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What New Sanctions Will Mean For The U.S. And Russia's Relationship


The message from President Biden to Russian President Vladimir Putin this week - let's talk. But first, some sanctions. The U.S. has slapped more than 30 Russian entities and individuals with economic sanctions. It's also expelling 10 Russian diplomats from the U.S. These measures are framed as retaliation for the massive cyberattack the U.S. says was mastermind by Russian intelligence services last year and for interference in the 2020 election. So what impact might this have on Russia? And what does that mean for Biden's relationship with Putin?

Let's put those questions to Alina Polyakova. She's president of the Center for European Policy Analysis and joins us now from Washington. Hi there.

ALINA POLYAKOVA: Hi, Debbie. Good to be here.

ELLIOTT: President Biden seems to be walking a fine line here. He obviously felt the need to push back at Russia for its interference. But Biden also says he's open to dialogue with Putin and wants to actually meet with him. What do you make of this strategy?

POLYAKOVA: Well, that's right. It's important to know that this is really the first major move we've seen from the new administration on Russia, and clearly there's a strategy developing here of carrots and sticks. You know, these are the sticks that we're talking about now - the sanctions, the expulsions. But there's also the carrot, which, of course, is the summit that President Biden suggested to have with President Putin, a third country sometime later this year. It's very clear the administration is trying to balance a punitive set of measures, as well as presenting an incentive to Russia to come back to the table.

ELLIOTT: So is this largely symbolic, or is it going to have a real effect on Russian leadership and the Russian economy?

POLYAKOVA: It's symbolic, but it is significant because it's not targeted sanctions on a specific person or specific company. It's much more sweeping. It's much more broad. And it establishes a potential escalation, meaning that is sending a signal that the administration is willing to go even further into areas where the Trump administration and even the Obama administration really wasn't willing to go into. Sanctions don't tend to work immediately. It's really a long-term kind of effect. But there certainly will be consequences here.

ELLIOTT: Just for clarity, this means that U.S. financial institutions can't buy Russian bonds, correct?

POLYAKOVA: That's exactly right. It doesn't address resale market, so there's still steps that the administration could take that could hurt a lot more if it wanted to.

ELLIOTT: Now, we should note that Russia has retaliated. It's expelling 10 American diplomats and is threatening, quote, "painful measures" against U.S. businesses there in Russia. What other levers does Russia have?

POLYAKOVA: Well, to be honest, the economic relationship between the U.S. and Russia is quite insignificant. It's the largest country in the world but has the GDP about the size of Italy or Spain. So there's very little that the Russian government can do to impose pains on the United States. Of course, companies - like, tech companies Google, Twitter, Facebook, many others operate in Russia. They really have become a powerful tool for Russian opposition voices. I would expect them to see some retribution from those going forward.

ELLIOTT: The relationship between Russia and the U.S. has been fraught for so long. Do you see opportunities for cooperation with this new U.S. administration, or is there a risk here of maybe returning to Cold War territory?

POLYAKOVA: Well, the truth is that we've been at a very low point in the U.S.-Russia relationship for a very long time. With this particular Kremlin, meaning with Mr. Putin in charge - and right now, it looks like he could stay in charge for the rest of his life - I don't think we're going to see much improvement in the relationship, unfortunately. I think part of this move by the U.S. administration was also to set expectations that it's a pretty low bar in terms of what we see as potential for our cooperation. It's really broad dialogue on strategic stability, whatever that may mean. It's cooperation on proliferation and nuclear issues. The administration did extend the nuclear arms treaty, the New START treaty, earlier this year. But overall, it's a very, very low set of expectations. But unfortunately, I think it's a realistic set of expectations given the nature of the relationship we've seen develop over the last decades.

ELLIOTT: Alina Polyakova runs the Center for European Policy Analysis. Thanks so much.

POLYAKOVA: Thank you, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.