On October 31, 25 days after the deadline set by Congress, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump finally released guidance about the implementation of new sanctions on Russia. These new measures will add to existing sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals dating back to the 2014 seizure of Crimea. Unfortunately, the previous restrictions have been only mildly successful in their economic impact and have produced no substantive policy changes from Moscow. It is unlikely that the new penalties will prove any different. Their central contribution is to tie Trump’s hands, preventing the president from removing many of the sanctions against Russia without congressional approval. In many ways, the legislation is merely a reflection of the broader problems with formulating any coherent U.S. policy toward Russia: confrontation remains the path of least resistance, policy is focused as much on domestic political needs as on foreign policy needs, and sanctions offer no real incentive to improve the status quo.
THE LIMITS OF SANCTIONS
Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election is only the most recent impetus for new sanctions legislation. The United States has long had some form of sanctions imposed on Russia. The 2012 Magnitsky sanctions, for example, target individuals tied to human rights violations. The Magnitsky Act was itself connected to the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War–era sanctions bill dating back to 1974 that denied Russia the most favored nation status in trade so long as the emigration rights of Soviet Jews were denied. Jackson-Vanik impeded Russia’s accession into the World Trade Organization long into the post–Cold War period.
It was only in 2014, after Russia invaded Crimea and Ukrainian separatists downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 using Russian antiaircraft weapons, that sanctions became the defining feature of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Over a period of six months, as the conflict in Ukraine deepened, the Obama administration put in place a wide-ranging and ambitious set of sanctions that penalized energy companies, arms manufacturers, and banks, with the
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