Let me confess: I’m not a big fan of sanctions. Much too often in the past they have been as much a substitute for policy as an effective part of policy. They are easy to impose but difficult to implement, and it’s often hard to judge their effects. They often have unforeseen consequences that can linger long after they have been lifted. Criminal networks in the Balkans are just one example. The strengthening of Revolutionary Guard economic networks in Iran is another.
So I’m a sanctions dove, not a sanctions hawk.
But I believe that the case of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is different. That’s not because it’s easier to judge the exact effects of Western sanctions, but because they happen to be tightly tied into a clearly defined policy framework. If they are unconditionally lifted, that entire policy framework will come crashing down.
I should admit that it didn’t start so neatly. The critical sanctions decisions were taken in the spring and summer of 2014, as the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine rolled on. But the critical policy framework defining the conditions for lifting the measures came only with the Minsk agreement — first in September 2014 and then, spelling it out in more detail, in February 2015. That’s where we are now: The stronger sanctions are firmly linked to the full implementation of the Minsk deal, which requires Russia to withdraw from eastern Ukraine and return control of the border to the Kiev government. Some of the other measures are tied to a resolution of Crimea, whose annexation by Moscow is not recognized by the West.
These are not just sanctions decided on by one or the other country or entity. They have been adopted, and time after time extended as Russia has failed to meet its obligations, in close coordination among all the key governments of the West.
Signals from the Trump administration on the future of these sanctions have been less than crystal clear, to use a diplomatic understatement. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has made a clear statement on the Crimea issue and the associated sanctions. That’s welcome. But in the case of the stronger sanctions associated with the failed Russian efforts to unravel Ukraine by creating a breakaway region, which ended up with the two miserable statelets in eastern Donbas, the messages from Washington have been ambiguous at best.
It has been hinted that, yes, they could possibly be lifted in exchange for Russian cooperation in fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East. That’s something Russia says it is ready to do. (Whether Moscow’s definition of fighting the Islamic State is the same as ours is a separate issue: Aleppo should not be forgotten.) But for the West to give away something to reward Russia for action that it is ready to do anyhow is hardly sensible policy. It’s not the art of the deal — it’s the art of surrender.
It wouldn’t produce any additional gain in fighting the Islamic State, but it would collapse the policy of both the United States and Europe in Ukraine. The Minsk agreement would immediately go from difficult to impossible, the conflict would turn permanent, and we would see the low-level attrition warfare there becoming a cancer eroding the security of large parts of Europe. This wouldn’t even be in the genuine interest of Russia.
The Ukraine project was a fiasco for Vladimir Putin. He believed the country would unravel after the loss of Crimea — but instead it come together as perhaps never before. Putin had to send in his regular army — missiles, tank battalions, Grad rockets and the rest — to salvage what could be salvaged. The result was approximately 10,000 dead and perhaps 3 million displaced.
It might be that new moves will be required to bring the conflict to a solution. Putin doesn’t want to lose face before his election next year. I remain convinced that sooner or later the Kremlin will see the wisdom of an impartial peacekeeping force to ensure the implementation of Minsk — but we are certainly not there yet.
The key for now is to stay the course on the overall policy, and sanctions happen to be a critical part of that. In themselves they are certainly not a viable strategy, but without them the policy we actually have will certainly not be workable. To sell out these sanctions for something in the Middle East that Russia wants anyway doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
It would not be a deal — it would be a defeat.