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Debate: Would U.S. Sanctions Bill on Russia Prevent Military Conflict or Make War More Likely?

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In an effort to discourage Russia’s increasing military presence at the border with Ukraine, the U.S. has threatened to impose sanctions if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders an invasion. We host a debate between two foreign policy thinkers on whether sanctions could avert war — or make it more likely. The current sanctions bill proposed by Congress rushes to punish Russia in a way that would be harmful to diplomacy and could have disastrous humanitarian impacts on Russian civilians, warns Marcus Stanley, advocacy director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Meanwhile, George Lopez, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, says sanctions can act as an effective deterrent to Russian aggression.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration is threatening to impose sweeping sanctions on Russia if Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine. Russia has reportedly stationed over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, but Putin has repeatedly denied he plans to invade. The crisis has led to high-level diplomatic talks this week in Moscow, Kyiv and Washington. On Monday, President Biden discussed possible sanctions during a joint news conference with Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It would be a gigantic mistake for him to move on Ukraine. The impact on Europe and the rest of the world would be devastating, and he would pay a heavy price. I have been very, very straightforward and blunt with President Putin, both on the phone and in person. We will impose the most severe sanctions that have ever been imposed — economic sanctions — and there will be a lot to pay for that down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of senators are also weighing new legislation to impose sanctions on Russia. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey spoke recently on MSNBC.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ: The legislation that I drafted, which I call the “mother of all sanctions bill,” is one to deter Russia and says all of these things will happen. Putin personally sanctioned; Russia’s sovereign debt sanctioned; sectoral elements of their economy, including the single most significant one, their energy sector; the removal from SWIFT, the international financial transaction system; and others. is there as a message: If you invade, here’s all the consequences you’re going to face.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about possible sanctions against Russia, we host a debate on the issue. We’re joined by two guests. George Lopez is professor emeritus of peace studies at the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. He recently co-authored a piece for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists headlined “How to mix sanctions and diplomacy to avert disaster in Ukraine.” We are also joined by Marcus Stanley, advocacy director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He recently wrote a piece titled “Democrats’ Russia sanction bill could lead to a diplomatic disaster.”

Marcus Stanley, let’s begin with you. Why do you oppose sanctions in this case? Why do you think they could lead to a disaster?

MARCUS STANLEY: Well, to be clear, sanctions could play a role in diplomacy. The threat of sanctions could play a role in diplomacy, and sanctions could be appropriate, if Russia actually mounted a full-on invasion of Ukraine.

But the legislation that we’re seeing in Congress is very different than this. I think that legislation sort of involves a rush to punishment or a rush to impose sanctions on Russia in a way that would be harmful to diplomacy. And specifically, the threshold for sanctions in this legislation is actually much lower than an invasion. This legislation requires, as you heard President Biden say, the largest sanctions in U.S. history to be imposed if Russia does anything aimed at undermining the government of Ukraine or interfering with the sovereignty of Ukraine. That could be well short of an invasion. It could be something like a cyberattack or even a propaganda campaign. And then, once this very low threshold is met, the bill requires all of these sanctions to be put in place at once, and it makes them very hard to remove.

So, I think what we’re seeing with this bill is that this legislation could lock us in to full-on economic warfare based on a relatively minor Russian provocation. And once that happens, Russia will have no disincentive to go further. And that’s really the opposite of a flexible, calibrated sanctions approach that’s subordinated to diplomacy, where the first priority is on reaching a peaceful diplomatic solution, and sanctions are just one tool that you use to try to do that. What we’re seeing here is, as I said, prioritizing a punishment for Russia, kind of a rush to economic warfare, even before Russia has invaded. And we do believe there’s a path to a peaceful diplomatic solution of this crisis, but this legislation is too extreme and not contributing to that solution.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask George Lopez for his response on this, but first I wanted to make a correction to our previous segment that we had on Russia last week with Medea Benjamin, where I incorrectly cited the size of the military — U.S. military force in Europe before this crisis. The actual size has been between 60,000 and 80,000 in recent years. The figure I gave was more of the Cold War period. So my apologies for that incorrect assertion. But I wanted to ask George Lopez, your sense: Is this a rush to economic warfare by the United States, as Marcus Stanley says?

