Seeing reports in the New York Times today on further Russian aggression in Ukraine has me thinking about Ely Ratner and Elizabeth Rosenberg’s recent article entitled “Pointless Punishment?” where they argue that Western sanctions on Russia are at best pointless and at worst counterproductive. I think Ratner and Rosenberg (R&R henceforth) have a valid point in looking at the ways in which sanctions might produce unexpected negative consequences for the US. But also I think the events being reported today, and some other lines of analysis that they do not include in their article, suggest that not only is the punishment not pointless, but that it is important for the stability of the international system and the health of the rules that underpin it that all states, or as many as possible, impose a significant cost of Russia.
To be fair, R&R argue that eventually isolation of Russia would be counterproductive. It would in the long term weaken Japan (which needs access to Russian gas supplies) and push Russia and China closer together by weakening Russia’s ties with states like India, Vietnam, and Japan that see China in a negative light. So while R&R do not say the international community should do nothing, since Russia shows no signs of backing down in Ukraine the suggestion does seem to be that punishment (i.e. sanctions) should be rethought now and probably abandoned.
There are some parts in their argument I find problematic. First, isolation of Russia in the long term is not inevitable, even with sanctions. Europe and the US have given Russia a clear path out of the crisis, and it doesn’t even involve returning Crimea to Ukraine. So it is possible that increased sanctions will push Putin to reconsider, particularly since he has thus far used military force in ways that allow him a level of deniability, which dramatically decreases the domestic cost to him of a policy reversal.
Also, in the long term Russia’s economy is going to push strongly in favor of selling hydrocarbons to Japan. Russia needs diversified customers. While it is true that Russia just signed a gas deal with China, it is not entirely as R&R characterize it (that Russia and China can cooperate when they have nowhere else to turn). Russia inked the agreement at the lowest possible price they had indicated acceptable, suggesting that while Russia had nowhere to turn, China apparently had enough options to drive a hard bargain. That imbalance will only continue to get worse as Russia’s economy suffers under sanctions and lost investment while China’s continues apace. My guess (and it is only that) is that Russia’s business leaders if not political leaders understand this reality. So it is unlikely that Japan will pay a serious long-term cost for participating in the sanctions regime now. And in the short to medium term, the United States may step in to the breach if LNG exports are approved by the Obama administration (thus strengthening ties between the US and Japan).
Second, R&R seem to ignore the political reality in Europe, where important NATO member states are increasingly nervous about Russia’s behavior, and what it means for them. Abandoning sanctions or any efforts to oppose/correct Russian behavior may lead to a weakening of the transatlantic relationship as some of the most stalwart Atlanticist countries come to doubt the resolve of US to help hold Russia in check and in general support European allies. So while sanctioning Russia may isolate it in the short to medium terms, not doing so may damage the most world’s most successful security alliance in the long term.
Third, R&R overlook the ramifications of Russia’s behavior in terms of nuclear proliferation. No mention is made of the fact that Russia violated an explicit legal agreement (the Budapest Memorandum) lodged with the UN by which it bound itself, the US, and the UK to observe the territorial integrity of Ukraine in perpetuity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its legacy nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War. Russia has completely violated that agreement. Failing to punish Russia undermines the international legal basis for assurances given to all non-nuclear states. The potential damage in terms of the nonproliferation regime is clear. So while isolation of Russia may be problematic, so to is the potential that the US might undermine sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program by appearing to dismiss the rule of international law and thus undermining the credibility of any promises given in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions.
All of this comes on top of the flagrant violations of the legal norms of sovereignty Russia has perpetrated in Ukraine. As with any policy, sanctions now and possibly enhanced sanctions in the future have a cost. But so does doing nothing, and in my reading the cost of the latter is far higher than the former. The solution, if there is any, to Russian transgressions in Ukraine is for the international community to come together with as broad a coalition as possible to impose sanctions on Russia, thereby undermining both an element of Putin’s legitimacy at home (economic growth) and defusing his nationalist narrative that he is leading Russia against Western oppressors. China may not participate, but if India, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, and other major states outside the ‘West’ do, that gives the best chance of short-circuiting the narrative Putin is using domestically to legitimate his policy while aligning material incentives to encourage him to stand down on Ukraine.