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As the Russia-Ukraine war drags on, what is the endgame for sanctions?


Before Russia invaded Ukraine, President Biden's team was clear. They hoped sanctions would prevent an all-out war.


ANTONY BLINKEN: The purpose of the sanctions in the first instance is to try to deter Russia from going to war.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: The purpose of the sanctions has always been and continues to be deterrence.

JAKE SULLIVAN: The president believes that sanctions are intended to deter.

MARTIN: But the threat of sanctions didn't stop the invasion. So what are sanctions doing now? NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is trying to find out.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: The day that Russia invaded Ukraine, President Biden said no one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening. A month later at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, he was more insistent.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Sanctions never deter. You keep talking about that. Sanctions never deter.

KHALID: The president said it's about sustaining sanctions over the long run and increasing the pain. The message had evolved. Today, the White House has three main goals - weaken Russia, strengthen the West and maintain a sovereign Ukraine. Sanctions are a tool, the White House says, part of this broader strategy that includes surging military equipment to the battlefield. White House Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh is one of the architects of these sanctions. And in an interview with me, he pointed to a bleak economic climate in Russia - double-digit inflation, a coming recession and the departure of hundreds of international companies.

DALEEP SINGH: Putin's going to have to ask himself, is this the endgame he's playing for? And how does he weigh the costs of this endgame against the costs of pulling back from the brink? That's the question we're putting to him with these sanctions.

KHALID: The U.S. has banned the import of Russian oil, blocked Russia for making debt payments in dollars and sanctioned Russia's largest financial institutions, including its central bank. Experts agree the goal of sanctions is to put costs on Russia, a tangible cost, making it unsustainable for Putin to finance the war, but also an intangible cost, leverage for negotiations with Russia.

RICHARD GOLDBERG: The goal of the sanctions should be to impose maximum pressure on Vladimir Putin in whatever way possible.

KHALID: That's Richard Goldberg. He served on the National Security Council under former President Donald Trump. He feels the Biden administration has not gone far enough. He says, if you really want behaviors to change, you have to put pressure where Russia is most susceptible.

GOLDBERG: And that can only happen if you cut off Putin's access to energy revenue. That we have not done yet.

KHALID: The White House has insisted on working with allies, and Europeans depend on Russian energy. Still, the bigger question is, even if Putin was squeezed, can the U.S. negotiate with him, a man that President Biden has accused of war crimes and genocide? Brian O'Toole isn't so sure. He's a former Treasury Department official.

BRIAN O'TOOLE: Behavior change is the goal. It's just that the reality is Putin is not going to change his behavior.

KHALID: O'Toole was involved in sanctioning Russia in 2014 after it illegally annexed Crimea.

O'TOOLE: I think the long-term goal is at some point, Vladimir Putin will no longer be the ruler of Russia. And somebody is going to walk into that, you know, big, long office table that he sits at in the Kremlin and think to himself, I don't need all of these external misadventures weighing me down. I'm going to get out of Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus in exchange for sanctions relief.

KHALID: Regime change is not an explicit goal. In fact, some experts say you'll never get an autocrat to change his behavior if he knows you're trying to get rid of him. But experts say look at Iran and the nuclear deal as an example of how sanctions can shake up internal politics. Adam Szubin says he believes back in 2013, the desire for sanctions relief helped bring Hassan Rouhani to power in Iran.

ADAM SZUBIN: He campaigned on a promise of getting Iran economic relief, which was basically tantamount to saying, I can get the sanctions lifted.

KHALID: Szubin had helped build those Iran sanctions and was involved in the talks.

SZUBIN: As we sat down with the Iranians, it was very clear they wanted one thing. They wanted sanctions relief.

KHALID: Experts say sanctions are a middle ground between war and words, but they take time to work. The challenge is there's not a lot of time before Russia redoubles its efforts in eastern Ukraine. And so the question for Julia Friedlander with the Atlantic Council is, what if this all just does not work? What if these aggressive sanctions that were rolled out with unprecedented speed do destroy Russia's economy, but Moscow still flattens parts of Ukraine, and in the process, the rest of the global economy gets damaged?

JULIA FRIEDLANDER: And you ask yourself, well, what did that actually do for me? We still lost on two sides. And how viable are sanctions going to be from a strategic perspective?

KHALID: It's why she sees these sanctions on Russia as the sort of ultimate test for the future use of this important tool.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FATB AND DRYHOPE'S "UNRAVEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.