Why Is the U.S. Isolating Russia but Opening Doors in Cuba?

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama has had a very busy week in foreign relations. He has ended the United States’ historic isolation of Cuba, receiving a prison back, working toward diplomatic relations and changing policy on travel, trade, and increasing efforts to improve relations over territory disputes and other issues.

Basically, he’s opening doors that haven’t been opened in so long their diplomatic hinges are squealing loudly with rust. Interestingly, and in a very different vein, he plans to sign a bill that will increase sanctions against Russia, upping international isolation and placing greater economic pressure on Russia, as well as continued political pressure on a historically strained relationship.These are two very different approaches taken around the same time, and they are very different approaches for good reason, whether you believe them to be correct or not. It’s ridiculous to compare his decision on Cuba to Russia in a direct way, as each has unique values in its equation. But the two are interesting to look at side by side in terms of why they are the decisions made for each case.

Initially, U.S. and European sanctions were set off by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which has a complex historic relationship with Russia. Political and military involvement — the extent of which Russia disputes — led to further trade sanctions, in particular on Russia’s economy-dependent energy industry. And indeed, trade sanctions have had a serious impact, though they’ve failed to curtail some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s more problematic decisions. Unlike Cuba though, sanctions against Russia are fairly young, and they are starting to have an effect on Russia’s monetary stability. According to the BBC, Russia’s currency, the rouble, has decreased to half of what it was last year, as shown in the Bloomberg graph below.


“If I was chairman of President Putin’s council of economic advisers, I would be extremely concerned,” said Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman. “They’re between a rock and a hard place in economic policy,” he said, “The combination of our sanctions, the uncertainty they’ve created for themselves with their international actions, and the falling price of oil has put their economy on the brink of crisis.” The hope is not merely that economic sanctions would place enough pressure on Putin to alter his actions, but that the subsequent economic effects on the population would decrease public support enough to put that additional strain onto Putin and his administration. It’s currently too early to tell where that will lead for Russia, or if it’s an effective move, at least according to Matthew Rojansky, expert on Russia at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

The damage has been short-term so far, meaning it hasn’t translated into political unrest since people still have jobs, food, electricity,” Rojansky said in an interview with NBC. However, given enough time and worsening conditions, he says “Putin will have the same stark choice eventually faced by most authoritarian leaders.” This, in contrast with Obama’s progress with Cuba, makes sense when you consider that the relationship with Cuba is not developing or changing; it’s static, and it has been for quite some time now.

“We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” said Obama in a speech on Wednesday. He discussed the history America has with Cuba, and the methods used in the past five decades to encourage democracy and human rights, saying the U.S. has done so “primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else.” What he said next was of particular note in considering America’s policy with Russia. “No other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people,” he said. Russia has seen sanctions not only from America, but from major players in its oil and gas market. Were America alone in imposing sanctions, its effectiveness would be considerably undercut, and its message would be far less universal. The fact that both Europe and the United States are unified makes the tension with Russia a more united Western diplomatic conflict.

Both steps — against Russia and in favor of more open relationships with Cuba — are also in keeping with the trend between nations. The U.S. has been rather obviously interested in more interference with Cuba considering the social networking program designed for Cuba in the hopes of encouraging free speech, and perhaps further, more above-board steps were in order. Russia and the United States, while at odds, have also sought to maintain a decent relationship given some of their common interests, and economic sanctions rather than military involvement are in keeping with that.

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