Sanctions’ ‘blow-back’ has allies on the fence

May 5, 2014

Can we punish Russia without hurting ourselves? Probably not, and that’s the problem with economic sanctions as a tool to push the Russians to make nice over Ukraine.

Sanctions announced Monday by the United States and Europe are aimed at a group of high-tech and defense companies in Russia, but not the really big ones that would have a chance of making Vladimir Putin change his course.

The West has the power to impose sanctions so significant that they would wreck the Russian economy, an analysis by USA Today declares. The Russian president knows that, but he also knows that those same sanctions would probably wreck the economy of Europe, too, and he’s apparently betting that the West dares not go that far.

Washington’s approach so far has been to “limit the blow-back” on companies in the United States and Europe that do business with Russian customers.

“It sends the signal we’re willing to act, but only so far as it doesn’t cost us very much,” one diplomat said. “The risk is it reinforces his (Putin’s) view he’s the one with the leverage because of our view of the risk or cost of sanctions.”

Monday’s sanctions are the fourth round that the White House has imposed since Russia began fostering unrest in the Ukraine. They freeze assets and forbid travel to the United States of officials at 17 companies “linked to Putin’s inner circle.”

They also deny export licenses to U.S. companies selling high-tech items to Russia that could contribute to Russia’s military clout.

“The goal here is not to go after Mr. Putin personally,” President Barack Obama said. “The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he’s engaging in could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul.”

The United States so far has sanctioned 45 individuals and 19 companies, the newspaper said. In addition, the European Union has acted against 46 individuals.

Missing from the list are the “oligarchs,” the business giants with close personal ties to the Russian president.

Going after these heavy hitters could turn the tide, but businesses in the United States and Europe also would feel the bite.

That’s exactly what the United States should do, in the opinion of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. He described Obama’s latest sanctions as a “slap on the wrist.”

It’s a high-stakes game of chicken. Who’s going to blink first? Do we dare take the strong medicine that could turn the tide, or will we say the cost is too high?

— The Post-Intelligencer, Paris, Tenn.