clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Will Biden’s Russia sanctions actually stop Putin?

Biden’s sanctions and expulsion of Russian diplomats won’t stop many of Moscow’s worst aggressions. But the sanctions he didn’t impose yet might.

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks during a concert marking the seventh anniversary of the Crimea annexation on March 18 in Moscow, Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia can’t seem to quit antagonizing the United States and its friends. In just the past year, the Kremlin hacked its way into the computer systems of the US government and Fortune 500 companies, interfered in the 2020 election, and amassed a large military force on Ukraine’s border.

As punishment, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a series of measures designed to, as the White House put it, “defend our national interests and impose costs for Russian Government actions that seek to harm us.”

Those measures include sanctioning six Russian technology firms that support the Russian intelligence service’s cyber program; 32 entities and individuals involved in election interference and disinformation campaigns; limits on US financial interaction with Russia’s sovereign debt; and, in coordination with allies, eight figures “associated” with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The US also expelled 10 diplomats from Moscow’s embassy in Washington, DC, and officially blamed the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (known as the SVR) for hacking SolarWinds software to spy on American officials and businesses.

The US surely took or will take covert action, too. Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated the administration’s message that Russia would suffer “consequences, some unseen and some seen” for its many aggressions. It’s unclear what that might be, but experts assume a cyberattack is most likely.

Any way you look at it, this is a significant decision by Biden that most analysts say will cause real pain to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies. “This is definitely the biggest sanctions action toward Russia since the start of the Ukraine crisis in 2014,” said Edward Fishman, a former State Department sanctions official.

The real question, though, isn’t whether Russia will suffer financially from these measures, but whether they will compel Putin to end his aggressions toward the US and its friends.

The consensus among Democrats, Republicans, and current and former US government officials I spoke to: They won’t.

“These sanctions are punitive and will hurt the Russian economy, but they don’t provide any inducement for better behavior,” Angela Stent, who served as the US national intelligence officer for Russia from 2004 to 2006, told me.

After an address about his Russia actions later in the day, a reporter asked if Putin gave him any indication that he’d change his behavior. Biden didn’t say “yes,” but he did say that in conversations “I urged him to respond appropriately, not to exceed, because we can move as well.”

That doesn’t mean the measures are feckless. Biden may have found a larger strategic reason to hold back: making clear to Putin that if he continues to threaten America and its friends — namely Ukraine — he’ll face worse punishments. Much worse.

Biden’s Russia punishments are big. He could’ve gone bigger.

Top Democrats clearly want the White House to go further than it did to castigate Putin.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the Senate Intelligence Committee chair, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, separately called the sanctions and expulsion package a “first step.”

A Democratic Congressional aide summed up the general feeling in the party like this: “This was quite a punch in the face [to Russia], but we need a combo.”

They believe the US could have done a lot more to inflict real pain on Putin and Russia.

Tim Morrison, who served as President Donald Trump’s top National Security Council official for Europe, has a few ideas in mind.

Biden could’ve sanctioned companies building the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Moscow sees the 95 percent completed pipeline as a way to make money, and Berlin sees it as a much-needed energy delivery system. But Washington, under both Trump and Biden, views the pipeline as a naked effort by the Kremlin to extend its influence into the heart of Europe.

If the US had sanctioned the many firms involved in construction, as mandated by Congress, it would deal a big blow to Putin. “Kill it,” Morrison told me. “Kill it now.” However, the Biden administration is looking to appoint a Nord Stream 2 special envoy with the express purpose of making sure the pipeline is never finished.

Biden was asked why he didn’t place sanctions over Nord Stream 2 during his Thursday afternoon address. It’s “a complicated issue affecting our allies in Europe,” the president responded, adding “that still is an issue that is in play.”

Morrison, who’s now at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, DC, also said Biden should have closed all five Russian consulates in the US.

Those tougher actions would show Putin the US was really serious about stopping him.

“We’re holding things back. We shouldn’t be holding things back. It’s going to be perceived by Putin as what it is: unserious,” Morrison told me. Putin is “a dime-store magician, not a strategic genius, but he can read people. That’s why he’s still alive.”

That Biden didn’t go as far as he could have means Putin is unlikely to stop the cyber espionage, election interference, and other actions that put him on America’s bad side.

The latest measures “are unlikely to change Putin’s calculations in any fundamental way,” said John Sipher, who formerly ran the CIA’s Russia operations. “Putin will continue to use asymmetric means to damage the West, and he has the tools and experience to weather any domestic economic or political damage created by the sanctions.”

But why not do everything Morrison prescribed and see if that would work? The reason, experts tell me, is that Biden thinks he can make Putin hesitate before authorizing the worst actions.

A “sword of Damocles” now hangs over Putin

Fishman, the former US sanctions official now at the Atlantic Council think tank in DC, explained that sometimes the sanctions and punishments you don’t use can be more effective than the ones you do.

“Sanctions are most impactful as a threat, before they’re imposed, to deter future actions by another government,” he told me. “What Biden is showing is he’s not going to hold back when it comes to sanctions against Russia, but he has more arrows in his quiver.”

In other words, Putin not only has to deal with the fallout of these imposed penalties but also has to worry about future reprimands should he push Biden too far.

That “sword of Damocles,” as Fishman called it, comes in real handy right now. Russia has tens of thousands of troops and a convoy of tanks near Ukraine’s border. The concern is Putin may be gearing up for yet another invasion of the country, designed to bolster the Kremlin-aligned forces who’ve been fighting in Ukraine since 2014.

Such a possibility is certainly weighing on Biden’s mind. In a Tuesday call with Putin, Biden “emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” per a White House readout. “The President voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions.”

If Biden had used up every sanctions and diplomatic option available to him, Putin may have just gone ahead and invaded Ukraine anyway because he’d have no further moves to fear, experts said. There’s always the chance of Biden authorizing direct military action or pushing to get Ukraine in NATO, but experts believe those would be steps too far — and Putin knows that.

Biden keeping more options in the holster, then, was the right move for the time being.

“Everything Putin has done merits stronger sanctions,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former top Pentagon official for Russia in the Obama administration. “But when we’re talking about ongoing foreign policy and diplomacy, this makes sense to me.”

There’s more Biden is trying to communicate with these measures, said Sipher, the former CIA agent. “This effort has a symbolic effect in that it makes clear that the new administration plans to focus on the Kremlin’s malign behavior, and Putin needs to assume that the Biden administration will consider future and stronger pushback.”

All told, Putin is unlikely to ever stop trying to weaken the US wherever he can, regardless of what the US does to him, his cronies, or his country. But if the Biden administration can at least stop Putin from doing the worst — like a larger invasion of a US partner nation in Europe — then these and the threat of further penalties would prove a success.

“These new sanctions are pretty kick-ass,” Farkas said.