GEORGE LOPEZ: You know, I’m still not sure of that. I think it is all subject to the implementation by the White House. There’s not congressional constraints here as much as a congressional opening and a full picture to the Russians that the U.S. Congress, in both parties, and the administration, under the ability of the president to impose these kinds of sanctions under IEEPA processes, that it can go forward with all of them.

I think particularly the writings that we’ve done about this are interested in seeing the mix of diplomacy and the sanctions in a way that Marcus has characterized, but this bill gives it teeth. There are ways in which to get bipartisan support. I think Menendez, Senator Menendez, added some things to this bill that were not originally in it last week when many of us were writing about this, and there are some things that I disagree with in the bill, but the general thrust and the importance of the consistency of what we find in this sanctions package gives us the very ability to deter the likelihood of a Russian strong military action. When you get to the refinements of whether it would all be imposed under a cyberattack, I think there are ways in which you could do bits and pieces of this legislation in implementation by the president and the allies. And we’ll see how that plays out.

But, in fact, one of the strengths that we found in looking at this mix of material that are now on the table and that the Russians know clearly is they have the greatest strength of deterrence, for a couple of reasons. The first is, now with the work that’s happened diplomatically over the last three weeks internally among the allies, everyone’s on board, not only in a commitment to enforce, but they played a role in the design of these various packages, including the cyber package. The second is, in doing so, all the allies, including the United States, are willing to accept the costs. Yes, the German chancellor this week kind of waffled on Nord Stream 2, but in fact they’ve said yes to the package, they’re ready to go forth. And the diplomatic foray you see back and forth with Mr. Putin individually by European leaders, I think, undergirds that.

More importantly, what we know from sanctions research and policy in past cases is when you present the multifaceted dynamic of these sanctions and also are going to lead with a very, very strong and effective package, you increase the prospects that the other side — in this case, Mr. Putin and the Russians — actually see what the incurred costs on their side will be, and it opens space for diplomacy. I think our basic message from our research team is that sanctions must work as a deterrent. If they fail as the deterrent, then we’re in a whole different ball game. And so, the notion of we’re going to — about to engage in economic war is an interesting perspective, and I can understand Marcus’s perspective, but from our side, you have all the ingredients, in an interesting way, that success is defined not as imposing the sanctions but as actually buying time for this diplomacy, which I think we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. And hopefully, within the next 30 days, even if the Senate passes this package, we won’t have to resort to the sanctions. But their presentation and clarity is consistent with the kind of threat that brings people to the table.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Marcus Stanley, I wanted to ask you to respond, one, on this issue of: Are the NATO allies unified around these sanctions, in practice? Because, clearly, Europe has much more to lose in terms of the impact on its economies than the United States does if some of the most powerful of these sanctions are implemented. And also, could you talk about this whole issue of the SWIFT system, the financial system, and the threat to shut it down for Russia, the potential impact that that could have on world markets and the international financial system?

MARCUS STANLEY: Yeah, that’s all correct. I just want to respond quickly on the nature of this legislation in Congress. You know, Professor Lopez and I have different jobs. His work as a professor is looking at the academic work on sanctions, which I agree sanctions can serve as a deterrent if they’re correctly used. My job in Washington, D.C., is to read through this kind of legislation carefully and understand exactly what it does.

And I do think that this legislation, the framework for sanctions that it lays out, is very dangerous, because it really does set — mandate that the president impose the full set of sanctions as an entire package — not calibrated sanction by sanction, but the full set — based on a low threshold of Russian provocation. And then it requires a formal agreement with the government of Ukraine to ever lift the sanctions. So we really could find ourselves in this all-or-nothing situation with — and at the mercy of hard-liners in Ukraine as to whether we could lift the sanctions. And I don’t disagree with what Professor Lopez said about the potential utility of sanctions as a deterrent. But the important thing to understand is the president already has the authority to do that. He doesn’t need any new legislation to use sanctions as a deterrent. He has that. So, what I’m seeing here is that Congress is pushing the president into a more extreme position than is healthy for the process of diplomacy.

