Since 2014, punitive sanctions have been the United States’ preferred response to Russian actions deemed against American interests and international norms. President Joe Biden has recently ramped them up in response to Russia’s SolarWinds cyberattack and elections meddling in 2016 and 2020. There appears to be consensus within the administration and among foreign policy experts that sanctions are the way to go.
But are they the United States’ best option if the goal is, as Biden has put it, to avoid a “cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia” and instead to create a “stable, predictable relationship”? Given Biden’s attempts to schedule a meeting with President Putin this summer, and the heightened tensions between the two countries, the question is an important one to ask. My answer is that sanctions aren’t the only option. The U.S. needs to offer Russia positive incentives, too.
Why not just sanctions? For one thing, they have not worked. Instead, they have produced the “cycle of escalation and conflict” that Biden wishes to avoid. I cannot think of a single example of a clear relationship between sanctions and the de-escalation of conflict, let alone the softening of Russian authoritarianism or the resurgence of democracy. When the U.S. has imposed sanctions, Russia has retaliated, persisting with the same forms of behavior that the sanctions were designed to eliminate. In the last seven years, Russian authoritarianism has become deeper and stronger.
This does not mean the U.S. should jettison sanctions. Up to a point, and in most cases, sanctions contain international tensions because they invite a proportional response. After the U.S. recently expelled 10 Russian diplomats, Russia responded by sending home 10 American diplomats. This is just one of many possible examples of proportional response. Used selectively and on a time-limited basis, sanctions produce a certain reciprocity — and, perhaps, predictability — when relations between two countries become tense. But there is no guarantee that sanctions will maintain such predictability.
Moreover, given the current state of Russia-U.S. relations, it is difficult to see how sanctions alone could break the cycle of “escalation and conflict.” The fact that President Biden has suggested a summer summit indicates that he and his advisers realize that dialogue is essential for defusing serious tensions and for forging collaboration on urgent issues such as climate change.
But even if Putin were to accept Biden’s invitation right away, the U.S. needs to lay the groundwork for dialogue and cooperation before the summer. The U.S. should offer Russia incentives to act in the way that the United States wants, and that are in accord with international norms.
It is up to President Biden and his experts to craft the incentive structure carefully — that is, so as to offer only those incentives that are both in the best interests of the U.S. and represent an earnest attempt to give Russia reason to trust the United States. This incentive structure needs to be crafted in close dialogue with our allies in Western Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
Offering incentives is not “appeasement” or being “soft on authoritarianism.” It is recognizing that authoritarian regimes calculate their self-interests on an ongoing basis and that other states can use that calculation in a way that benefits both parties.
Putin’s Russia is no exception. It’s time for a paradigm shift in U.S.-Russia relations.