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All About the U.S. Sanctions Aimed at Putin’s Russia

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Since 2014, under three different presidents, the U.S. has imposed travel bans, asset freezes and finance and trade restrictions against hundreds of Russian individuals and companies. These sanctions are part of a multinational effort to punish President Vladimir Putin’s government for alleged trouble-making beyond its borders and online. Still more sanctions are seen as possible by the U.S. and its European allies should Putin decide to invade Ukraine.

1. What U.S. sanctions are in place against Russia?

More than 700 Russian people and companies have been targeted by U.S. sanctions. Individuals face limits on their travel and freezes on at least some of their assets, while some top Russian state banks and companies, including oil and gas giants, are effectively barred from getting financing through U.S. banks and markets. They include billionaires such as Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg; close political allies of Putin including his former Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister from 2011 to 2018; and corporate titans such as Rosneft, Gazprom, Sberbank and VTB Group. As a result of sanctions added by President Joe Biden, U.S. financial institutions are barred from participating in the primary market for new debt issued by the Russian central bank, Finance Ministry and sovereign wealth fund. 

2. Why were the sanctions imposed?

The initial ones were ordered by President Barack Obama after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and supported a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. More were added after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election, won by Donald Trump. In 2018, under Trump, another round of measures in response to Russia’s “malign activity around the globe” hit Deripaska’s United Co. Rusal hardest, limiting for a time its access to the $140 billion global aluminum industry. Other U.S. sanctions were aimed at punishing Putin’s government for a 2018 nerve-agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. There are sanctions linked to deals with Syria and North Korea, and sanctions against companies involved in building the Russian natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. President Joe Biden, upon taking office in 2021, carried out a promise to impose new sanctions but said he chose to make them “proportionate” in hopes of limiting the further worsening of the relationship.

3. Why did Biden add to the sanctions?

The sanctions imposed in March and April 2021 followed a review Biden ordered on his first full day in office into four key areas concerning Russia: interference in the 2020 election, reports of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the hacking of Texas-based software supplier SolarWinds Corp. and the poisoning and jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. 

4. What’s been the impact of the sanctions?

Their effectiveness is a matter of debate. They “can inflict some pain” and be “a long-term drag on investment and trade,” wrote Bloomberg Economics analyst Scott Johnson. But the ones announced by Biden in March, for instance, imposed travel restrictions and asset freezes on individuals unlikely to travel to America or have assets in U.S. accounts. The Congressional Research Service, in a report updated in 2020, said that sanctions “have had a negative but relatively modest impact on Russia’s growth” and that it’s “difficult to determine” whether sanctions actually influence Russia’s behavior. Russia, for its part, maintains it can survive the sanctions. As Johnson and the Congressional Research Service both note, the U.S. is constrained by worries over unintended collateral damage. 

5. What sort of collateral damage?

The April 2018 sanctions targeting Rusal disrupted the global supply chain for aluminum and sent prices soaring by 30%. That affected, among others, soda-can makers, the world’s biggest miners and big banks that finance the aluminum trade. The sanctions on Rusal were lifted in late 2018 after Deripaska agreed to reduce his ownership and relinquish control. (Whether he actually did so is a question that lingered.) Blocking U.S. investors from buying ruble-denominated Russian government debt had long been seen as the “nuclear option” in financial markets, where the bonds, known as OFZs, are a popular investment. But restricting the limits to new debt sales, and not those trading on secondary markets -- as Biden did in when adding banking sanctions in April 2021 -- blunted the impact.

6. Is there a better way?

Sanctions “are not an end in themselves and should not be treated as such,” writes Steven Pifer, a former State Department official now with the Brookings Institution. He urged the Biden administration to embed sanctions in a broader U.S. policy toward Russia, link them to specific policy goals understood by the Kremlin, and be willing to reverse sanctions “if Russia ceases the offending action.” 

7. Who else has sanctions on Russia?

The EU slapped sanctions on Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors in response to the annexation of Crimea in a bid to push Putin into a more conciliatory stance over the conflict in Ukraine. Japan joined in those sanctions. The EU also blacklisted six Putin allies as punishment for the attempted murder of Navalny.

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