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A look at whether the sanctions on Russia are actually working

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As of today, Russian forces have waged war on Ukraine for six weeks. And as promised, the U.S. and its allies have responded in part by levying and then escalating economic sanctions against Russia. Yesterday, the White House announced a new round of sanctions on Russia's largest financial institutions and on more individuals closely tied to President Vladimir Putin.

We're joined now by Daleep Singh. He is White House deputy national security adviser for international economics and a key architect of these sanctions. Welcome.

DALEEP SINGH: Hi, Ailsa. Good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you. So I want to start with these latest sanctions. You know, at this point in the war, what is the administration trying to achieve with this particular round of sanctions?

SINGH: Yeah. So yesterday, we intensified what were already the most severe sanctions ever levied on a major economy. First, we gave what's the equivalent of the financial death penalty to the largest financial institution in Russia. It's called Sberbank. And to give you some perspective, Sberbank is the main artery in the Russian financial system. It holds about one-third of the total assets in Russia's banking system as a whole or about $500 billion. So all of its assets that touch the U.S. are now frozen, and it can no longer do any business with the U.S.

CHANG: OK. Now, that sounds significant, but how do we know if sanctions are truly having an impact on Russia's decision-making here? Like, what indications are you looking for?

SINGH: Well, look, when you're dealing with an autocrat like Putin, who has a high threshold for pain and a heavy hand on the narrative inside his country, we're clear-eyed - sanctions are never going to be a stand-alone solution. They work when they're embedded in a broader strategy.

But let me just say, even for an autocrat like Putin, he has a social contract with the Russian people. You know, if body bags are being sent back to Russia, if the shelves are empty, if debit cards don't work, if the country goes into default, is that really the end game he's playing for? That's really the question that we put in front of him.

CHANG: But let's talk about the strength of the sanctions that have been imposed so far. Can we talk about European oil and gas from Russia? Because that's worth about $1 billion per day, I understand, to Russia. Can sanctions really have an impact if energy is not a part of those sanctions?

SINGH: Without question. Russia's GDP is projected to shrink by double digits this year. And this year alone, the economic shock that's being projected will wipe out the past 15 years of economic gains in Russia. I mean, Russia is descending into economic and financial isolation.

CHANG: Still how much is the U.S. trying to persuade European countries to reduce their Russian oil and gas dependence?

SINGH: Well, look, we've taken that step. We've banned all Russian oil imports, coal imports, natural gas imports. We happen to be a major producer of all three of those sources of energy; Europe is not. So they're operating at a different timetable. But obviously, we would like to be in alignment with them eventually. And we're having those discussions privately.

CHANG: When it comes to appealing to countries that have remained neutral, how does the U.S. discourage countries from doing business with Russia?

SINGH: Yeah. Well, so what we say to them is the 30 countries that have joined us are defending the principles that underpin peace and security for all of us. For those who haven't joined us, the message we always give is if we stand by and do nothing and every bully, every autocrat in the world has their own backyard, writes their own rules, we've seen in history what happens. Look at the first half of the 20th century. It was the story of conflict, war, genocide and tyranny. No one - no one should have any interest in a return to that way of life.

CHANG: What is the long-term prospect in all of this? I mean, this war, it's lasting longer than certainly Russia predicted. It could last much longer. How long do you expect these sanctions to remain in effect?

SINGH: They're designed to be in effect as long as it takes. We can always escalate or de-escalate. They're extremely flexible. We know that despite the debilitating hit we've already landed, it will take time to change Putin's strategic calculus. Our bet is that Putin will realize this is a strategic failure that's not in his own interest.

CHANG: That is White House deputy national security adviser for international economics Daleep Singh. Thank you very much.

SINGH: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.