Boris Johnson and Joe Biden Credit: @UKinUSA Via Twitter

The British Ambassador to the United States Explains How Russia Sanctions Were Coordinated

I caught up with Ambassador Karen Pierce in the middle of a very intense day of diplomacy on February 22.

She is the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States and earlier that morning Boris Johnson announced new British sanctions on certain Russian oligarchs and financial institutions. This was followed by similar sanctions announcements by the European Union and the United States later in the day.

These new sanctions come after Vladimir Putin’s government formally recognized the independence of two regions of Eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk.  This specific set of sanctions from the United Kingdom, European  and USA seem to be a very calibrated and coordinated response to this provocation, which we discuss at the outset of this interview.


Apple Podcasts  | Google PodcastsSpotify  | Podcast Addict  |  Stitcher  | Radio Public 



Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What Sanctions are the USA, EU, and UK Placing on Russia to Deter their Invasion of Ukraine? 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:02:03] I’d love to hear this directly from you, but it certainly looks like the unified strategy now is to impose a first set of what might be considered medium, hard sanctions in response to provocations thus far, while holding back on a more intense and sweeping set of sanctions in order to deter a potential further Russian incursion into Ukraine. Given what we’ve seen today from the UK, the EU and most recently, the USA, is that a fair description of the allied plan thus far?

Karen Pierce [00:02:35] Well, thanks very much, Mark. And yes, that’s exactly right. Over the preceding weeks, the US, the EU, and the UK have been getting together at expert level to make sure that if sanctions were needed, then we coordinated. We coordinate on what areas they cover, which banks, which people, for example, and we coordinate on sequencing. And you are absolutely right, this is a first tranche of sanctions designed to respond to what the Russians did yesterday by recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk republics and by moving troops forward. We stand poised to introduce much more sweeping sanctions if aggression doesn’t stop.

How are decisions made on Russian sanctions?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:22] Can you maybe take us behind the scenes a little bit like, how did this plan come to be and what were some of the key debates and decisions in developing the plans? I mean, as the UK ambassador to the US, I have to imagine you are in the room when these plans are decided. Can you give us some indication, some color behind the scenes of what these debates were like?

Karen Pierce [00:03:45] Well, I’ll try to do that. Sanctions are actually a very specialized area of diplomatic and foreign policy. And you often need a wet towel to get your head around them because they’re complicated because of legislation, complicated in terms of using intelligence sensibly and working out who can legitimately be targeted. And you have to do that in a way that would stand up in a court of law if you were challenged. So, it’s not straightforward. We spend a lot of time pooling information and evidence with our American and EU colleagues. We in Britain have had to introduce new legislation about sanctions. When we were in the European Union all our sanctions came either through the EU or through the United Nations. Outside the EU we would still apply UN sanctions, but we’ve had to bring in special legislation. And in fact, the legislation that enabled us to make today’s announcement on three individuals and five Russian banks that was laid before parliament on 10th of February. So, we’ve moved pretty fast, but we are doing this in lockstep with the Europeans and the Americans.

How has leaving the European Union affected the United Kingdom’s ability to place sanctions on Russia and other countries?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:03] So that’s an interesting point you make. Since leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom needs a parliamentary action to pass sanctions. Has that sort of complicated the efforts thus far?

Karen Pierce [00:05:17] No, it hasn’t complicated. Actually, Mark, it’s enabled us to be more flexible and targeted and also enabled us to move very quickly. So, we began a few years ago with what we call Magnitsky sanctions. These are human rights sanctions enabling us to get the assets and travel bans on certain individuals violating and abusing human rights. We took a leaf out of America’s own legislation for that, but it has meant that we needed different legislation in order to bring in the sorts of sanctions against the Russian banks and individuals that you saw today. So, we’re working on that, and we stand ready to bring forward further legislation to enable us to curtail the ability of the Russian state and Russian companies to raise funds in our markets and prohibit a range of high-tech exports if we need to do that, if aggression doesn’t get rolled back.

What sanctions will the UK place next if Russia continues their invasion of Ukraine?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:06:16] So further to that, what else might we expect from the United Kingdom specifically in a next round of sanctions, should it come to it?

