By Gabe Murphy
Coverage of the war in Ukraine has rightly emphasized the critical role of civil society in responding to this moment. Both local civil society groups and international nongovernmental organizations have mobilized to meet the severe and steadily growing humanitarian needs in Ukraine, and to document the Russian military’s atrocities in pursuit of future accountability. At the same time, Russian journalists, celebrities, artists, activists and organizations have risen in opposition to the war, at great personal risk.
But while the U.S. Treasury Department has worked hard to protect civil society activities in sanctioned regions of Ukraine through the issuance of general licenses, no amount of licensing can adequately protect Russian civil society from a sanctions regime designed to kneecap the Russian economy.
Putin’s government has been repressing Russian civil society for years, and in the leadup to and aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has escalated that repression. The Biden administration has rightly spoken out against Russia’s Draconian measures, but even as it praises the bravery of Russian anti-war activists, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also acknowledged that the Russian people will “suffer the consequences of their leader’s choices,” as sanctions on the Russian economy take effect. “The economic costs that we’ve been forced to impose on Russia are not aimed at you,” Blinken said as he addressed the Russian people during a recent press conference. “They’re aimed at compelling your government to stop its actions, to stop its aggression.”
Regardless of their aim, sanctions are already taking a severe toll on Russian civil society. Maria Kuznetsova, a spokesperson for a leading Russian human rights group OVD-Info, recently explained in an interview that sanctions are “harming the most progressive part of society that opposes the war, preventing it from receiving information and obstructing the work of the last independent media,” compounding the Russian government’s escalating clampdown on civil society.
Most of the impacts of sanctions on Russian civil society are indirect, but no less potent for it. Though sanctions may not prohibit international companies from continuing certain business in Russia, many companies are pulling their business from the country, whether out of concern that they may run afoul of sanctions, or out of solidarity with the international movement to ostracize the Russian government. Whether legal or moral and cultural pressures are fueling these moves, the sanctions regime imposed by the West is clearly contributing to a mass exodus of businesses from Russia.
Highlighting some of the impacts, Kuznetsova pointed to the loss of online communications services used by many civil society organizations. Mailchimp, Slack, and Namecheap are just some of the companies that have ended services for Russian clients, including civil society groups, since sanctions were imposed. Other companies have closed off Russian civil society’s access to digital ad campaigns, imperiling their financing. Beyond organizational impacts, as internet providers and social media companies have also pulled out of Russia en masse, Russian civil society at large has been partially cut off from access to non-state news media, ironically playing into Putin’s efforts to block public access to any news that does not fit with the Russian state’s narrative around the war in Ukraine.
Then there are the economic impacts on the Russian people and organizations that comprise Russian civil society. This unprecedented package of sanctions has only recently started to take effect, and may expand even further as international pressure on Russia continues to ramp up. Already, the value of the ruble has plummeted, while prices for essential commodities are rising. Historically, these kinds of economic trends have led to significant declines in fundraising for nonprofits in impacted economies. Financial access concerns for civil society in Russia are also growing, with credit card providers like Visa and Mastercard and cash transfer service providers like Western Union ending operations in Russia. While Western Union’s announcement of an end to services did not mention sanctions, it warned in a February report that sanctions may force it to alter its services in certain places.
Of course, all of these harmful impacts can be weighed against the potential benefits of sanctions. Sanctions can play a valuable role in holding the Russian government accountable, which is especially important in the context of war. However, if the international community hopes to use sanctions as a bargaining chip to accelerate an end to the war, it should clarify what it would take to lift sanctions. An end to the war would benefit civil society in Ukraine and Russia alike, but the ability of sanctions to advance this goal is far from assured.
For one, sanctions have a horrible track record of achieving their goals, when those goals are articulated at all. Decades of sanctions on Cuba have failed to support a transition to democracy. Sanctions failed to deter or prevent North Korea from expanding its nuclear weapons program. And the reimposition of sanctions on Iran has pushed Iran’s nuclear program back into the shadows and empowered its hardliners. These are just a few of the numerous failures of sanctions, and in all of these cases, the harmful impacts of sanctions on civilians and civil society have ultimately undermined the goals of these sanctions.
Secondly, there has been some inconsistency in the administration’s signaling around the goals of its sanctions on Russia. Secretary of State Blinken has said sanctions are meant to compel the Russian government to stop its aggression in Ukraine. But Daleep Singh, the Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics and a key architect of this latest onslaught of sanctions against Russia, has said that their purpose “is to make sure that Putin’s actions are remembered as a strategic failure.” While these two goals are not mutually exclusive, they do send a somewhat mixed signal to the Russian government about how the U.S. intends to use sanctions—as a negotiating tool, or as a means of making an example out of Russia for other would-be aggressors to consider. President Biden’s remark that Putin “cannot remain in power,” has muddied the waters even further, throwing regime change into the mix of the possible goals of sanctions.
Paired with a lack of clarity on what it would take to lift sanctions, the prospects for sanctions accelerating an end to the war shrink further. Secretary Blinken has said that sanctions are not meant to be permanent, but he has also said that Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine would need to be “irreversible,” such that “this can’t happen again, that Russia won’t pick up and do exactly what it’s doing in a year or two years or three years.” It remains unclear how Russia would go about making its withdrawal irreversible.
The Treasury Department’s sanctions policy review released last fall said sanctions “should be tied to clear, discrete objectives,” and “should be clearly communicated so that targets, allies, and others understand their specific objectives and the circumstances under which they may be escalated or reversed in response to the target’s behavior.” So far, the administration is underperforming on this recommendation with respect to Russia.
If Russia sees no viable path for sanctions relief, then sanctions lose all of their utility as a means of changing Russian government behavior, and all that is left is punishment. While that punishment will pose challenges for Putin’s government, as long as broad-based sanctions targeting the Russian economy remain in place, the Russian people—and Russian civil society groups working to bring about change for their country from the inside—will continue to bear the brunt of this punishment.