctions as the policy, and sanctions are only part of a broader policy. They can help that policy, but their impact is limited. And they work best in the context of diplomacy as part of a negotiating process where you apply pressure with some additional sanctions, but then you're willing to go to the bargaining table and try to work out some kind of political compromise and then maybe ease some of the sanctions if the other side - if Russia - does ease up on its pressure.

MARTIN: And let's talk about the political pressures and how those come to play in sanctions policy, because the idea is if the sanctions hit the average citizen - right? - the average Russian in their pocketbook, in the form of higher energy bills or whatnot, that there would be some political pressure in turn on Vladimir Putin. But that doesn't really matter in a Putin regime because he's going to win elections whether or not there's a democratic consensus around him.


MARTIN: He doesn't feel the effects of domestic political pressure.

CORTRIGHT: That's correct. The sanctions will cause hardships for the average working person in Russia, and they already have. Wages are stagnant for a lot of the working people. But that doesn't seem to affect Putin. Some sanctions have been imposed in the past on some of the oligarchs in Russia who are colleagues of Putin, and they control large business enterprises. Maybe that could work, and that would cause some real hardship for the top elites within Russia and perhaps put pressure on Putin.

MARTIN: In your writing, you also argue that it can't be all stick and no carrot, that you can't have penalties - in this case, sanctions - without some kind of incentive. So what incentive would be appropriate in this case?

CORTRIGHT: One of the incentives that has worked in many settings has been the offer to ease sanctions. We saw this in the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015, when it was initially negotiated. The Russian situation is more complicated, and the basis for an agreement is not altogether clear. But if there is a negotiation, we have to be willing to make some compromise, let the Europeans take the lead. So the offer to lift sanctions, to ease some of the pressures, is really one of the effective inducements that can help a bargaining process.

MARTIN: David Cortright, director of the Global Policy Initiative at the Keough School of Global Affairs, we appreciate your time. Thank you.

CORTRIGHT: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.