Karen Pierce [00:06:27] Well, I don’t want to be too precise because a lot of it will depend on what is actually happening on the ground. But what the prime minister and the foreign secretary were referring to today is sanctions against those members of the Duma, the Russian parliament, who voted to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. They’re also talking about new trade measures, extending the measures that were already applied to Crimea after Russian’s invasion in 2014. Extending those so that no UK company will find itself inadvertently supporting Russia’s illegal recognition of the Donbas and Luhansk, and then we will be coordinating with the EU and the Americans to limit the ability of the Russian state and Russian companies to raise funds in the capital markets, as I said, and further isolate Russian banks from the global economy.

Will sanctions work to stop Putin from advancing into Ukraine?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:27] So you came on my radar as a diplomat at the United Nations, which I cover pretty closely as editor of U.N. Dispatch, but I do know that you spent much of your career as a diplomat focused on Russia. Given what you know about Putin, what sort of sanctions might be effective in deterring a full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine? You know, if he has made the decision to mount that full scale assault will any sort of set of sanctions be a deterrent.

Karen Pierce [00:08:00] Well, I think your last point’s a very good one, Mark. I think there is something that we saw in the Putin address yesterday that goes beyond rationality in his attacks, his verbal attacks on Ukraine. So, it’s a good question to ask. Nevertheless, you know, we hope for the best as we plan for the worst. So, we do have this bigger package and we do hope that will act as a deterrent on further aggression, but the odds must be that that is not possible. And sadly, the odds must also be that diplomacy cannot immediately resolve this, so we need to stand ready. One of the lines of thought in going after the oligarchs and the banks that we have done today is precisely because they’re close to Putin. We hope that might exert a particular effect. We have gone after banks that have supported annexation in Crimea, who support Putin’s defense moves, who support the integration of Crimea in the Russian financial sector. So, we are trying to target these so that people in Putin’s inner circle are personally hurt and targeted by these measures, and hopefully they will bring that home to President Putin. But I just want to add, if I may, going back to the point that, you know, will anything deter him? I think it’s very striking that President Putin spent the last few weeks telling everybody what a threat NATO was to Russia and NATO has not actually done anything other than reinforce its own members. It’s president Putin who has rolled the tanks into Ukrainian sovereign territory. So, I think that tells you a lot about his real aim.

Is it possible to de-escalate Putin’s aggression against Ukraine?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:58] I mean, given just how much we seem to be on the precipice of something truly cataclysmic happening in Europe, do any off-ramps exist to your knowledge? Do any diplomatic off-ramps exist at the moment? Is there any opportunity you see for this not to escalate further? Of course, you know the decision being all mostly Putin’s, what opportunities exist for de-escalation, if any?

Karen Pierce [00:10:28] I think you’re right, the decision is Putin’s, and it’s part of the Putin game plan to make sure that we can’t quite figure out which of several options he might pick. In my experience, he always runs more than one option at once. But I do want to stress for the benefit of the listeners that the opportunities are there, and they have always existed. […] could have used all the European security and stability measures. You know, Europe is the most overly lawyered up place in the world for stability and security agreements, and there is very many ranging from the Human Rights Helsinki Final Act to the commitment not to cross borders and use force that you find in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, you have Russian agreements with the EU and NATO. They are a great many instruments that could have been used. The Americans tried to use them. They tried to have bilateral talks and offered NATO-Russia Council meetings. All those mechanisms are still there if President Putin wants to take them. But I think, as we were just saying, there now has to be a real doubt as to whether he ever wanted diplomacy to resolve this.

What does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mean for the rest of Europe?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:49] So I’m curious to get a sense from you what broader geopolitical implications might result from a potential Russian incursion into Ukraine? Specifically drawing on your experience as an ambassador at the United Nations, where for things to happen at the Security Council, you need just like the routine day to day cooperation between Russia and the West on matters far from Russia in the West like peacekeeping in the Central African Republic, mandate renewals, things like that. To what extent do you see that a Russian invasion of Ukraine—a full scale invasion—may impact other aspects of routine diplomacy at the United Nations and beyond?

