Congress to impose new sanctions on Russia

Under pressure: The USA has sanctioned five countries, and individuals in Russia and elsewhere.

Tomorrow US Congress plans to punish Russia, Iran and North Korea with more sanctions — despite earlier objections from President Trump. What exactly are “sanctions”? And do they work?

North Korea. Iran. Russia. In their own ways, they have “all threatened their neighbours and actively sought to undermine American interests,” said a statement by two leading Republicans on Saturday. And after hours of negotiations and last-minute additions, both parties in Congress have agreed to do something about it.

A new bill, which the House plans to vote on tomorrow, lays out fresh sanctions against the three countries. North Korea and Iran are both being punished for ballistic missile tests. But all eyes will be on the sanctions against Russia, which is being punished for its annexation of Crimea and interference in the 2016 US election.

The bill also forces President Trump to ask permission from Congress before lifting the sanctions, essentially preventing him from making any such promises to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A spokesman for Putin described the Kremlin’s view in just two words: “highly negative”.

But what exactly does it mean to impose sanctions?

The idea can be traced back to the 19th century, when European countries used their navies to block the ports of less powerful nations during peacetime. Physically stopping them from trading was often a way of forcing them to pay their debts.

Today, sanctions are less blunt — but the idea is essentially the same. Instead of using military force, countries put pressure on the economies of nations they want to teach a lesson. They hope this will force them to behave better.

Sometimes, as in Cuba during the 20th century, this means cutting off almost all trade and travel.

More recently, the USA and its allies have tried to impose “smart sanctions” which target individuals. This could mean freezing someone’s assets, blocking their property, or preventing them from entering the USA. By singling out those responsible for whatever is being punished (such as Iranians helping the missile programme, or Russians suspected of cyber attacks), the USA hopes that ordinary people will not suffer.

But do they work?

The naughty step

Clearly not, say some. The USA sanctioned Russia in 2014, but that has done nothing to stop Putin from trying to expand his influence in Europe, or meddle in America’s democracy. In many cases, they strengthen support for the government being sanctioned, as it can paint itself as being persecuted by the West. There must be another way.

Sanctions are a good idea, respond others. They send a clear signal without resorting to violence. Over time, ordinary people get fed up of the economic losses, and governments are forced to negotiate. This is how the USA convinced Iran to drop its nuclear programme in 2015. Sanctions may not be perfect — but every other option is worse.

You Decide

  1. Are sanctions a good idea?
  2. What is the best way for one country to punish another?


  1. List three other things that the USA could do in response to Russia. Rank how effective you think each action would be, including sanctions.
  2. Choose another country which has been sanctioned in the past. Produce a report which explains why the sanctions were imposed, the effect they had on the country, and whether they were successful.

Some People Say...

“Where there is commerce there is peace.”

Jeffrey Tucker

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Congress is scheduled to vote on the bill tomorrow. Yesterday Trump’s new press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the White House is “supportive of being tough on Russia,” despite its earlier objections to the bill. So it seems like the sanctions will pass. They include economic restrictions on people involved in human rights abuses and other misdeeds in all three countries.
What do we not know?
Whether they will work. In 2000, a study called Economic Sanctions Reconsidered looked at 174 cases in the 20th century, and concluded that 34% were successful. Often, when the aims of sanctions are narrow (such as releasing a prisoner), they work. When they are very broad (such as trying to change a government’s behaviour abroad) they can be less successful.

Word Watch

The House of Representatives, one of two governing bodies which make up the US Congress. The other is the Senate. The bill is expected to be approved by both chambers, as necessary for it to become law.
Ballistic missile tests
Iran tested missiles in January this year, just days after Donald Trump was sworn in as US president. North Korea has completed multiple tests since February.
In March 2014, Crimea was annexed from Ukraine and brought under Russian control after a referendum was held against the Ukrainian government’s wishes. There had been pro-Russian demonstrations a month earlier, and masked Russian soldiers had taken over key strategic points.
Three US intelligence agencies have accused the Russian government of meddling in the election by hacking and releasing Democratic Party emails.
The president’s relationship with Russia is currently under question. Congress is investigating whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russia to win the presidency.
Some sanctions against Cuba were lifted last year, but many remain in place.


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