Now, in terms of your other two questions, you’re absolutely correct that these sanctions could have a very significant economic cost for Europe. And right now we’re sort of holding our European alliance together — I would say, barely — in the sense that the Europeans are willing to go along, to have a united front with the use of these sanctions as a deterrent. But if these sanctions actually went into place, especially on that all-or-nothing basis that I talked about, and especially if they go into place for anything less than a full-scale invasion, Europe is going to start feeling pain very quickly. I mean, energy prices will go up. Commodity prices will go up. Russia is a major trading partner of the EU. And one of the things that we could see if we rush to sanctions is that it could eventually end up splitting our alliance and putting a lot of pressure on NATO, if these sanctions are in place for a long period of time. And frankly, the sanctions could also have some costs here at home, because Russia is the largest commodity exporter in the world, including for commodities like grain — they are the largest exporter in the world — other important commodities like oil and so on. And we could see inflation in commodity prices around the world if we put sanctions in place for a long period of time.

Now, the SWIFT sanctions you talked about, these could, it’s true, be devastating to the Russian economy, because they basically try to ban a number of Russia’s largest banks from dealing in dollars anywhere in the world. And we’ve never tried to impose this on a country as large as Russia. And that would be very disruptive to Russia’s trade relations. I think what it would do is it would damage their economy, damage Russian civilians. It would also force Russia more into the arms of China, because when dollar trade is cut off, I think China is the large economy that could kind of offer Russia a haven there. And I also think that that would be a long-term diplomatic cost to the United States, as well, driving Russia into the arms of China.

So, again, I agree sanctions can be a deterrent. Sanctions will impact the Russian economy, there’s no question. They can be a deterrent. But if they’re actually put in place for any length of time, they’re going to have real costs.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to stick with you, Marcus Stanley, for a second. Of course, sanctions are often talked about as a nonviolent alternative to war. But when you look at the history of U.S. sanctions, for example, against Cuba for over 60 years, you look at what happened in Iraq — the secretary of state at the time, Madeleine Albright, when asked did she think it was worth the price, 500,000 Iraqi children dead, she said yes, would later apologize. I asked President Clinton about those sanctions and the fact that two U.N. assistant secretaries of the United Nations — secretary-generals of the United Nations, had called them genocidal. He said that’s ridiculous. But can you respond to the alternative to sanctions that aren’t war? And then we’d like to end with George Lopez. And we only have a minute.

MARCUS STANLEY: Yeah, as I said, sanctions are — can be thought of as a form of economic warfare. They are enforced by force, and they are a form of economic blockade that would traditionally, I think, have been looked at as part of warfare. And we’ve seen that they can have devastating impacts on civilian populations. Our sanctions on Afghanistan right now, the U.N. has said, are directly contributing to food insecurity and potentially starvation for millions of people. So, I don’t think it’s correct to view sanctions as somehow nonviolent.

And a final point, another point you made in terms of the Cuba sanctions, you know, sanctions have traditionally not been that effective in getting people to do what you want. We’ve been sanctioning Cuba for 60 years, North Korea for decades. Those governments are still in place. They’re still not doing what we want. But there have been major impacts on civilian populations.

AMY GOODMAN: And, George Lopez, your response to that?

GEORGE LOPEZ: I’m completely opposed to sanctions that do have negative humanitarian effects. And we’ve done a lot of research on this, and I’m involved in a lot of policy work with that. The key, I think, point of agreement between Marcus and myself is, if the sanctions have to be imposed because the Russians have engaged in warfare, then sanctions as a deterrent have failed. We find, in this particular mix at this moment, between allies, the sanctions package and the aggressive diplomacy that we’re waging, that we have a high chance of success. And moving forward with this legislation, even though I don’t think myself it’s perfect, may be a key component of that. So I think we’re on the right track. If war breaks out, not only have sanctions failed, but diplomacy has failed. And then we’re in a new ballpark. And if the sanctions are imposed, I’m happy to come back and talk about their likelihood of success.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, George Lopez of the University of Notre Dame and Marcus Stanley of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. And just to be clear, when I asked President Clinton, I asked him about the two former — or, who quit — assistant U.N. secretary-generals. They were Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck.

Next up, Don’t Look Up, the hit film, a parable about the climate emergency, has nabbed four Oscar nominations. We’ll speak with the journalist and former Bernie Sanders adviser David Sirota, nominated for an Academy Award for the film’s screenplay. Stay with us.

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