What Is To Be Done?

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s irrepressible spokesman, said today that Russia would like to know what it could do to get sanctions reduced.

This, of course, set tongues wagging, both in Russia and abroad, although most of those tongues seem to have assumed the question was rhetorical. And of course, at least in part, it was – but not entirely. Peskov has denied that Putin and Donald Trump discussed steps towards reducing sanctions when they met in Helsinki, but I’m not certain that particular denial is credible. And just about everyone assumes sanctions were on the agenda when Putin and Merkel met on August 18th.

On the face of it, of course, the answer is blindingly obvious: Stop doing things the US and Europe don’t like. Questions of fairness aside, one does not need to be Kissinger to parse the realpolitik here. And yet, that obviousness is deceptive.

Let’s leave aside for the moment one other question, namely whether the Kremlin actually wants to get out from under sanctions. I’ve argued to anyone who will listen that this is far from certain: the Russian economy is doing okay, it has largely adapted to the limitations and the cost of capital that sanctions have created, and while things aren’t great, they certainly aren’t Turkey. Moreover, sanctions very usefully bind the Russian economic elite to the Kremlin, forcing them to run their financing requirements through the Finance Ministry and/or the Central Bank, giving Putin more leverage over the titans of industry than he has ever enjoyed.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Putin does want to end sanctions, perhaps to give the economy more liquidity, and thus the system more resilience in the face of elite or mass dissatisfaction. (There is, incidentally, plenty of both: among elites because of proposals to confiscate windfall profits from metals and chemicals companies, and among the masses because of pension reform. In part as a result, Russian public opinion has begun to turn away from the Kremlin for the first time since Crimea.)

Underlying Peskov’s semi-rhetorical question is a very real sense in the Russian foreign policy establishment that sanctions on Russia are becoming a permanent feature of Western (and particularly American) foreign policy. There are at least two good reasons for this belief. The first concerns the formal basis for most of the first several phases of sanctions, which were levied in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas. While the reason for these sanctions are clear enough, their removal is formally tied to the implementation of the Minsk agreements – agreements that just about everyone agrees have been dead in the water for quite some time.

The second reason stems from the ways in which more recent rounds of sanctions – particularly the American responses to the Salisbury chemical weapons attack and to Russia’s influence campaign (cyber and otherwise) in the US elections – have been promulgated. Mostly because of a reluctant White House, Congress has taken it upon itself to legislate these sanctions, as well as to place limitations on the Administration’s ability to ramp down earlier rounds of sanctions. Seeing this, Moscow has fever dreams of Jackson-Vanik, the sanctions imposed by Washington on the USSR in 1975 in protest at restrictions on Jewish (and other) emigration; those restrictions were lifted by Gorbachev a decade later, but the law remained on the books until 2012 – more than 20 years after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. In part as a result, Russia’s WTO accession was delayed by more than a decade.

Some Western policymakers, of course, might enjoy watching the Kremlin twist in the wind, racked by uncertainty. That silver lining, however, comes with a cloud: sanctions only work as a tool of foreign policy if they contain both a credible threat and a credible reward. From Moscow’s perspective, that reward – the carrot they get for changing their policy – looks increasingly illusory. Western leaders are free to believe that the Kremlin is mistaken in its interpretation of reality, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Kremlin acts based on its interpretations, not the West’s.

There is, though, room for the West to change that perception without backing down from its legitimate grievances. It starts by admitting the obvious, namely that Minsk is dead. With that done, the existing sets of sanctions could be reordered and linked to specific demands, the delivery of which lies perfectly and fully within Moscow’s purview. As I outlined a while back in a memo for IISS, Europe and the US could offer specific sanctions roll-backs tied to each of several benchmarks:

  • Helping to identify and allowing for the punishment of those responsible for the Salisbury attack;

  • Providing full transparency for the ‘Novichok’ weapons programme;

  • Demonstrably and verifiably withdrawing Russian military and paramilitary personnel and materiel from the Donbas;

  • Restoring Kiev’s control of the border in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts;

  • Restoring Kiev’s sovereignty over Crimea.

(If an investigation ever delivers sufficiently damning evidence of Russian interference in elections – cyber or otherwise – that, too, could be added to the list.)

Not all of these demands would be met, of course. Perhaps, none of them would. That much is entirely up to the Kremlin. But clarifying the sanctions policy along these lines or something similar would endow Western diplomats with a much more coherent negotiating position than they currently enjoy, and give Moscow some much needed food for thought.

Maybe then, Peskov could stop asking questions, and start answering them.

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