U.S. Threat to Squeeze Russia’s Economy Is a Tactic With a Mixed Record

LONDON — When Russian soldiers crossed into Ukraine and seized Crimea in 2014, the Obama administration responded with a slate of economic penalties that ultimately imposed sanctions on hundreds of Russian officials and businesses and restricted investments and trade in the nation’s crucial finance, oil and military sectors.

Now, with Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s border, the White House national security adviser has declared that President Biden looked Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, in the eye this week “and told him things we didn’t do in 2014 we are prepared to do now.”

Whether harsher measures would persuade Russia to stay out of Ukraine, however, is far from clear. Historically, economic sanctions have a decidedly mixed track record, with more failures than successes. And actions that would take the biggest bite out of the Russian economy — like trying to severely curb oil exports — would also be hard on America’s allies in Europe.

“We’ve seen that over and over again, that sanctions have a hard time really coercing changes in major policies” said Jeffrey Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who has spent decades researching the topic. “It’s a limited toolbox.”

President Biden is looking at the options available to ratchet up economic penalties against Russia.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The best chances of success are when one country has significant economic leverage over the other and the policy goal is limited, Mr. Schott said — yet neither of those conditions really applies in this case. Mr. Putin has made clear that he considers Russia’s actions in Ukraine a matter of national security. And outside of the oil industry, Russia’s international trade and investments are limited, especially in the United States.

With direct military intervention essentially off the table, Biden administration officials have listed a series of options that include financially punishing Mr. Putin’s closest friends and supporters, blocking the conversion of rubles into dollars, and pressuring Germany to block a new gas pipeline between Russia and Northern Europe from opening.

Work on that pipeline — called Nord Stream 2 — has been completed, but it is waiting for approval from Germany’s energy regulator before it can begin operating.

Any request from Washington would coincide with a leadership change in Berlin. The new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and his cabinet were sworn into office on Wednesday. He has not yet made any definitive statements on the pipeline. Gas reserves are unusually low in Europe now, however, and there are worries about shortages and soaring prices as winter approaches.

Russia supplies more than a third of Europe’s gas through the existing Nord Stream pipeline and has already been accused of withholding supplies as a way of pressuring Germany to approve Nord Stream 2.

Washington could impose much more sweeping sanctions on particular companies and banks in Russia that would more severely curtail investment and production in the energy sector. The risk of tough sanctions on a company like Gazprom, which supplies natural gas, is that Russia could retaliate by cutting its deliveries to Europe.

“That would hurt Russia a lot but also hurt Europe,” Mr. Schott said.

In terms of ratcheting up the pressure, James Nixey, the director of the Russia-Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank, suggested that financially squeezing the oligarchs who help Mr. Putin maintain power could be one way of bringing more targeted pressure.

“I would place a great premium on going after the inner and outer circle around Putin, which have connections back to the regime,” he said.

At the moment, the swirl of ambiguity about possible United States actions is useful, he added: “It’s quite good if the Russians are kept guessing.”

Russia, the United States and the European Union — which on Wednesday proposed expanding its power to use economic sanctions — are all playing something of a guessing game in order to pursue their policy goals. Russia is deploying troops on the border and at the same time is insisting on a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO, while the West is warning there will be painful economic consequences if an invasion occurs.

Ukrainian soldiers patrolling along the Kalmius River, which divides Ukrainian government-controlled territory from non-government-controlled areas, in November.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

One of the most extreme measures would be to cut off Russia from the system of international payments known as SWIFT that moves money around the world, as was done to Iran.

In 2019, the Russian prime minister at the time, Dmitri A. Medvedev, labeled such a threat as tantamount to “a declaration of war.”

Maria Shagina argued in a report for the Carnegie Moscow Center that such a move would be devastating to Russia, at least in the short term. “The cutoff would terminate all international transactions, trigger currency volatility, and cause massive capital outflows,” she wrote this year.

The SWIFT system, which is based in Belgium, handles international payments among thousands of banks in more than 200 countries.

Since 2014, Moscow has taken steps to blunt the threat by developing its own system to process domestic credit card transactions, she noted. But it is another measure that would affect European countries more than the United States because they do so much more business with Russia.

Several economic and political analysts have said restricting access to SWIFT would be a last resort.

Arie W. Kruglanski, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, said that in assessing the impact of sanctions, economists too often overlook the crucial psychological aspect.

“Sanctions can work when leaders are concerned about economic issues more than anything else,” he said, but he doesn’t think the Russian leader falls into that category. To Mr. Kruglanski, strongman authoritarians like Mr. Putin are motivated by a sense of their own significance, and threats are more likely to stiffen opposition rather than encourage compromise.

When it comes to Ukraine-related sanctions so far, the impact has been negligible, Mr. Nixey of Chatham House said.

“A lot of these things the Russians have learned to live with, partly because implementation has been slow or poor and effects on the Russian economy are manageable,” he added.

Success can be defined in various ways. Mr. Nixey said that the 2014 measures most likely deterred the Kremlin from further military interventions in Ukraine. A report for the Atlantic Council, a think tank that focuses on international relations, released this spring came to the same that conclusion.

Sanctions certainly did not compel Russia to reverse its annexation of Crimea, Mr. Nixey said, but they may have persuaded Mr. Putin from taking more aggressive actions — at least until now.

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