Karen Pierce [00:12:37] Well your general point is true, Mark, but the Security Council over the past five years, shall we say, has shown itself capable of dealing with second order issues, including some quite difficult issues with Russia and China. And then where it tends to struggle is on the first order issues of which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is absolutely the most important development against European security that we have seen, possibly since the end of World War II in 1945 and certainly since the Bosnia wars in the 1990s. So, you know, it’s such a serious move but the Security Council did debate it last night. On the geostrategic and geopolitical implications, I will simply quote the Kenyan ambassador. Kenya is on the Security Council, and he called it an act of neo colonialism. So, I would hope that what President Putin is now faced with is the opprobrium of the world, particularly all those in the world who believe in open societies. It is an article in the UN charter that you do not use force against another country, you do not cross borders using force so I would hope that out of this as difficult as it is, comes a reaffirmation from a very large part of the UN’s members of all those important rules that govern international affairs because it has been Russia and China’s aim for the past few years to actually disrupt those rules and to try and have a competition to see who sets the rules of global affairs. So, I am hopeful that what we will see is the world pushing back on President Putin’s adventurism.

Will a refugee crisis result from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:14:27] You know, we’re not hearing a tremendous amount of discussion, at least here in American media, about the potential humanitarian fallout from a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the refugee crisis it may provoke, particularly in Poland. I obviously can’t speak to your intelligence assessments, but how are you perceiving and how concerned are you about the humanitarian implications of a war in Ukraine, a large war in Ukraine? And what impact might that have on European security in NATO countries like Poland and other countries like Hungary that border Ukraine?

Karen Pierce [00:15:09] It’s a very important part of the whole equation and one reason why we, you know, even at this late-stage appeal to President Putin not to go any further and to de-escalate and pull back. A certain amount of planning is going on at NATO and in the European Union on possible humanitarian scenarios. We ourselves, this the Brits, the prime minister has told the NATO secretary general that we will have a thousand more British troops ready to go to support a humanitarian response. And we have recently given a large chunk of money, which I think is about $70 million, but I’d have to check that, to support a future humanitarian response. So, it’s something we watch incredibly carefully alongside all our measures to return to security and stability in this important part of Europe.

Will other crises be ignored because of the intensity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:09] I guess lastly, you know, obviously much of your time is focused, rightly so on the crisis in Ukraine. But you know, there are other global crises that also ought to demand your attention and the attention of top diplomats around the world. To what extent does a major crisis like this distract or upend or otherwise just impact your ability to focus on other key areas like Afghanistan or the conflict in Ethiopia or other areas that are relevant and important to British foreign policy?

Karen Pierce [00:16:49] In my experience, Mark, when you get another crisis added to the ones we’re already dealing with, particularly when it’s one at this magnitude, it means everybody works longer hours and they work harder because we’ve got to make sure that we don’t take our eyes off these other crises while we’re dealing with this terribly important one in the heart of Europe. It typically means we pull people off lesser priority work. So, in the embassy example, we have a bunch of people working really hard, including through the night to monitor what’s happening, to liaise with the Americans, to liaise with other embassies here and send advice back to the UK. And some of those people are drawn from sections in the embassy that don’t typically deal with foreign policy, and I think you find that’s how it is and in most capitals. But you’re absolutely right. We also need to keep a very close eye on what is happening elsewhere in case, some other bad guys decide to take advantage of the fact that there’s a lot of attention focused on Ukraine at the moment. So, it’s not easy but you know, we double our efforts basically.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:18:11] Aside from the military front diplomatically are there any indicators or inflection points coming up in the next day or two or hour or two that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you how this situation may evolve?

Karen Pierce [00:18:25] Well, one would watch for signs of de-escalation or an intent to de-escalate that might encourage diplomatic moves. I don’t want to mislead anybody and have you go away thinking those moves that imminent. We have seen no sign of them but alongside watching what the Russians are going to do next militarily, I’m watching what the Ukrainian military and indeed ordinary people are going to do about what the Russians do. One would obviously watch for any hint that the Russians were, even at this stage, prepared to go back to some sort of diplomatic route. So, we’re all alert for this. We keep in touch with the Americans and the Europeans and our friends in the Eastern Europe and throughout NATO. We pool information and we pool our assessments to make sure we don’t miss anything important but I’m afraid I can’t hold out much hope.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:29] Well, ambassador, thank you so much for your time, for taking questions for me and for graciously taking questions from my audience. We appreciate it and good luck these next few hours and days. Thank you for your time.

Karen Pierce [00:19:47] Thanks very much for having me. Thanks for all the questions.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:52] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Ambassador Pierce for her time on an exceedingly intense day of Russia focused diplomacy. You know, these events on the ground are seemingly changing by the hour, but I think this conversation will give you some insight into how a top government official is approaching these key questions regarding Russia and Ukraine. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye.