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NATO is threatening Russia with sanctions to protect Ukraine, but do sanctions work?


We begin this hour with events in Ukraine. Russia has 100,000 troops poised to enter the country, and Secretary of State Blinken says that he has been blunt about how the U.S. would respond if they cross over.


ANTONY BLINKEN: We've been clear if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine's border, that's a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies.

SIMON: Secretary Blinken finished a European tour on Friday with a final stop in Geneva. That's where he met his Russian counterpart and made the statement you just heard. Let's turn to NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, thanks for being with us.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Secretary Blinken said swift and severe and a united response. But we ought to be explicit here. He means sanctions, right? Do we know on what or whom?

NORTHAM: No. No, not at the moment. These are really tightly held secrets right now. But, you know, people who watch this stuff closely say they'd be financial or trade sanctions, so targeting Russian companies or individuals, you know, cronies of President Vladimir Putin. The sanctions could also prevent Russians from getting U.S. technology, so things like semiconductors. They could get - they could kick Russia off something called SWIFT, which is this vast, global messaging system that's used for international money transfers. And that could make it tougher for Russian banks to make transactions. You know, all these things could have an impact. But Russia has more than $630 billion cash in reserve, and that can help absorb a lot of the impact.

SIMON: To remind ourselves of the obvious, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia after it invaded Crimea eight years ago. Those sanctions are still in place, and Russia is still in Crimea. What makes the administration think things would be different?

NORTHAM: Well, the Biden administration says sanctions this time around will be much tougher, though, as I said, you know, details right now aren't public. This time around, the U.S. and its allies could go after the energy sector, which supports the Russian economy. So they could block access to Western technology for, you know, new oil and gas projects. But the biggest target may be finance. And I spoke with Brian O'Toole. And he's a former senior Treasury sanctions official, and he's now with the Atlantic Council. He says there's one thing that could have a devastating effect on Russia's economy.

BRIAN O'TOOLE: The biggest set of sanctions that the U.S. can impose are sanctions against the major Russian state-owned banks. That removes a huge portion of the Russian market from the ability to access the Western financial system. So what it does in a lot of ways is actually prevent transactions from leaving Russia.

NORTHAM: O'Toole says that would really have an impact on ordinary Russian standard of living as well as Putin and his inner circle.

SIMON: But, Jackie, the U.S. doesn't do much business with Russia. A lot of European countries do. And could that complicate the united front that the U.S. wants to present?

NORTHAM: Oh, yes. Yeah. And that's what's become clear over the past week or so is that there are divisions between the U.S. and Europe over sanctions because a lot of European businesses could be hurt. Also, there is debate about what happens if there is just, like, a tiny Russian incursion. Do you level a full raft of sanctions at that point, or just a few? Blinken has emphasized that there is unity amongst all the players, but this issue likely came up, you know, during his meetings earlier this week.

SIMON: Is there any sense the - and I'll call them threats - the Biden administration is making are being heard in Russia?

NORTHAM: Oh, we don't know what Putin's going to do or whether these threats of sanctions, you know, going after the big Russian banks, are having an impact on us thinking. Let's face it. The current sanctions really haven't changed Russia's foreign policy, and we'll just have to wait and see if they do this time.

SIMON: NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam - Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thanks very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.