Explaining The New Russia Sanctions NPR's Scott Detrow talks with Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute about the Trump administration's new round of economic sanctions against Russian oligarchs and officials.

Explaining The New Russia Sanctions

Explaining The New Russia Sanctions

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NPR's Scott Detrow talks with Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute about the Trump administration's new round of economic sanctions against Russian oligarchs and officials.


The U.S. announced a new round of economic sanctions against Russia yesterday. The sanctions target 17 Russian government officials, as well as seven Russian oligarchs. For more, we're joined by Matthew Rojansky. He's the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He's in studio with us. Good morning.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with this quote from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. He said yesterday, the Russian government engages in a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies. He goes on. That's a wide ranging list of complaints. Do we have any evidence at this point that another round of sanctions is going to stop it?

ROJANSKY: That is exactly the question. So sanctions can do, roughly speaking, three different things. Number one, there's a demonstration effect. That's a way of signaling that, hey, we're not just saying we don't like what you've done. You know, Mnuchin gave a list that we've heard many, many times before, right? The Russians invaded Ukraine already in 2014, went into Syria in 2015, election hacking in 2016. So, you know, these are not brand new offenses. Skripal is relatively more recent.

But this is a way of signaling we're serious about it. And I think the administration got that more or less right in terms of a broad category of targets. They targeted major Russian oligarchs. They targeted members of Putin's inner circle, the so-called praetorian guard, state corporations, even a former Putin family member, his now-former son-in-law - just recently divorced. There's a second thing sanctions can do, and that's impose pain. They did some of that. But at the end of the day, the U.S.-Russia economic relationship is now so tiny and so attenuated, you know, we have to rely on countries in Europe and third countries to actually impose the pain we want to impose.

And the third thing is where the rubber hits the road. And that's change Russian behavior. And that's where the pattern after four years is not especially compelling. Nearly 200 individuals and entities have been sanctioned now. And yet the pattern is Russia still does the stuff we don't like.

DETROW: Now, I'm wondering, is that partially because you have these sanctions - you have a lot of U.S. government officials saying very critical things of Russia, but at the top of the U.S. government, you have President Trump, who, throughout his campaign and time in office, has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin and has not acknowledged to the level that nearly everyone else in Washington has the level to which Russia interfered and meddled in U.S. elections?

ROJANSKY: There may have been a time in the last year and a half where the Russian leadership looked for a split between Trump and, say, what you might call the permanent government in Washington or the deep state. In fact, by this point, though, the administration has taken so many activities - both sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, closing consulates, deployment of forces in Eastern Europe, lethal weapons to Ukraine, actions in Syria, literally killing Russian - armed Russians on the ground - that at this point, the Kremlin reaction is, look. We don't care if Donald Trump says friendly things about us. We understand the United States is out to get us.

And so we're really in a black-and-white confrontational scenario. They're not expecting to get any benefits ahead. But the question is, do the punishments that come forward in any way actually change their calculus? And I think part of their calculus has to be, well, at what point are they going to negotiate to get those punishments lifted in exchange for positive behavior? And that's where the erosion of ties altogether between Moscow and Washington is a big problem. We're not talking to each other.

DETROW: So if there's not a conversation, if there's not that much economic activity even left to sanction, what could be done to get the behavior to change?

ROJANSKY: Well, I think the sanctions we have in place now are extremely important. You don't want to roll them back for nothing. You don't want to roll over. You don't want to look weak. That's not going to gain you anything with the Russians. But at the same time, there's a series of issues - and the president was actually right about this when he cited arms control - stopping an arms race as a reason to have a summit meeting. If you do adequate preparation, you have sanctions on the table as the stick. The carrot is, you know, we're open to discussing treaties. We're open to talking to you. We can make progress on regional conflicts, issues - things like that. And, yes, we can do a summit meeting with adequate preparation. I think it's that dialogue that ultimately makes this weapon worthwhile.

DETROW: All right. Well, Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thanks so much for coming in.

ROJANSKY: Thanks a lot.

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