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U.S. sanctions will punish Russia, but will they deter?

March 20, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
Debate is growing in Washington about the Obama administration’s response to the Ukraine crisis. Some argue the U.S. should have stood up more firmly to Putin, while others suggest that American actions may have provoked Russia. Judy Woodruff gets views on the efficacy of U.S. sanctions from David J. Kramer of Freedom House and Richard K. Betts of Columbia University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how has the president handled the Ukraine crisis overall?

Joining us to discuss this is David Kramer. He’s former deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He’s now president of Freedom House. And Richard Betts, he’s a member of the National Security Council — he was — in the Carter administration. He’s the director of the International Security Policy Program at Columbia University.

And we welcome you both.

Let me start with you, David Kramer.

Let’s talk first about these sanctions imposed today on top of what we heard on Monday. Will these punish Russia as much as the administration says?

DAVID J. KRAMER, Freedom House: I think the step taken today by the administration was a very positive one. It is going to have an impact. Dealing with Bank Rossiya, the first bank that is being affected by today’s announcement, is a positive step.

I think we will see another round if Mr. Putin doesn’t show any willingness to back down. It also went after more people in the higher levels of the Russian government, as well as businessmen. And I think that is particularly important, because Putin has the circle around him of people who have benefited, personal enrichment, since he’s been in power.

And going after them and going after the money I think is what is going to get their attention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Betts, how do you see as the effect of these sanctions, when you add together what happened — what they did Monday with today? 

RICHARD K. BETTS, Columbia University: Well, the sanctions can make the Russians pay a price for what they did, which is inexcusable, but understandable, I think.

But they’re unlikely to change Russian policy to get them out of Crimea or to turn them away from the stance that Putin has taken on a much larger set of issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you believe they’re not likely to have an effect?

RICHARD BETTS:  Well, as far as I can see, this is much more about politics and basic national interest to the Russians than about economics.

And it may be a price they’re more willing to pay than NATO is to keep upping the ante. The European allies, who have a much bigger stake in all this than we do, are not as anxious as we are, it appears, to put maximum pressure on the Russians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me bring that back to you, David Kramer.

What about this argument that the Russians don’t really care if — yes, they may be hurt in some economics, their bank accounts may be pinched, but they are going to keep on doing what they want to do?

DAVID J. KRAMER: This is coming against the backdrop where the Russian ruble is at its all-time low, the stock market has dropped 20 percent this year, interest rates are going up.

The Russian economy is stagnating. And Putin is going to have serious problems trying to maintain the standards of living in Russia. If there is diversification of energy supplies to Europe, that will have a big impact, since energy is such a huge part of the Russian economy. It depends on it for its GDP.

My colleague is right that the E.U. does also have to step up. It did on Monday with sanctions that were not quite as severe as the ones that the U.S. has announced. We’re still waiting for the E.U. to take additional steps. And if they do, I really do think that is going to get the attention of people in the Kremlin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Betts, in other words, Russia is in a more vulnerable economic position than it has been, and this has to hurt. What about that?

RICHARD BETTS:  It certainly will hurt, but they have taken very dramatic action, very decisive action to absorb Crimea.

And it’s hard for me to believe that they are going to back off from that because they’re suffering pain economically. Sanctions, very often, can make countries pay a price for bad actions, and they may help to deter third countries from thinking about doing the same thing, but there aren’t many cases in which economic sanctions have forced their targets to turn around and change the policies they were meant to change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s broaden this out, David Kramer.

I know you also — you had argued earlier that the administration should have moved more quickly on sanctions, that, in some ways, they sent signals that encouraged the Russians to do what they did. How — broaden this out, and describe your view of how the administration handled this back from when it really began.

DAVID J. KRAMER: When Russian forces first went in, I thought the administration was too reticent. It wasn’t active enough in moving forward and pushing against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

I do give the administration credit. I think this week has been a good week. It has imposed serious sanctions against individuals, also Bank Rossiya. I do think expect that there will be additional sanctions.

So, I think the administration is catching up. The challenge is going to be that Putin is also trying to demonstrate he’s not backing down. There’s been talk about southern and eastern parts of Ukraine. There’s concern in neighboring Moldova. There’s concern even in Latvia, a member of NATO with a fairly large ethnic Russian population.

It’s not to say that Putin is going to send Russian troops into Latvia or to Moldova, but he can stir up lots of trouble, that — what we need to do is to make it clear to him this kind of behavior will incur serious costs, and he needs to do a cost-benefit assessment before he takes further action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Betts, what do you think the administration’s posture should be and should have been?

RICHARD BETTS:  Well, I think the original me stakes was, along with the Europeans, insisting on forcing Ukraine to choose between the West and Moscow.

Given history, given Ukraine’s position, given the way the Russians have been treated in the past 20 years and their more recent desire to push back, for all those reasons, I think it would have made much more sense to try to strike a middle course, which would have avoided escalating the confrontation.

At this point, I think, ideally, the thing to do, which wouldn’t be popular, for obvious reasons, would be to seek an arrangement that guaranteed, in effect, the neutrality of Ukraine, and a status something similar to what Finland had during the Cold War, which was much criticized in the West at the time, but which served the Finns pretty well in preserving their domestic independence and democracy, while compromising their foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Kramer, you’re vigorously shaking your head no. DAVID J. KRAMER: Yes, I would hope that the days are over where the U.S. and Russia decide the fate of other countries without the other countries being present.

We shouldn’t be declaring Ukraine neutral. That’s up to Ukrainians to decide. I don’t think NATO is at the top of the list of priorities of the interim government. There will be elections on May 25. The future government can decide that, but we shouldn’t be closing doors in Ukraine, either in NATO or the E.U. We should be focusing on the current situation.

And the current situation is the responsibility, I would argue, not of the E.U., but of President Yanukovych, who betrayed his country and then forfeited his legitimacy, and is responsible for the deaths of over a hundred people, but also President Putin of Russia, who invaded Ukraine, violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They’re the ones who are principally responsible for this, not — not the West.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do I understand you, Richard Betts, to be saying, really, the administration shouldn’t be much more active than it’s already been, that the thrust now should be to back off, if anything?

RICHARD BETTS:  No, we have to impose sanctions. We have to make the Russians pay a price for what they did.

But we also have to try to avoid escalating the confrontation to more dangerous levels. There are still things that could happen that send things out of control, things that neither Moscow nor Washington can control directly.

And, for better or worse, great powers do try to shape and constrain the actions of other countries that affect their interests. So, the fact that we may have interests in avoiding escalation that affect our policy towards Ukraine, I think, is quite reasonable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you want to react? And how much more should the administration be pushing right now?

DAVID J. KRAMER: I think the administration has to keep an additional round of sanctions open. Sanctions are both punitive and psychological.

And if the target of the sanctions thinks that more sanctions are coming, then the target might change his or her behavior. And I think that’s the case with Russia. It’s very important that we continue to push back. This is the biggest challenge that I would say we have faced since the end of the Cold War, possibly going back even decades before that.

It’s critically important that the United States, together with the Europeans, Canada, which has a large Ukrainian population, by the way, say that this is unacceptable and we really should be insisting on status quo ante, not simply avoidance of escalation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

David Kramer, Richard Betts, thank you.

DAVID J. KRAMER: Thanks.

RICHARD BETTS:  You’re welcome.