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Opinion | Acknowledging the Limits of Sanctions

The Biden administration deserves credit for laying the groundwork for multilateral sanctions, which are the only kind that have the hope of success. The greatest effects seen so far from the sanctions have been by unplugging Russia, if only partially, from the international financial system through moves like freezing billions of dollars in assets overseas and taking some Russian banks off SWIFT, the global messaging system for financial transactions. These far-reaching punishments, unthinkable even a few months ago, displayed a new sense of cooperation between the United States and the Group of 7 countries.

Even Mr. Putin acknowledged that they have “achieved certain results.” But focusing on helping Ukraine financially and with military equipment might prove more productive than thinking up new sanctions on Russia. The Biden administration appears to recognize this, at least in part, with its latest $800 million in military aid and $500 million in emergency funding announced on Thursday.

Sanctions alone — at least any sanctions that European countries would be willing to now consider — will not bring Russia to its knees any time soon. As long as Europeans still depend on Russian oil and gas, Russia will be able to depend on significant income from that relationship. The spat over whether gas deliveries will be paid in rubles, as Russia has demanded, only highlights the bind that European countries find themselves in.

The oligarchs who are losing their yachts and the people who are tightening their belts have little sway over the Kremlin. In Russia, with average citizens, Mr. Putin has grist for a loud “I told you so” about the West’s purported longing to bring down Russia.

Will the sanctions imposed by the Group of 7 nations truly isolate Russia? No. A number of countries, including Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and most significantly, China, remain on friendly terms with Russia. The fact that this list also includes archrivals Pakistan and India, as well as Iran and Israel, illustrates Mr. Putin’s influence as an arms dealer and a power broker in South Asia and the Middle East.

The United States could tighten the economic screws on Russia by imposing secondary sanctions. U.S. officials already appear to be threatening as much in meetings and calls with officials in India and China. Secondary sanctions are a powerful tool to compel other countries to get in line with American policy. But the potential benefits need to be weighed against the risks and costs. The extraterritorial application of American laws can also incite deep resentment, even from European allies at times. Secondary sanctions should be used sparingly, and only after consultation with partners.

Sanctions can have other unintended consequences as well. They can actually end up strengthening a dictator’s grip on power by tightening state control over the economy. Private businesses can have a hard time weathering the storm of sanctions, but authoritarian regimes and their state-owned enterprises often find ways to circumvent them. Sanctions also provide dictators with a credible external enemy to blame for the misery of their people. Instead of pushing people to rise up against their rulers, sanctions often inspire a rally-around-the-flag effect. After Western sanctions were placed on Russia in 2014, in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, 71 percent of Russians saw them as an attempt to “weaken and humiliate Russia,” according to an independent poll.

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