Where next for US sanctions on Russia?

This article summarises the drivers for new US sanctions against Russian businessmen and officials following the election of President Biden. The author is an advisor to Greyhawk. He worked on Russia policy for the British government for twenty years.

US policy towards Russia is becoming more confrontational. President Biden starts with the principle that the US and Russia share few values or convergent interests. He welcomes pragmatic, bilateral co-operation in certain areas, (arms control, for example). But overall he views Russia as a strategic adversary to be contained.

New US sanctions against Russia are therefore likely. Unlike other Western countries, the US did not sanction Russia after the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny last summer, because of then-President Trump’s opposition. Consequently, it finds itself in the unusual position of playing catch-up with the EU and the UK. In the meantime, recent events in Russia – the jailing of Navalny and the suppression of protests in cities across the country – suggest that the government has handed operational responsibility for internal order to the security services. Biden has pressed President Putin about the treatment of Navalny and his supporters. He will feel obliged to back words with actions.

The next round of US measures will probably hit officials and ‘oligarchs’ close to the Kremlin. Before he returned to Russia last month, Navalny published a letter to Biden calling for US sanctions against a ‘priority shortlist’ of eight prominent Russians, including Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov and senior executives at state-owned banks VTB and VEB.

Looking further ahead, other drivers for new sanctions will include:

1) The political situation in Russia. Repression will worsen as the Kremlin prepares for parliamentary elections in the autumn. This will provoke further US condemnation and pressure for action will increase.

2) Biden has commissioned an interagency review of Russian activities. This is looking into the Navalny poisoning, election interference, cyber-attacks and claims that the Kremlin offered the Taliban rewards to kill US troops in Afghanistan. Depending on the conclusions, it could stoke pressure for additional measures. Obvious targets would be more officials and ‘oligarchs’ but might also include State-owned companies, the Nord Stream II pipeline and, perhaps, new issues of sovereign debt.

3) Senior US figures favour stronger sanctions to put pressure on Russia to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. Russian actions elsewhere – for example, overt intervention in Belarus or exceptionally provocative activity in Western countries (such as cyber-attacks and assassinations) – could also lead to further measures.

The Biden administration will look to impose sanctions by Executive Order (“EO”), not law. The principal legal authority, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (“CAATSA”), is inflexible because it makes the lifting of sanctions dependent on congressional approval. The law was adopted in 2017 primarily to prevent Trump from cancelling Obama-era EOs that had imposed punitive measures on Russia. Trump’s departure makes CAATSA largely redundant, although the White House could use it to show Russia that new sanctions had bipartisan support. Meanwhile, Biden might be mandated to react to the Navalny poisoning by the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, which envisages measures against countries using chemical weapons. And Congress could well pass more sanctions legislation to block completion of Nord Stream II; both Democrats and Republicans view the pipeline as a threat to US strategic interests.

The Biden administration intends to co-ordinate its sanctions policy with Western partners. The UK, which since Brexit has its own sanctions capability, and Canada will be broadly supportive. The EU has today implemented fresh sanctions against four Russians following the disastrous visit to Moscow by Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief. But the EU remains divided over Russia policy and is unlikely to go as far as the US. The US will press ahead without the EU if necessary, widening the gap between the leading Western countries on this issue.

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