“If Russia is really helping us,” U.S. President-elect Donald Trump said in an interview the week before his inauguration, “why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” True to his word, the president is now considering steps that would unilaterally remove at least some of the sanctions that the United States imposed on Russia in the wake of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Trump is certainly entitled to seek better relations with Russia, and lifting the sanctions might help get him there. For a president who campaigned on promises of joining with Moscow to fight terrorism and repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, such a move would not be a surprise.
But it would be a mistake. For one thing, it defies the logic of sanctions to lift them without any changes in Russia's approach to Crimea. The point of sanctions, after all, is not to merely punish an adversary but to compel it to change its behavior.
More serious, however, is the damage that removing sanctions would do to international law. The sanctions represented a novel attempt to enforce this body of law—to give teeth to often ignored prohibitions and to impose meaningful costs on the most powerful of lawbreakers. Lifting sanctions without any change in Russian behavior would send the message that illegal conquest carries no significant penalty, and it would mark another blow to a rules-based international order.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea violated two core principles of international law: the UN Charter’s prohibition on the threat or use of force, and, perhaps more important, the sanctity of the postwar territorial settlement. From time to time, poweful states do get away with using force outside an international legal framework. (The U.S. invasion of Iraq comes to mind.) But because Russia, in a naked act of conquest, sought to redraw established borders, its annexation of Crimea represented a far more serious breach of international law.
Yet even as the
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