What are economic sanctions, and how did they become Washington’s foreign policy tool of choice?

A group of people hold signs outside the Foreign Ministry building Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, during a protest calling for the European Union to impose additional sanctions on Russia on Feb. 21. (Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images)

The Biden administration imposed Tuesday what it said was the first tranche of sanctions targeting Russia for its actions against Ukraine.

The measures include freezing the assets of two state-owned banks that service the Kremlin and Russia’s military as well as comprehensive sanctions on Moscow’s sovereign debt, effectively cutting the government off from Western financing.

“Russia will pay an even steeper price if it continues its aggression, including additional sanctions,” President Biden said in a televised address.

From Cuba to Myanmar to China to Iran, Washington has long used sanctions as a favored foreign policy tool, wielding the global economic power of the United States to punish adversaries, respond to rights abuses or corruption, or gain leverage in negotiations.

Here’s what to know about sanctions and how they became a crucial part of U.S. foreign policy.

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