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February 28, 2023

King Questions Experts on Smarter Sanctions to Fight Russian “War Machine”

Watch or download Senator King’s questioning HERE

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Angus King, who recently met with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy in Kyiv, questioned top experts on the impact of international sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), King highlighted the relatively underwhelming impact of sanctions on the Russian economy and asked Dr. Angela Stent – Director of the Georgetown University Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies – how they could be improved.

“Professor Stent, a question about one of the things that's puzzling to me. I remember when this started a year ago, all the talk was the sanctions are going to cripple Russia. They're going to be just out of business and riots in the street absolutely hasn't worked. Talk to me about why,” questioned Senator King. “Were they the wrong sanctions? Were they not applied well? Did we underestimate the Russian capacity to circumvent them? Why have the sanctions regime not played a bigger part in this conflict?”

“So I think we always tend to think the first reaction to something like the Russian invasion is to impose sanctions. I think we forget how resilient that Russian economy is despite the sanctions. The IMF said that Russia's economy was going to contract by 8% last year it contracted by 2%,” replied Dr. Stent. “They have been able to do this because they've had a smart policy of stabilizing the Ruble and because they have earned windfall profits last year from their oil and gas sales. And they've managed to keep the war machine going despite sanctions. That's changing. Now we have the oil price cap, they probably won't make those windfall profits anymore. But still, India has now become the largest purchaser of Russian oil, other countries, China. So they do still sell the hydrocarbons, even though the Europeans have now weaned themselves off the Russian imports.”

“Don't you think we underestimate other countries, particularly a country like Russia, their ability to absorb pain?” asked Senator King.

“Yes, I think we do,” Dr. Stent concurred.

King continued by stressing the difficulty of sanctioning dictatorial regimes where rulers aren’t responsive to political pressure.

“Sanctions against a dictatorial regime, the problem is the dictator will always have his Mercedes and caviar,” continued Senator King. “So the sanctions don't directly affect [Putin] and if it's a country that doesn't have much in the way of political opposition, then I'm not sure where the sanctions go. Are there additional sanctions we should be applying now?”

“There are still some Russian banks we could sanction. We've sanctioned many of them,” Dr. Stent replied. “I think we also misunderstand the relationship between Putin and the oligarchs and the people who lost their bank accounts and their yachts and everything else. They're not going to get together and say, we have to rid ourselves of this leader. That's not how the system works.”

“That hasn't worked,” agreed Senator King.  

“Right. I think the only other thing I would say is that I think the export control sanctions will bite more this year, particularly the lack of access to semiconductors and components for manufacturing,” concluded Dr. Stent. “So the Russians already started closing down some assembly lines with automobiles and things like that, and that will then hit the general population more.”

A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator King is recognized as a thoughtful voice on national security and foreign policy issues. Senator King has shared concerns that Putin may consider “greater force in Ukraine” and condemned the attacks on Ukrainian sovereignty as “heinous”, calling for a united, international effort to push back on Putin. Senator King has also urged maximum intelligence sharing with Ukrainian officials, and cosponsored a bipartisan resolution supporting the American partner in the face of Russian aggression. He recently gave a floor speech urging deterrence to prevent war secured numerous provisions in the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act for support to Ukraine. In January, Senator King visited Kyiv to hold bilateral meetings with President Zelenskyy and his Ukrainian counterparts to ensure that American aid was used efficiently with proper oversight.

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