Explainer

Sanctioning Russia Is Easier Said Than Done

Quiet threats, not public pronouncements, could be the best way to save Navalny.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Demonstrators in Berlin display banners in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny
Demonstrators display banners in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny during a protest in front of the chancellery in Berlin on April 21. John MacDougall/AFP

The Biden administration is under increasing pressure to take action against Russia in the case of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who could “die at any moment,” according to his doctor, after three weeks of hunger strike in a Russian penal colony.

Navalny went on hunger strike last month to demand access to an independent doctor, as he has suffered from debilitating back pain since arriving in the penal colony east of Moscow, where he is serving a nearly three-year sentence for violating the terms of probation in a trumped-up previous case. 

The Biden administration is under increasing pressure to take action against Russia in the case of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who could “die at any moment,” according to his doctor, after three weeks of hunger strike in a Russian penal colony.

Navalny went on hunger strike last month to demand access to an independent doctor, as he has suffered from debilitating back pain since arriving in the penal colony east of Moscow, where he is serving a nearly three-year sentence for violating the terms of probation in a trumped-up previous case. 

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Washington had made it clear to Russia that “costs” would be imposed if Navalny died in prison, but he declined to comment on what those costs might be. In response, Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov said, “I prefer that Putin be held accountable for what’s happening now, before Navalny dies.”

In Washington, holding Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable tends to mean sanctions. They occupy, as the longtime Russia watcher Mark Galeotti put it recently, the yawning void between diplomatic statements of “grave concern” and sending in a gunship. In March, in just the latest bout, the Biden administration sanctioned several senior Russian officials over the poisoning of Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok, and last week they unveiled a raft of new sanctions over the SolarWinds cyberattack on U.S government agencies and attempted election interference. 

But how do you hold accountable a guy who’s already resorted to nerve agents to take out his most strident critic?

How are sanctions targets chosen, and when do you pull the trigger?

“You certainly want to stop behavior rather than punish it afterward,” said John Smith, former director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the department’s sanctions branch. As much clamor as there may be for the United States to take action before Navalny’s condition worsens, sanctions have to hit a pressure point that will actually change behavior.

“You’d have to pick out sanctions that you’re reasonably confident the Kremlin really doesn’t want to go into place, and then make clear to President Putin that those sanctions will be enacted if [Navalny] dies or is harmed,” said Edward Fishman, who worked on Russia sanctions at the State Department during the Obama administration. That’s a threat best leveled in private, he added: Few world leaders, let alone Vladimir Putin, like the appearance of bowing to U.S pressure. 

And preemptive sanctions, while domestically satisfying, could even remove the incentive for the Kremlin to keep Navalny alive. “What do you do then?” said Brian O’Toole, a former sanctions official in the Obama administration.

Lots of agencies are involved in sanctions, from the State Department, the intelligence community, and the National Security Council to Treasury and law enforcement agencies. The trick in going after Russia, as opposed to, say, North Korea or Syria, is that the Russian economy is entwined with the rest of the world. That makes sanctions that affect things like oil production or other key sectors problematic. 

Ultimately the question is, ‘Is this sustainable,’” said Josh Rudolph, who worked on Russia sanctions at the National Security Council under both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 

If Biden does opt for sanctions, who are the likely targets?

Sanctions vary in scope from freezing the assets and banning the issuance of visas to individuals, to prohibiting trade with certain companies, right up to the wholesale embargo on Cuba. Who or what gets sanctioned over Navalny and how severely largely depends on what the Biden administration wants to achieve. Taking aim at officials directly involved in Navalny’s imprisonment, such as the sanctions slapped on senior Russian security officials in March, is a surgical approach with limited outcomes.

“The danger with relying on pure conduct-based sanctions is that they may appear relatively weak,” said Smith, now a partner at the D.C. law firm Morrison & Foerster. There’s not a lot of return in “going after the relatively small cadre of officials and Russian government agencies that may be involved, many of whom may hold no assets outside of Russia,” he said.

Another option is to take a broader swipe at oligarchs and industries closely aligned with the Kremlin, as happened in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Navalny himself, before he was arrested in January upon his return to Russia, drew up a list of 35 Russian officials and oligarchs close to the Kremlin to be singled out for sanctions in the hopes of chipping away at their support for Putin. 

“Maybe they will not immediately jump under Navalny’s banners, but I think their desire for change will increase,” Vladimir Ashurkov, the head of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, told Foreign Policy in February. 

“I think there’s a legitimate question that U.S. policymakers should ask, which is, should the U.S. financial system be aiding and abetting kleptocracy in Russia?” said Fishman, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. 

But whether sanctioning the oligarchs would change their behavior or Putin’s calculus is another question altogether. Several names on the list are already sanctioned over Russia’s activities in Ukraine. Russia experts are skeptical oligarchs would stick their neck out even if sanctioned. Business fortunes in Russia are linked to political fortunes.

“I don’t think there’s great evidence that these sanctions have changed Kremlin policy; that doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile, though,” Fishman said. 

And just pressuring the oligarchs won’t get them to throw Putin overboard. “It’s not as if they’re going to get together and say, ‘We need a new president,” Angela Stent, the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University, told Foreign Policy in an interview in January

Do sanctions actually work?

The United States and the European Union have had wide-ranging sanctions on Russia’s energy, defense, and finance sectors since the 2014 invasion of Crimea. They have hit the Russian economy and inflicted some pain on Russian leadership. Yet Russia is expected to have 120,000 troops near the border of Ukraine by the end of this week. 

Even when used for deterrence, it can be hard to prove whether or not sanctions prevented a bad situation from getting worse. 

“It’s quite rare that you’ll be able to draw a pretty direct line between sanctions and then a behavior change,” said Rudolph, now a malign finance fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Still, sanctions wielded by the world’s dominant financial power pack a certain punch. The United States can, if it wishes, essentially cut off countries from the global financial system, or at least major banks and entities. That can pay dividends. O’Toole, who played a key role in designing sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said there was evidence to suggest that the threat of more punishing sanctions helped prevent Russia from pushing even further.

“This is all like game theory essentially. You have your threat, you have to game them and time them appropriately to get the response you want,” he said.

Update, April 22, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect a mistake in speech.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.