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President Biden has announced new sanctions on Russia after Russia invaded Ukraine unprovoked.

From CNN:

President Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled harsh new sanctions on Russia meant to punish the country for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggression even as he acknowledged it would take time for the new measures to alter Putin's behavior.

"Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences," Biden said, laying out a set of measures that will "impose a severe cost on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time." The new sanctions include export blocks on technology, a centerpiece of Biden's approach that he said would severely limit Russia's ability to advance its military and aerospace sector. He also applied sanctions on Russian banks and "corrupt billionaires" and their families who are close to the Kremlin.

Biden insisted his threat to directly sanction Putin remains "on the table" and is "not a bluff," but he didn't answer when asked why he hasn't directly sanctioned the Russian president yet. Asked by CNN's Kaitlan Collins what could stop Putin if sanctions can't, Biden responded, "I didn't say sanctions couldn't stop him."

"The threat of the sanctions ... imposing the sanctions and seeing the effect of the sanctions are two different things," Biden said. "He's going to begin to see the effect of the sanctions." The new sanctions targets are not limited to Russia. The US also went after individuals in Belarus, including the country's defense minister, for that country's role in facilitating the Russian attack.

These sanctions are just ones that affect only a certain thing, or maybe a small group of things. Why doesn't the US just ban Russia—specifically the elite oligarchs—from trade entirely?

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    The question confuses "the West" and the "US". Feb 25 at 5:58

3 Answers 3

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Whenever you ask the question "Why?" in politics, it is necessary to "round up the usual suspects."

There is horse trading. The political situation inside various countries, and between various countries, requires the leaders to push only so hard. In most countries it is not possible for the leadership to make changes of this nature with the simplicity of flipping a light switch. There are various overlapping concerns of favors owed and punishments in potential that must be considered. Cutting off trade of certain items means they become more expensive, angering the people who buy them. And in turn, angering the leadership of the places those people live. Pulling support away from the leadership in other goals that are in play.

So, you cut off exports of grain to Russia. The farmers, and the senators and congressional reps from the farming areas, begin to shout very loudly. And that causes difficulty with other legislation. You cut off imports of fossil fuel from Russia, and many countries get very angry with you because of the price their people must pay for winter heating.

There is general “cussedness.” Some people just hate the current leadership. Some are happy to see the current leadership failing because they think it elevates them. So, they will take various delaying and interfering steps that slow down the process. Calls for investigations and hearings. Criticisms in the press. Feeding the rumor mill. Various other delaying and obfuscating tactics, right up to calls for impeachment because of the “obvious” mishandling of the crisis. Some parts of the press will feed on this because they hate the current leadership. Some will feed on it because they are “war hawks” and want to move straight to a huge war with Russia. Some (hopefully not very large) part will feed on it because they agree with Putin’s actions.

There is practicality of implementation. When you officially cut off trade in some product, the price goes up. Particularly, the price Russia will pay for this product goes up. Especially if it is a war related item.

So, you cut off Russia's supply of truck tires. Russia needs truck tires to pursue their activity. And here comes Country-X (that I won't specify but you can guess) willing to sell truck tires at, say, double the price that Country-X can buy them at. It may even be that Country-X has on-hand a good supply of tires from the same suppliers Russia would have used. They may have practiced this plan for multiple products in various previous sanction situations with various other countries.

There is concern of who Russia will turn to should the pressure become too large. If Russia needs fuel, food, medicine, replacement parts, etc., then they will start to look around for some other place to get them. And China is not that far away. And China would not be against the idea of making various western nations look bad. Especially if it means that Russia will go along with various ambitions that China has. And that gets various other countries angry, and not a small amount fearful.

In the other direction, sanctions are to some extent "kabuki theatre." As very large parts of politics are. Putin will have included sanctions in his plans. It is quite unlikely that sanctions will cause Russian forces to be withdrawn, particularly if they are not backed up by a serious blockade. Putting sanctions on Russia is not meant to stop his actions. Sanctions are meant to provide the leadership with something to say when they are asked why they don't do something about the invasion.

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    Great answer, especially the last sentence. Feb 25 at 14:28
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    Good answer, I'd add that dependency is also a factor into practicality: for example, something like 40% of the world's palladium is produced in Russia, which is a pretty important metal used in many areas like cars and electronics. I doubt that can be switched off overnight.
    – ajd138
    Feb 26 at 15:55
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    @ajd138 Yes, palladium. But if I listed every important import or export this would be quite a long post. I listed a couple items as examples of the principle, which I had just stated. The principle is still that various people would be upset to lose either a supply or a market.
    – Dan
    Feb 26 at 22:54
  • It would be wrong to claim that trade restrictions and embargos are powerless. Cocom restrictions during the Cold War were quite important and truly limited the hi-tech capabilities of the target countries. Feb 27 at 16:24
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    @Dan My point wasn't that "you should've added palladium as an example of people getting upset". It was that dependency is an extra factor into problems of practicality (with palladium just one example of that factor). Dependency is more than people just being upset.
    – ajd138
    Feb 27 at 16:31
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Usually, sanctions are intended to punish the government of a country for certain actions, not its people. Yet, there is a trade-off between more extensive sanctions that do more damage, and ensuring that the people of a country are not hurt. For example, looking at North Korea and Cuba, Western sanctions meant to promote democracy and help the people of those countries have also fed into massive amounts of misery due to economic impoverishment. The immense economic damage of Cuban and North Korean sanctions does put pressure on the governments, but also at a large human cost.

We can see here that the sanctions are targeted: applying to specific individuals in government, or sectors critical for the Russian military effort. By targeting sanctions in this manner, the US maximizes pressure on the Russian government while minimizing the damage to ordinary Russian people. A total embargo would mean greater pressure on the government, but also immense suffering for the people of Russia, which is unnecessary and counterproductive for US interests. And obviously bad from a humanitarian perspective, but that’s always secondary in foreign policy.

Also, limited sanctions allow for sanctions to be expanded to punish further bad behavior and a total embargo would also take a toll on Western countries imposing the embargo.

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    As one example, just look at the situation in Yemen due to Saudi Arabia's blockade. The country has almost entirely collapsed with mass human suffering.
    – Kai
    Feb 25 at 19:43
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    Sometimes the intent of sanctions is used to hurt the people who will in turn put pressure on their own government. US sanctions (an economic blockade) on Cuba is an example. Whether this is effective or not is another matter. Feb 26 at 15:43
  • I think this might be why some people may oppose wider sanctions, but I don't think it really explains why US policymakers wouldn't do them - after all, such sanctions are currently applied to Afghanistan by the US. More likely to be about self-interest than some deep concern for ordinary Russians imo.
    – ajd138
    Feb 26 at 15:59
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A complete blockade of trade would probably be considered an act of war. A quick look at Wikipedia gives the 1967 Arab-Israeli War as an example: Israel considered Egypt's blockade of the Straits of Tiran to be an act of war, and responded accordingly. In the present situation NATO and its member states are very specifically avoiding starting a war with Russia (for example, by placing troops in Ukraine, or creating a no-fly zone). So I think the short answer here is: the United States does not want to ban trade with Russia because the United States does not want to go to war with Russia.

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