Sanctions on Russia Are Working

Why It's Important to Keep Up the Pressure

People attend a rally marking the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 2018. Maxim Shemetov / REUTERS

On August 8, the Trump administration announced new sanctions on Russia in response to its use of the nerve agent Novichok to poison Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom in March. The penalties are set to go into effect in the coming days. Congress will soon consider further sweeping measures against Russia in retaliation for the chemical attack. But critics are growing more vocal. They argue that sanctions are ineffective, counterproductive, and overused. What is the record of Russian sanctions, and what are their prospects?


The critics are wrong. Russian sanctions have proved more effective, more quickly, than their advocates expected. Even if the administration and Congress do not take any further measures, the current sanctions will bite more severely over time. And the newest, most potent sanctions could prompt significant change within Russia.

Recall how we got here. The United States and the European Union first imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the 2014 occupation and annexation of Crimea. This was a turning point in the relationship. Until then, the West had sought to integrate post-Soviet Russia into the global economy. Now it began to exclude it.

This was also a landmark in sanctions history. No economy as big as Russia’s has been subject to major sanctions in recent times. Only the restrictions imposed by the League of Nations on Italy, and by the United States on Japan, before World War II bear comparison. But unlike Italy and Japan back then, Russia is a key supplier of oil and gas to the rest of the world. An embargo on its major exports—a traditional sanctions tool—is all but unthinkable. Designing effective sanctions against such a hard target was a new challenge. 

How have the sanctions fared? Russia has not returned Crimea or withdrawn from Ukraine. Nor has its economy collapsed. But sanctions were never intended to achieve those things. Rather, they were designed for three goals: first, to deter

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