In past weeks, the world has witnessed powerful images coming out of Syria of young children injured and cities turned to rubble by Russian bombing campaigns in many parts of Syria, specifically in Aleppo. The U.S. and many European countries are now looking to further sanctions against Russia, due to Russia’s aggressive bombing campaigns in Aleppo that reflect their desire to keep Bashir al-Assad in power and crush the rebel groups attempting to oust the leader of Syria. The new threat of further sanctions threatens to escalate tensions between the U.S. and Russia, as a long list of issues from Syria to Ukraine has sent the relationship between the two countries spiraling for years.
The new sanctions would be the latest attempt by the U.S. and some European countries, such as Germany, to hold Russia accountable for their aggressive military campaigns in Syria that often harm civilians and are what U.S. Secretary of State Kerry calls "a horrendous step back in time" (1). However, further sanctions against Russia would not likely have an effect that would seriously alter Russia’s behavior, and such sanctions would likely increase tensions between Russia and the West, specifically the United States. Based on Russia’s past behavior after sanctions were imposed against them, there hasn’t proved to be very much power behind sanctions, or at least enough to drastically change Moscow’s behavior.
The United States and the EU have been imposing sanctions heavily on Russia since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The West targeted Russian officials within the Russian government and those close to Putin in the form of asset freezes and travel bans. In addition, the EU stopped Russian banks from taking out long-term loans in the EU, prevented the export of oil technology to Russia, and stopped future arms deals between the EU and Russia (2). These were implemented to pressure Putin by going after the elites surrounding Putin with more power, and to damage the Russian economy. However, over two years later Putin is still in power with a good approval rating, Russia still controls Crimea, and Russia relations with the U.S. and EU have worsened. This is not an attempt to excuse Russia’s aggressive behavior, or lend the thought that there should be no response to Russia in Ukraine and their humanitarian issues within Syria; rather, this demonstrates that sanctions are not very effective to a headstrong ruler, such as Vladimir Putin.
The new sanctions would be a direct response to Russia’s bombing campaign in Aleppo and an expression of overall frustration between the U.S. and Russia regarding their dealing with the Syrian civil war. While meeting with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson last weekend, Secretary Kerry claimed that 80% to 85% of Russia’s bombing in Syria is against moderate opponents of Bashar al-Assad (3). Beyond the frustration of Russia bombing rebels that the U.S. may support, the U.S. and Europe views Russia’s air campaign of Aleppo, where there are likely a quarter million still stranded, as inhumane. The new sanctions would come in the form of further asset freezing of Russian officials that now include military officers and weapons companies that provide weapons used in Syria (4).
However, there are wide spread critiques that the sanctions will be useless in helping ease tensions in Syria for multiple reasons. First, some policy analysts feel that the U.S. has maxed out its effective sanctions. Michael Kofman, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, explained: “While the president has full sanction authority, there’s nobody left to sanction in Russia besides the janitor in the Kremlin. In terms of expanding any kind of commercial or financial sanctions, we’re basically maxed out” (5). The U.S. will struggle to receive any change in behavior when individuals and some companies are targeted, as Russia has proved time and again that their foreign policy will not be altered by sanctions, even if does hurt their economy in the long-run.
There are also some states and foreign ministers within the EU that view sanctions as the wrong foreign policy tool to attempt to alter Russia’s behavior. The new sanctions are an attempt to get Russia to stop the bombing of Aleppo that is leading to a humanitarian crisis and to slow their increased military role in the region. However, the U.S. and the EU want to accomplish this within the next few weeks. Sanctions often take years for a nation to feel the effect.
France and Italy’s foreign ministers have both cautioned using sanctions as a result of Russia’s Aleppo offensive. Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s foreign minister, warned that the EU and U.S. should not continue a “cycle of sanctions for sanctions’ sake” (6). Expanding sanctions will likely only be symbolic and not have a lasting effect on Russia’s behavior in Syria or other parts of the world.
Although the effects may be minimal, many leaders are still keeping their options open, mainly in the form of sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated after her meeting with Putin that the talks remained strained and that sanctions must remain on the table (7). There is a lot of diplomacy going on in Europe currently with the Secretary of State Kerry meeting with European and Russian counterparts and the EU having talks on their own. However, the complexity of Putin’s mentality regarding Syria do not suggest a change in the humanitarian situation. If anything, Russia appears to have the upper hand diplomatically based on the way the U.S. and EU have handled the situation. The U.S. early on took military options off the table and has not found an effective foreign policy tool to deter Putin from further intervention in Syria.
Applying more economic sanctions will likely just be an unfortunate reality that Putin has to deal with, but not enough to really make him rethink his foreign policy in Syria. It is extremely difficult to diplomatically resolve an issue, let alone a conflict as complex as Syria, when one side has taken many tangible hard power options off the table without finding any sort of effective diplomatic tools as a substitute.
(1) Smith-Spark, Laura. "US, UK considering Economic Sanctions against Syria, Russia." CNN. Cable News Network, 16 Oct. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. <http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/16/middleeast/syria-talks-kerry-london/>.
(2) "How Far Do EU-US Sanctions on Russia Go?" BBC News. N.p., 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28400218>.
(3) Smith-Spark, Laura. "US, UK considering Economic Sanctions against Syria, Russia." CNN. Cable News Network, 16 Oct. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. <http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/16/middleeast/syria-talks-kerry-london/>.
(4) Wadhams, Nick. "U.S. Stuck With Nobody Left to Sanction in Russia Over Syria." Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-26/u-s-stuck-with-nobody-left-to-sanction-in-russia-over-syria>.
(6) Wishart, Ian. "The Case for More Sanctions on Russia Over Syria Bombings: Q&A." Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-17/the-case-for-more-sanctions-on-russia-over-syria-bombing-q-a>.
(7) Troianovski, Anton. "EU Keeps Stronger Russia Sanctions in Reserve at Syria Talks." WSJ. Wsj.com, 19 Oct. 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/eu-keeps-stronger-russia-sanctions-in-reserve-at-syria-talks-1476884794>.
Image: © Krutenyuk | Dreamstime.com - Red square in Moscow