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How sanctions factor into negotiations between Russia and Ukraine

Sanctions have had a dramatic impact on the Russian economy when it comes to things like the value of the ruble, but they can't stop the tanks, says Juan Zarate, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury.
AFP via Getty Images
Sanctions have had a dramatic impact on the Russian economy when it comes to things like the value of the ruble, but they can't stop the tanks, says Juan Zarate, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury.

Updated March 30, 2022 at 2:39 PM ET

The U.S. and other western allies have unleashed a barrage of economic penalties on Russia in the weeks since it first invaded Ukraine. As the violence continues — and the two countries return to the negotiating table — how much are sanctions actually helping push Russia to end the war?

Morning Edition's A Martínez posed that question to Juan Zarate, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury who is now global co-managing partner at K2 Integrity.

Zarate says the sanctions have had a dramatic impact on the Russian economy when it comes to things like the value of the ruble and the selloff of bonds and assets, but are not enough on their own to turn back the tanks, especially when there's "a committed actor like [Russian President Vladimir Putin] with a design on invading a country and potentially destroying its cities.

"Sanctions have a tail to them — they take time to take effect, the effects on the economy in Russia are still just being felt, and so I think it's asking sanctions to do too much to actually stop the war. But it certainly can be part of a tableau of pressure that's put on Putin to try to change his behavior, change his calculus," Zarate explains, pointing to other factors like the Ukrainian resistance, diplomatic isolation and companies pulling out of Russia.

Sanctions can, however, play an important role in the ongoing negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. And Zarate says we may also see more action taken against sanctions evaders, and countries that are continuing to do business with Russia.

How sanctions factor into negotiations

Zarate says sanctions could play two important roles in the ongoing peace talks. For one, they help shape how Russia feels the costs of its actions, something he says should play into the calculus of negotiators at the bargaining table. In other words, he says, they should understand that things are only going to get worse for Russia as its economy continues to feel the effects of sanctions.

The conversation could also come to include the lifting of certain sanctions, such as restrictions on trade or investment.

"Every sanction that is used as a stick can also be used as a carrot," Zarate says, adding that he has seen this in the case of Iran and other countries that are seeking to get out from under the pressure of economic sanctions.

How Putin experiences the sanctions, compared to the Russian public

Zarate says a "classic dilemma" with the application of sanction is that if you're putting maximum pressure on an economy, you're ultimately harming ordinary people and their ability to operate commercially.

"Whether or not the regime leadership feels it directly, or whether or not they even care about the effects on their population is a different question," he said, pointing to examples like Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the Castros in Cuba.

Zarate says the sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs have been a way to try to get at Putin's assets. He sees them as an attempt to (at least psychologically ) impact Putin's level of comfort and warn him that the international community won't let him rest — even if the Russian people are bearing that cost.

What could happen to countries that help Russia financially

How much could other countries — like China, which Russia has reportedly turned to for financial and military assistance — help fill those gaps?

China is an important outlet for Russia, Zarate says, and could certainly trade with the country and buy its oil, gas, timber and minerals. He says it could also potentially create mechanisms to circumvent sanctions. The role of China and other countries could become more important as Russia is increasingly isolated from Europe and North America.

He adds that the U.S. could definitely go after individuals, entities and even countries that are evading sanctions already on the books, and anticipates seeing more enforcement in those areas (against entities like suppliers and shipping companies, for example) in the coming weeks and months.

Zarate notes that we've yet to see the application of "secondary sanctions," or the ability to go after those who continue to trade with Russia even if they themselves aren't subject to sanctions. That would allow the U.S., Europe and others to go after the Indian, Turkish, Chinese and other international companies still doing business with Russia — and Zarate says we could see more action in the future.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.