Stories I’d like to see

The Russian sanctions information gap

This column, a regular feature, was originally published on

There are so many gaps in the reporting about the effort to use economic sanctions against Russia to get President Vladimir Putin to pull back support for the Ukraine separatists that it makes sense to devote my whole column this week to listing them.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to identify the gaps than to do the reporting to fill them. Still, many are so obvious that it suggests that for all the resources spent on getting great video of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, interviews with the victims’ families and reports from the war front in eastern Ukraine — all important stories — there is more heat than light being produced when it comes to the most critical, long-term question related to the Ukrainian conflict: If economic sanctions are the global economy’s modern substitute for using military force in repelling aggression, how is that playing out in the first test of that strategy against a global economic player like Russia?

The Dutch:

For starters, we need to see some reporting from the Netherlands, a country that, as we have been repeatedly reminded, lost a higher proportion of its population in the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner that left from the country’s flagship airport than America lost in the September 11 attacks.

Why haven’t the Dutch simply shut down all business with Russia? Why are there still nonstop flights between Moscow and Amsterdam such as this one, every day?

I’ve read references to the fact that the Netherland’s largest company — oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, a Dutch-British corporation — has multibillion-dollar assets and operations in Russia that could be threatened by sanctions. But that’s not enough.

Has Shell used its influence to lobby the Dutch government, the way a US corporate giant might on Capitol Hill? If so, how?

What’s going on behind the scenes in Amsterdam and at the Hague in what has to be a heated debate over how to balance these economic interests with the country’s outrage?

What role is the United States playing in that debate? We know President Barack Obama has tried to push all the European countries to get tougher on Putin, but have US business interests tried to intercede, perhaps through the Commerce or State departments, to soften that push? Which US business interests have a stake in trying to soften any Dutch response?

The rest of Europe:

We know that Germany, France, and Britain have taken differing stances on stronger sanctions. But, again, we have little idea of the dynamics behind these decisions. Each would be a great story — not only about lobbying and business influence, European-style, but also about the larger question of whether it is realistic to assume that the political will can ever be summoned to impose economic sanctions that would substitute for military force.

Inside Russia:

There’s the question of whether and how the sanctions now in place are working. We need more reporting, difficult as it might be, from inside Russia about which people and companies, if any, are really being hurt — and whether they are trying to influence Putin to pull back.

Back in the US:

Finally, there’s the story hiding in plain sight here at home. Beyond the get-tough rhetoric from many congressional Republicans, who in the Obama administration and in Congress has been pushing for tougher sanctions? What exactly would those be?

Who are the doves? What is their best argument against tightening the noose?

Did we consider canceling the Aeroflot flights that come here, the way President Ronald Reagan did after the Russians shot down a Korean Air Lines flight in 1983? What arguments against that have prevailed this time?

What plans, if any, are in place to tighten the sanctions? And what do our experts anticipate the effect, and reaction, would be in Russia?

Have we thought about digital sanctions, such as cutting off Russian businesses from accessing US businesses or information services on the internet? Alternatively, are we trying, or do we plan to try, to use the internet to break through Putin’s domestic propaganda machine?

Last issue and a big one: Could someone do a story explaining who has what authority to issue these sanctions. Can Obama simply do it on his own? Are there limits?

What about in the Netherlands or the other countries?

This kind of economic warfare seems to be here to stay. We need a lot more reporting from the front lines.

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.