Sanctioning Russian Oligarchs: Contemplating the Costs, and Potential Abuse, of Liberal Economic Warfare
US sanctions against Russian Oligarchs under the leadership of the Trump Administration represent a recognition by the Trump Administration that Moscow’s interference in the domestic affairs of other nations must be confronted. The targeted sanctioning of individuals intertwine with the Russian government also creates continuity between the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration, which helps cement the use of a relatively new tactic in global conflict. For much of the Cold War and post-Cold War, sanctions have been used to confront nations over the undesirable behavior of their governments with limited results. Instead of isolating entire national economies and relying on political pressure from civil unrest, the growing high-profile use of targeted sanctions against politically-connected individuals is weaponizing the global economy in an unprecedented way.
The use of soft power tools like economic sanctions is an alternative means to address unresolvable conflicts of interest between governments without resorting to armed conflict. It is, of course, only an effective tactic due to the globalized nature of the world economy, which creates an intrinsic dependency between most national economies. It was once thought globalization and the integration of all national economies into one global economy would mean the end of conflict. Powerful actors will, of course, always have conflicting interests that cannot be immediately resolved, thus conflict will always exist. The nature of conflict has, therefore, simply been transformed by globalization. There are fewer direct armed conflicts between nations, but there is a greater reliance on proxy wars, guerrilla warfare, subversive warfare, cyber warfare, and economic warfare.
Instead of major and protracted clashes between massive armies, modern warfare is that of a strategic game played by key players. To boot, nations no longer go to war against nations. The Peoples of warring nations are no longer transformed into each others’ enemies. Governments wage war against rival governments or insurgents revolt against ruling powers. The US government is the enemy of the Russia government, but the American People are not the enemy of the Russian People. As the nature of war has shifted toward a more targeted or individualized focus, the tactics of war have shifted as well. Within the context of an international community, modern warfare is more of a policing action against groups of actors than armed conflict between nations. Like the global economy and society in general, warfare has been “liberalized.”
Similar to the utilization of subversive warfare, guerilla warfare, and cyber warfare, the embrace of targeted sanctions is part of a natural progression toward globalization and liberalization. These kinds of soft and liberalized conflicts are certainly less devastating than traditional warfare, which fueled the World Wars, but they still have costs, especially for those living in battleground countries. The lower profile and greater frequency of these conflicts also allows their destruction to either go unnoticed or appear less harmful. Over the course of time, however, the destruction mounts. Protracted multilateral proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria reveal how devastation can accumulate. The long-term use of sanctions against so-called rogue nations, such as Myanmar and North Korea, showcase the destruction of isolation and stagnation.
Tactics like targeted sanctions promise to reduce the widespread devastation of conflict, but the individual costs are likely to remain just as high. The costs of war will also be liberalized. When the Obama Administration deployed targeted sanctions against Venezuela for political reasons, the consequences of using targeted sanctions on a broader, more regular basis and the potential for blow-back against Americans were not so obvious. Like the Obama Administration’s use of targeted sanctions against Russia officials, the Trump Administration’s targeting of Russian Oligarchs is easily justified for a myriad of reasons. Not only does the kleptocratic nature of Russia make targeted sanctions particularly effective in terms of pressuring government officials and undermining the government’s economic lifeline, the susceptibility of the Oligarchs to sanctions demonstrates their political and economic power, which makes the Oligarchs enablers of Moscow and, therefore, legitimate targets.
Beyond Russia, the hazards of targeted sanctions might be best recognized by looking at who the US is not targeting. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a society and government in the same sense as most modern nations. The House of Saud is more like a property owner and the whole of Saudi Arabia more like the family’s property. In practical terms, it is more like Russia than the United States. Like Russia, Saudi Arabia has interfered in the affairs of foreign nations, in line with many, but not all, US positions, while its “oligarchs” have even more overt political power and government ties. In recent months, the Kingdom has even targeted its own elites, i.e. their private businesses and fortunes, in what might be considered a corrupted crackdown on corruption, yet the US has not considered targeted sanctions against ruling members of the Royal Family. The hypocrisy surrounding the selectively utilizing targeted sanctions, therefore, demonstrates the prospects for abuse.
Along with talk of a potential trade war between the US and China and US sanction against Russian Oligarchs, US President Donald Trump has been escalating his political targeting of US businesses. Traditionally, Republican Presidents, at least in principle, have preferred minimal government interference in the private sector. President Trump may favor deregulation, but he has been more than vocal when it comes to criticizing businesses of those who have offended him. In targeting internet giant Amazon for allegedly dodging taxes and capitalizing on a sweetheart deal with the US Post Office, it would appear the President is more motivated by a personal grudge against Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon and owns the Trump-critical Washington Post, than his desire to avoid government favoritism and save the government from bad business practices. Fortunately, the US has some protection against the government targeting of private entities, in comparison to other nations, but normalizing the use of targeted sanctions raises concerns that the US could be inspiring world governments to economically devastate individuals and businesses based largely on political interests.
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