The Biden administration is threatening harsh, "high impact" sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine.
U.S. intelligence officials say Russia has been preparing for a potential invasion by amassing tens of thousands of troops along the border and engaging in other aggressive tactics. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held a virtual summit on Dec. 7, 2021, to discuss the matter.
The new measures would come on top of a wide array of already existing sanctions against Russia imposed both earlier this year and over the past several in response to Moscow's criminal cyber activities, its takeover of Crimea - a peninsula in the Black Sea that was a part of Ukraine - and its support for rebel groups in eastern Ukraine.
Policymakers claim that sanctions are an effective means of achieving policy goals. But is that true? Are new measures against Moscow likely to be successful?
But there are serious problems with additional U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Unilateral sanctions rarely work
While it's unclear what new sanctions the U.S. might unleash, early reports suggest they may target Russia's financial system, including its biggest banks and ability to convert rubles into dollars. Such sanctions would be meant to punish Russia's economy, Putin allies and the country's wealthier residents.
For these or similar sanctions to be effective the United States would need allies. Past U.S. measures against Russia have often been unilateral and without the support or participation of other major states or the United Nations.
Such unilateral sanctions are seldom successful. In an increasingly globalized world economy, unilateral sanctions face huge obstacles - even when imposed by the world's largest economy.
A landmark study published in 1997 by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that unilateral U.S. sanctions achieved their foreign policy goals only 13% of the time. More recent quantitative research shows that multilateral sanctions involving several countries are more effective than unilateral measures.
The rare instances when unilateral American sanctions worked involved countries that have extensive trade relations with the U.S., clearly not the case with Russia. Russia is low on the list of U.S. trading partners, and previous sanctions on Moscow have further reduced commercial relations with the U.S. Russia is not dependent on U.S. trade and thus is unlikely to submit to American economic pressure.
Furthermore, when a targeted country faces sanctions, it can seek commercial ties elsewhere. This was the case with Cuba. When the U.S. imposed an embargo on its former trading partner after the revolution in 1959, Havana turned to Moscow for help and became a part of the communist bloc. Sanctions had no impact in changing Cuban policy.
In recent years, Russia has been increasing its commercial relations and energy cooperation with China, which will make it less susceptible to U.S. economic pressure.
There are reports that European allies have been convinced by U.S. intelligence assessments that the threat of more sanctions is warranted - but whether all EU members will agree to go along with them is another matter.
Russia is the European Union's fifth-largest trading partner, while the EU is Russia's biggest. Moscow's extensive commercial ties with states in the EU would allow it to mitigate the impacts of sanctions that do not have full European support and cooperation. Russia supplies Europe with much of its natural gas, assuring access to trade and revenues regardless of U.S. measures.
But in recent years, the European Union has favored diplomatic strategies rather than economic sanctions to decide the future of Ukraine.
It can't be all stick and no carrot
This raises a second factor influencing the effectiveness of sanctions: the importance of combining penalties with diplomatic bargaining.
The offer to lift sanctions can be an effective bargaining chip for persuading the targeted regime to alter its policies. This was the case in the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, when the offer to lift sanctions served as an inducement for Serbia to end its aggressive policies against Bosnia and accept a political settlement in their long-running conflict.