With the flurry of news surrounding and leading up to Lt. General Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security advisor, our collective focus has once again returned to the bizarre connections between the Trump transition team (now administration) and the Kremlin. According to reports, Flynn explicitly discussed relaxing Russia sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration, despite Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s denials. Two weeks ago, I tried to tamp down some of the misplaced outrage over Treasury’s relatively anodyne issuance of a Russia-relate General License—but this time around, I think it’s appropriate to be very, very worried.
While much of the recent news cycle focused on the scandal of Flynn lying about his talks with the Russian ambassador, we should not lose sight of why the substance of those calls was so concerning. There are any number of reasons why relaxing sanctions on Russia in exchange for as yet unknown cooperation against “radical Islamic terrorism,” to use the President’s phrase, is terrible policy, including everything from legitimizing armed conquest of a neighbor’s territory, abandoning our commitments under the Budapest Memorandum, undermining the Baltic states’ belief that we’d come to their aid in the face of Russian aggression, and so on. But even setting these valid concerns aside, it’s also important that we recognize the damage this about-face would do to the United States’ ability to deploy sanctions as a foreign policy tool.
Two fundamental principles underlie all of U.S. sanctions policy, going back decades. First, sanctions are ultimately designed to change the target’s behavior. Second, if that behavior changes, sanctions should be removed. Or in the words of Acting Treasury Secretary Adam Szubin, “when we impose sanctions, we must clearly articulate what behavior needs to change, and be ready to make good on relieving sanctions when we achieve our ends.” This is a position articulated by all previous occupants of Szubin’s position as Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
Sanctions, particularly powerful secondary sanctions, work by forcing other states to subvert their own preferred policy options to U.S. demands through U.S. dominance of the global economic order. Needless to say, most countries do not usually like to have their foreign and economic policy dictated to them by another nation. The reason that sanctions can be successful is that in the past the United States clearly articulated its goals, moved in concert with allies and trading partners, and was generally trusted to act in the interest of upholding international rules and norms.
The Trump administration’s efforts to play nice with Vladimir Putin threaten to jettison the prior consensus in favor of Trumpian transactional foreign policy. In this view the economic pressure generated by sanctions, regardless of the reasons behind their imposition, is merely a piece of leverage in the overall bilateral relationship between the U.S. and the target country, in this case Russia. It can be traded away for completely unrelated concessions, or maintained despite behavior change in pursuit of unrelated concessions.
This transactional approach may or may not be able to accomplish short-term policy goals, but it is definitely poor long-term sanctions strategy. Abandoning the relationship between changing behavior and sanctions relief incentivizes targets to continue engaging in illicit conduct. In fact, targets might decide that it is easier to cause problems for the U.S. in other areas in order to increase their bargaining power, rather than changing the behavior that prompted sanctions in the first place. If the Trump administration can abandon Ukraine to satisfy the President’s seeming obsession with Islamist-inspired terrorism, how secure should the Baltic states feel knowing that there’s a chance they could be sold out if Russia agrees to cut ties with Iran? Or worse, this could actually incentivize Russia to make trouble in the Baltics and dangling the cessation of this behavior in exchange for greater leeway in Ukraine.
Moreover, third party states will be reticent to continue to allow the United States to throw its economic weight around. There is no reason to support compliance with U.S. sanctions if it is apparent that sanctions can be imposed or traded away in order to obtain a “better deal” on parochial U.S. interests rather than global interests. There is a distinct possibility that U.S. allies and trading partners will engage in balancing efforts, perhaps promoting alternative financial channels that avoid the New York financial hub. At the very least, it is likely that at moments of either tactical or strategic disagreement over U.S. sanctions policy, states will be more inclined to deploy legal countermeasures, preventing companies from complying with sanctions.
It is imperative that the United States maintain adherence to the principles of effective sanctions use in crafting new sanctions or relaxing existing measures. Unless Russia satisfies its commitments under the Minsk agreement, there should be no relief from corresponding sanctions. Unless Russia returns the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine, there should be no relief from Crimea-related sanctions. And unless Russia ceases malicious cyber activity, it should see no relief from cyber-related sanctions. Likewise, if Russia or designated individuals and entities demonstrate verifiable changes in behavior, relief should be swift and comprehensive. Anything less will hurt the United States’ ability to use sanctions to deal with future challenges to its national security and foreign policy.