What could U.S. sanctions against Russia actually look like?

Obama theoretically has a host of harsh punishments on the table, but implementing them may not be so easy

Oil export terminal, Kozmino
(Image credit: (AP Photo))

The Obama administration has warned Russia that there will be costs for its military incursion in Ukraine. And Secretary of State John Kerry said "all options are on the table" for how the U.S. might respond, including tough sanctions.

So what, specifically, would those sanctions entail?

On the Sunday talk show circuit, Kerry mentioned a couple of ideas in passing: visa bans preventing Russians from traveling to the United States and asset freezes, with the U.S. and allies essentially locking up Russian funds held in foreign bank accounts. The State Department and Treasury are reportedly writing up proposals to do just that; one government official told The Guardian the administration is looking at "the vulnerability of Russian banks" with ties to European cities.

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Obama could impose both ideas via executive order, circumventing Congress and ensuring the sanctions go into place as soon as possible.

The Russian government would not be alone in feeling the pinch. U.S. officials are looking into the possibility of targeting individuals and organizations who aided Moscow's military campaign or who are attempting to undermine the interim Ukrainian government, according to The Daily Beast.

However, the meatiest possible sanctions would involve, as Kerry put it, a "disruption of any of the normal trade routine" between Russia and the world. Russia's economy is hugely dependent on energy exports, mainly to Europe. A January report from the Congressional Research Service noted that the Russian economy is "highly subject to the vagaries of world commodity prices," adding that the global recession exposed "weaknesses in the economy, including its significant dependence on the production and export of oil and other natural resources and its weak financial system."

But disrupting a complex international energy market is no simple task. As our John Aziz explained, the Obama administration could undermine Putin by upping the U.S.'s structural capability to export natural gas — a suddenly abundant commodity at home thanks to the fracking boom — but that would take years to pay off.

Moreover, any restrictions on Russia's energy sector would need to come as part of a multilateral effort for maximum impact. Cautioning that such sanctions would need support from the European Union, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Politico, "Their interests are really paramount," and that "we have to have them on board with us."

But given the European Union's reliance on Russian natural gas imports, its members will be reluctant — or perhaps even unable — to take any significant action on that front. Likewise, American companies have nearly $10 billion invested in Russian businesses, according to Politico, which would further complicate attempts to pile on Russia's big industries.

It's also been suggested that the U.S. could try to boot Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized nations; pull out from the upcoming G8 conference, to be held in Sochi, Russia; or drop a proposed trade agreement between the two nations. So far, there is no indication the White House is seriously considering any of those ideas.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has canceled a trip to Russia by members of the U.S. Trade Representative's office, nixed other scheduled bilateral events, withdrawn from preparatory talks ahead of the June G8 summit, and announced that it would no longer send a delegation to the Paralympics in Sochi.

To be sure, those are all largely symbolic moves. But the U.S. is not without other, harsher alternatives, and already the mere prospect of stiff sanctions has sent Russian markets tumbling.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.