The Russia-sanctions train appears to be accelerating out of the congressional station, which makes it highly unlikely that both chambers of the Legislative Branch will want to revisit its provisions, especially when escape from Washington’s heat beckons with the forthcoming summer recess. Nevertheless, it behooves members of Congress, if they are determined to continue with this course of action (and the absolute majorities voting in favor of different versions of the sanctions in both the House of Representatives and Senate, far above the number needed to override any possible presidential veto), to take a pause and consider some changes.
Our European allies, when they first imposed their wide-ranging sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, built in a critical safeguard into the process: the semi-annual review process. Because EU sanctions must be renewed every six months, the Europeans have the opportunity to assess whether any progress has occurred. Also, they have the opportunity to adjust those sanctions either to address further infractions or to encourage positive developments. There is a greater flexibility in the European process that the present codification of U.S. sanctions lacks. Currently, there is neither a specified span of time after which sanctions can be revisited nor is there clear criteria that specifies when Russia might be judged to be in compliance with the provisions of those sanctions. Additionally, there is no mechanism for rapid or effective graduation should positive outcomes be achieved.
Many experts have concluded, in retrospect, that the U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan would have been most effective if it had been promulgated for a one-year period. That would have sent a clear signal of U.S. disapproval and it would have avoided putting the United States in a corner. Over time, the Soviets found ways around the initial ban that did not compromise their policy in Afghanistan and, ultimately, the embargo sputtered out as domestic commercial pressure from U.S. farmers to restart sales won out over geopolitical aspirations. Experts assisting the House of Representatives in reframing the initial sanctions proposal also removed some of the provisions that would have been most likely to create problems with key U.S. allies and undermine trans-Atlantic cohesion on the existing sanctions regime.