Economic sanctions as a form of punishment are a measure as old as the hills, and it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t used by Moscow and Washington. But in recent years, pressure from sanctions has grown faster than ever before. Under President Donald Trump, new U.S. sanctions against Russia have been adopted on a nearly monthly basis on the most diverse pretexts, from purely political reasons to considerations of economic competition. 

There’s no question that the decisions already made in this respect will not be overturned by the next administration, and existing restrictions will remain in place. Experience has shown that sanctions are much easier to introduce than to lift. The dynamic of further measures may fluctuate depending on the circumstances, but sanctions will continue to be employed as a policy tool, and their popularity will only increase.   

There are two fundamental reasons for the increased use of sanctions. One is linked to the domestic political situation in the United States; the other is a consequence of global political and economic changes. 

To start with the first reason: the U.S. political system has always prided itself on the checks and balances enshrined in it by the founding fathers to prevent anyone from obtaining a monopoly on power. But the model developed in the eighteenth century cannot be as effective almost 250 years later, when so much has changed.

U.S. presidents have always had more freedom in terms of foreign policy than they have in domestic policy, but on the international stage they still have to defer to Congress, which, ideally governed by nonpartisan considerations, strives to act as a balance to the actions of the executive.  

But since the 1970s, U.S. politics has become increasingly polarized. Now members of Congress don’t seek to reach an understanding, but simply support their own party. At the same time, foreign policy power became more concentrated in the president’s hands. A milestone in this process was 9/11, after which Congress sanctioned the use of force abroad. But it didn’t end with the war in Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attack, but continued in the “democracy promotion” campaign in the Middle East. 

The history of the erosion of the procedure by which the United States makes foreign policy decisions is important in the context of sanctions. Trump’s opponents in Congress quickly discovered they lacked instruments to rein in the head of state’s despotic tendencies with regard to foreign policy. 

The most prominent and functional instrument they did have was sanctions, hence the sharp rise in legislative activity in this area. The focus of that activity was Russia, since it was at the center of the Democrats’ conflict with Trump.

And so began a vicious circle, as the presidential administration and Congress vied to see who could be tougher on Russia. Trump delayed some of the strongest measures, but when pressured, either agreed to them or introduced his own, declaring that “there’s never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been.” 

As a result, during Trump’s four years in power, a record forty-plus rounds of sanctions have been slapped on Russia. Many of them are enshrined in law, meaning they are here to stay. There is, however, hope that the frantic competing to pass new measures will finally subside as Congress stops trying to block the president at any cost.

Will the Biden administration beat that record? On the one hand, there’s no reason to expect mercy from the Democrats, who blame Russia for Trump’s popularity. There will be an increase in traditional rhetoric in favor of democracy and freedoms, and with it, new reasons to take action against Moscow—especially since the Biden administration will clearly pay closer attention to Russia’s neighboring “young democracies,” an inevitable new flashpoint for antagonism.

A telling case will be the fate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Trump administration was moving to end any chance of completing its construction, despite Berlin’s remonstrances. After the tension that marked the Trump years, Biden will undoubtedly preside over a new era of cooperation in transatlantic relations, which will be greeted with elation in Europe. But when the rejoicing is over, there will be practical issues to resolve, including Nord Stream 2. 

Berlin will likely present Washington with the same arguments in support of the project: it’s business, not politics; it doesn’t diminish energy security, but enhances it. In the spirit of allied cooperation, the Biden administration should take heed, just as Ronald Reagan listened to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt forty years ago on the expediency of increasing gas supplies from the USSR.

On the other hand, the Democrats in Congress consistently initiate and support the toughest sanctions against Russia, and they will be more open than many Republicans to all the arguments against Nord Stream 2 put forward in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, for example.

Trump saw Nord Stream 2 purely in terms of the competition between U.S. and Russian gas suppliers on the European market (something he said openly at his 2018 meeting with Putin). While a Democratic administration won’t share that approach, upholding U.S. business interests is a universal priority, so another route for Russian fuel supplies to Germany isn’t in Washington’s interests, regardless of which party is in the White House. 

This leads on to the second reason for sanctions remaining in place indefinitely. We are entering a new era in which the institutions and norms that took shape in the second half of the last century and spread across the entire world after the Cold War have stopped working. The consequences of this structural erosion are diverse, but the main one is that the relative orderliness of the world is disappearing.

The problem isn’t the revisionist Trump, or even Putin, but the fact that fundamentally new international conditions have made the previous global configuration obsolete. 

The abandonment of universal rules does not mean, however, that there is no need for some kind of structuring of relations. Sanctions are becoming a form of economic regulation in this era of new protectionism. By virtue of its unique position in the international system, the United States has the most opportunities to exercise this kind of regulation in its own interests. Until another universally recognized system of rules appears (and for now, the world is only moving further away from that), there is no reason not to believe that the United States will make full use of those opportunities.

  • Fyodor Lukyanov