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How sanctions have impacted Russia's economy — and whether that will help end the war

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Do sanctions work? That is a question worth asking as U.S. and other Western nations keep hammering Russia with economic sanctions. If the war in Ukraine drags on for months or even years, how many more sanctions can the West impose? And what is the end game? Emma Ashford is an expert on foreign policy at the Atlantic Council, and she joins me now to talk about this. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

EMMA ASHFORD: Great to be here.

ESTRIN: Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday the new sanctions did, quote, "achieve certain results." So how have sanctions impacted Russia's economy?

ASHFORD: So far, the sanctions that we've put on Russia's economy have caused the ruble to go into decline. And I think up to 600 multinational corporations have left Russia. And so the Russian economy is suffering from sanctions. What we don't know yet is the extent of that suffering and whether or not it will translate into any actual policy change.

ESTRIN: Well, first, how are these sanctions harming ordinary Russians who have nothing to do with the war? I mean, I've spoken to people in Russia who say it's hard to travel abroad now. It's hard to even access foreign-made medicines. Inflation is high. So how do these sanctions affect the ordinary person?

ASHFORD: In theory, targeted financial sanctions are meant to hit a government and not the people within a country. But in practice, that's very difficult to do. What we actually see in much of the studies that have been done on sanctions is that leaders, particularly in authoritarian states, are very good at insulating themselves from the effects of sanctions. Certainly, Vladimir Putin himself has been sanctioned. The people around him have all been. But that doesn't necessarily mean that their lifestyles at home are going to suffer. They may be able to pass some of that burden on to other people inside Russia. And so this, again, is one of those big problems. And unfortunately, the history of sanctions suggests that we're good at causing the economic pain. We're not good at getting policy changes out of it.

ESTRIN: Well, this is fascinating. And I think this is the time to just step back and ask, what is the actual goal of these new sanctions on Russia? I mean, is it to end the war, or is it to topple Putin?

ASHFORD: It depends who you ask, to be perfectly honest. These sanctions were initially intended to deter the Russians from invading. That obviously didn't work. So now the sanctions are in place. They are supposed to be putting pressure on the Russian government to end the war. That doesn't appear to be happening so far, and it's not clear whether even more sanctions would necessarily do that. So then you get into this question that often arises - how long do you leave the sanctions on? And over time, does the goal sort of just shift from concrete policy change, like end the war, over to something more akin to weakening the Russian government over the long term? And I fear that that's where we're sort of sliding into with the Russia sanctions.

ESTRIN: Now, of course, we are in a globalized economy. Some nations are dependent on Russian exports like gas and oil. How will that factor into how long the West can keep imposing these sanctions?

ASHFORD: The sanctions that we have already imposed - those can be maintained for quite a long time, I would think. The interesting question is about the sanctions that we have not yet imposed. And I think it's very doubtful that we're going to see Europe impose large-scale energy sanctions, simply because European economies are so dependent on that gas that it would almost certainly cause a recession. That is the sort of step that might actually push the Russian government to think twice about the war in Ukraine, but it's one that I think the West simply can't sustain right now.

ESTRIN: What about lifting some sanctions? Could that actually incentivize Russia to change course?

ASHFORD: So if we wanted to get something out of these sanctions with Russia, one of the best things that we could do is be specific about the ways in which those sanctions could be raised in exchange for Russia stopping conflict, withdrawing some of its forces, you know, a phased approach to lifting them that could help to end the conflict. Unfortunately, and again, as we've seen in many previous cases, that can be politically problematic. You can imagine how difficult it would be even here in the U.S. to talk about lifting sanctions on Russia after everything that has happened in the last month and a bit.

ESTRIN: Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Thank you so much for being with us.

ASHFORD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.