“Our relations with Russia are probably as bad as at any time since the Cold War,” observed James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, on March 28. “We are engaged in a process of trying to make Russia do what we want by compulsion—by sanctions, by throwing out diplomats.”
Collins was one of four Russian hands who participated in a session on “Global Russia,” at the third annual America’s Role in the World conference sponsored by Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies.
He was speaking well before President Trump imposed new sanctions on Russian oligarchs and top government officials and suggested that President Putin and Russia may share responsibility for the chemical weapons used against Syrian civilians in Douma.
Yet, while the experts on the SGIS panel covered many topics, the utility of sanctions against Russia was a central focus.
“The problem with sanctions is that they give Putin a very convenient excuse to point to the West as the cause of the dysfunction of the Russian economy,” said Andrew Kuchins, a senior fellow and research professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies.
And Maria Lipman, a Russian analyst and commentator, who is currently a visiting professor at SGIS, pointed out that sanctions have another drawback. They are the source of a “broad, genuine anti-Americanism” among the Russian public, who perceive them as a punishment intended to harm Russia. Sanctions, she said “are a boost to Putin’s legitimacy.”
Celeste Wallander, now the president/CEO of the U.S.-Russia Federation, agreed that “sledgehammer” sanctions are indefensible. Yet, as a top official who helped fashion Russian sanctions during the Obama administration, she argued that targeted sanctions can be effective. While she conceded that sanctions “didn’t get Russia out of Ukraine, they achieved our objective: to stop the escalation and create a space for diplomatic negotiation.”
The panel also discussed alternatives or supplements to sanctions. “We need to find a way to deal with our adversary from a position of unity,” Collins contended. “We need to marshal our allies and bring them together.”
Wallender suggested that “What we should not be doing is closing off Russia as a country. We should encourage scientific exchange. We should welcome Russian students, welcome Russian businesspeople.”
And the U.S. needs “to get our own house in order,” Kuchins added. “We must reduce the dysfunctionality and disunity in our own political system.”