Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why Trump shouldn't weaken US sanctions on Russia (part 1)

This two-part series examines how US sanctions have kept Putin's empire building in check.

Why Trump shouldn't weaken US sanctions on Russia (part 1)
Published 7 Dec 2016 

Donald Trump’s election has caused consternation among almost every mainstream group of policymakers in Washington. Chief among them are those who advocate for a strong US posture against Russia, and the continuation of economic sanctions on Putin’s Russia that has defined the Obama administration's Russia strategy since 2014.

Vladimir Putin's Crimean annexation in March of that year has been lauded by many as an ambitious and successful gambit - one that has signalled the return of Russia as a major power, and fundamentally altered the post Cold War geopolitical paradigm in Europe.

You don’t have to look far to find the narrative of an emboldened Russia entrenched in the thinking of the international political commentariat.

After Brexit, and with the ongoing resurgence of populism in Europe, a chastened Brussels and a divided EU brings Moscow new opportunities in eastern Europe. Its belligerence in Ukraine aside, Russia also poses a genuine long-term security challenge for the Baltic states who, under a Trump presidency, can no longer take NATO’s security guarantee at face value.

Simply put, many see Russia on the rise, re-asserting itself militarily after a generation in the shadows after the collapse of the USSR.

In this context, some argue that the US sanctions against Russia have let Moscow and Vladimir Putin off the hook. The sanctions have failed, they say, because Russia's hold over Crimea has only consolidated since 2014, worrying Baltic and Black Sea littoral states wary of Russia’s expansionist ambition, and proving to Putin the West is weak and indecisive.

But such arguments rely on too narrow a definition of the success, one that ignores the broader foreign policy restrictions a damaged economy imposes upon Russia.

In Central Asia, where Russian foreign policy is best characterised by economic and multilateral entanglement, the sanctions have helped abruptly halt Russia’s grand strategy in a region it largely perceives as its own.

Secondary outcomes of economic sanctions can’t be ignored

Economic sanctions are a defining feature of 21st century statecraft. They are often a first response to belligerence, to a degradation of human rights, or to an abrogation of any number of international norms. Indeed, military intervention has ceded territory to economic sanctions as a preferred method of dealing with rogue nations that step out of line.

But despite their increasing frequency, many argue sanctions just don’t work, or that at best they only have ‘modest effects’.  These definitions of success, however, are often too narrow.

Regularly, the broader geopolitical consequences of a sanctions regime aren’t considered when determining how useful they have been at achieving a strategic outcome for the sanctioning state.

Sanctions, however, always have secondary outcomes - often foreseen, often not - that are almost always ignored when determining the effectiveness of a policy of economic coercion. The fact that these secondary outcomes are sometimes never acknowledged by the sanctioning state can mean the sanctions' success in achieving broader strategic outcomes is also not publicised.

The economic fallout in Russia since March 2014 - after the dual impact of declining commodity prices and heavy Western sanctions - is perhaps one of the clearest examples in contemporary statecraft where the secondary outcomes of sanctions are so clearly evident.  

Ostensibly, the US sanctions were intended to pressure Moscow to return Crimea to Ukraine. This was the primary, stated objective of the US when sanctioning Russia. But any observer of modern Russian history would understand the folly of this demand.

Simply, no amount of economic coercion will likely see the return of Crimea to Ukraine. Doing so would undermine Putin’s credibility at home and abroad, and reject the long-held argument Moscow has put forward that the Crimeans are in favour of the annexation.  

No one would argue that the primary stated objective of the US sanctions policy hasn’t eventuated: in this primary sense, the sanctions haven’t delivered.

But to make sense of their continuation, a broader impact of the economic sanctions must be understood. Russia - determined to consolidate its influence in former Soviet Central Asia - has been significantly constrained in its reach since the Obama administration began its policy of economic coercion.

Russia’s waning influence in its own backyard

Russia’s encroachment into post-Soviet Central Asia began almost as soon as the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.  A newly independent Russia was determined to maintain its long-established influence in its own backyard.

From the Baltic to the Caucuses and throughout Central Asia, Moscow aimed to consolidate its reach by developing a new form of multilateral institutionalism throughout the former Soviet Union. While Western efforts in the immediate aftermath of the USSR’s collapse were understandably concentrated in Europe - specifically, in the deteriorating former Yugoslavia - Russia doubled down on its historic stronghold in Central Asia.

Central Asia has long been subject to Russian expansion. The nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have known Russian occupation since the height of Imperial Russian Empire's’ reach in the 19th century. Only upon the collapse of the Soviet Union did these nations taste true independence for the first time in their history.

The region’s connection to Russia is, subsequently, long-standing. Central Asia’s lingua-franca is Russian, and the region’s economic fate is intrinsically linked to economic policymaking in Moscow.

Since 1991, each of the Central Asian republics have been absorbed into a growing number of Russian led international organisations rivalling Western equivalents such as the European Union and NATO.

The primary institution Russia is advancing in Central Asia is the Eurasian Economic Union, a political (and eventually monetary) union aiming to integrate Russia and its former vassal states to an extent not seen since the collapse of the USSR. The EEU is an ambitious initiative by Putin that is central to Moscow’s gambit to achieve its status as a great power, with long term ambitions to expand into the Caucuses and the Middle East.

But while the EEU might be gradually progressing, the rapid downturn of Russia’s economy - the result of the dual impact of waning commodity prices and US led economic sanctions - has halted the project's momentum.

Russia’s role as the economic hegemon in the region has been decimated. All Central Asian states are feeling its downturn just as the Russian people are, and they’re looking elsewhere to sure up their own economic futures.

And at the same time, a range of other actors - notably China - are making their own economic inroads into the region.

Part 2 of this series will examine the power play underway in Eurasia.

Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

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