The West has declared total economic war with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, with the United States unleashing a sweeping set of sanctions and financial restrictions designed to crush the economy of a nuclear superpower. The array of sanctions imposed on Russia is unprecedented in both scope and speed, and Congress wants President Joe Biden to go even further.
It’s difficult to predict the full impact that escalated financial war on Russia will have in the months and years to come. But one thing is certain: Sanctions kill, and lawmakers across the political spectrum are prepared to collectively punish the Russian people. They were prepared to do so even before the invasion took place. One Democrat, Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, said as much a month earlier: “I have no beef with the Russian people, but if their leader is going to precipitate unprovoked aggression and invade a neighbor, they should feel the pinch as well.”
The Biden administration’s first round of sanctions immediately sent the Russian stock market and currency plunging to the verge of collapse. The White House and its allies moved to sever key Russian banks’ access to the SWIFT financial messaging system and took direct aim at Russia’s central bank, effectively freezing the country’s $630 billion of foreign reserves, a stockpile meant to cushion their currency from the impact of financial turmoil. Interest rates more than doubled, and the ruble is now worth virtually nothing. Ordinary Russians are already feeling the consequences close to home, as the prices of nearly all basic goods climb.
Biden’s economic restrictions are supported by a vast majority of lawmakers, and many elected officials, including countless Democrats, are clamoring for an even harsher response. When the White House announced the initial tranche of sanctions, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the hawkish chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on the US to go further to “impose maximum costs on Putin.” Other Democrats on the committee, like Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Chris Murphy of Connecticut—often deemed progressives on US foreign policy—were also ready to “exact the most punishing economic costs on Moscow and its leadership that have ever been brought to bear.”
This week, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation to ban imports of Russian fuel and authorize further sanctions. Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Cori Bush of Missouri were the only Democrats to vote against the bill, citing the impact economic isolation will have on the Russian people. “I have serious concerns that the Suspending Energy Imports from Russia Act will become yet another clear example where a policy stays on the books well past its utility because the political will to lift it has never materialized,” Omar said in a statement about her vote on the fuel ban.
Sanctions are easy to impose and notoriously difficult to lift. Once they’re in place, it becomes politically toxic to get rid of them. Policy inertia and the vast infrastructure designed to maintain sanctions keep them intact, despite ample evidence that the measures inflict widespread suffering and bring unintended consequences. Sixty years after President John F. Kennedy signed Proclamation 3447 to impose a ban on all trade with Cuba and punish Fidel Castro, the embargo lives on. Washington has only tightened its grip on the Cuban economy in the years since, with hundreds of additional sanctions implemented under President Donald Trump and kept alive under Biden. The Jackson-Vanik amendment is another straightforward example. It was a 1974 law that restricted US trade relations with non-market economies (then the Soviet Union) and was not lifted until 2012. Even then, the Magnitsky Act ended up taking its place.
“The political momentum is what it is,” a Democratic House staffer told The Nation. “And so people can say privately like, ‘This is fucking crazy, this is unpredictable, I have no idea how this is going to turn out but it’s probably going to be bad. But then publicly, everybody, including people on the left, are very obsessed with this idea of showing national unity. It’s a coin flip whether any of these sanctions are still in place 40 years from now, and nobody is considering that.”
Other progressives, like New York Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, fully supported the sanctions package. Ocasio-Cortez said she had “major concerns” about the sanctions early on, but “so far, in our review, we don’t really see any major red flags.”
In the weeks before Putin’s invasion, members of Congress had been pushing to pass Senator Menendez’s “maximum costs” legislation, known as the “mother of all sanctions.” A Congressional Research Service memo on his bill, the Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act of 2022, found that the proposed sanctions could trigger a banking crisis, capital flight, a depreciation of the ruble, and a “contraction of Russia’s overall economy.” Though the effects on Western economies would be a lot harder to predict, the CRS report said, an economic crisis in Russia could “directly or indirectly impact US and European economies through numerous financial and trade channels.”
When I asked House majority leader Steny Hoyer, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, whether the United States would be willing to accept economic refugees from Russia if the sanctions succeed in crippling the Russian economy, he replied that it’s a “very tough question” he’s “not prepared to answer.”
“Although we don’t have an argument with the Russian people, they’re in a dictatorship,” Hoyer said. He went on to acknowledge that the Russian people have little to no control over what their government does, but concluded that it’s “premature” to discuss what the United States might do to help them if Russians are forced out of their country.