Last week President Obama garnered equal parts praise and condemnation when he announced that the United States would end its five-decade-long embargo of Cuba. And while it is certainly the case that doing so was long overdue, at almost exactly the same moment, Obama also signed the cynically titled Ukrainian Freedom Support Act (HR 5859) authorizing further sanctions against Russia. And in so doing the administration, in effect, jettisoned one cold war relic while giving renewed credence to another.
Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, the timing of the act—which provides for $350 million worth of military aid to Kiev—could not have been worse in light of the fact that the December 9 cease-fire between Kiev and the separatists’ forces seems to be holding. The signing of the new sanctions legislation also came fast on the heels of the collapse of the Russian Ruble (RUB) and the subsequent decision by the Russian Central Bank to hike interest rates from 10.5 percent to 17 percent. The rate increase did little to halt the RUB’s precipitous slide which—according to a chorus of hawks—proved that the sanctions against Russia were indeed working.
The implications of the administration’s volte-face on Cuba as it regards the current sanctions policy against Russia, however, seem to be lost on the administration. After all, what amounted to a fifty-year economic blockade against Cuba did nothing to alter the behavior of the Castro regime, nor did it have any appreciable effect on the trajectory of its internal politics, except perhaps to solidify the rule of the brothers Castro.
Indeed, according to the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, the use-value of sanctions or blockades in changing the behavior of the regimes against which they are aimed is limited, because
populations of modern states can absorb great amounts of pain without rising up against the governments. There is not a single case in the historical record in which either a blockade or a strategic bombing campaign designed to punish an enemy’s population caused significant public protests against the target government.
If anything, the opposite it is true—we can expect the sanctions to help Putin further consolidate his rule.
It is more than likely the current Russian leadership sees the new sanctions bill as further proof of the impossibility of working with the United States. Consider Putin’s comments at his year-end press conference in which he likened Russia to a bear. Putin said that the West “will always try to chain it. And as soon as they chain it, they’ll rip out its teeth and claws.” More ominously, Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have of late been voicing their conviction that the true goal of the sanctions is not to force Russia’s hand over Ukrainem but rather that of regime change within Russia itself.
Some analysts like the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer downplay the notion, scoffing that “Putin and the Kremlin may have persuaded themselves that the goal of the economic sanctions is regime change, but is not.” Likewise, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz insists that the imposition of sanctions show that “we’re merely defending the principles of international law and territorial sovereignty.” Yet the timing of President Obama’s embrace of the new congressional authorization makes Putin and Lavrov’s protestations—which once seemed paranoid to the point of absurdity—increasingly harder to dispute.
If Putin and Lavrov are right, it might be worth considering what the alternatives to Putin might look like. In the highly nationalistic atmosphere that currently envelopes Russia, it is simply wishful thinking to believe that a so-called “Russian spring” is anywhere in the offing. If anything, a post-Putin Russia might pursue a more, rather than less, revanchist foreign policy. It might be worth considering, too, that major figures, past and present, from across the Russian political spectrum have all voiced their approval of Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Further, are supporters of the sanctions and their attendant economic dislocations really so sure that destabilizing a leading nuclear power—one which borders some of the world’s most combustible regions—is truly in the interests of global peace and security?
Large parts of the world regard the United States—and given our track record since 9/11, for good reason—as the international system’s premier sower of instability. In authorizing both a new round of sanctions against Russia and increased military aid for Kiev, we seem on the verge of proving our critics right once again.