WASHINGTON — The United States, in conjunction with its allies, has hit Russia with some of the most sweeping export restrictions ever imposed, barring companies around the world from sending advanced technology to punish President Vladimir V. Putin for his invasion of Ukraine.
The restrictions aim to cut off the flow of semiconductors, aircraft parts and other technologies critical to Russia’s defense, maritime and aerospace industries, in an effort to cripple Putin’s ability to wage war. But the extent to which the measures actually hamper Russia’s capabilities depends on whether companies around the world adhere to the rules.
Enforcing the new restrictions is a major challenge as governments try to control thousands of companies around the world. But the task could be made easier because the United States cooperates with so many other countries.
The member states of the European Union, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and South Korea have joined the United States by imposing their own restrictions. And governments, including Singapore and Taiwan, a major global semiconductor maker, have said they will support the rules.
“Because we have the full cooperation and alignment with so many countries, enforcement becomes a lot easier,” US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in an interview. “Every country is going to take enforcement action.”
“That’s part of the strength, if you will, of so much collaboration,” she added.
Officials from the Department of Commerce, which is responsible for enforcing US rules, have already started searching shipping containers and detaining electronics, aircraft parts and other goods destined for Russia. On March 2, federal agents detained two speedboats in Charleston harbor worth $150,000 that were being exported to Russia, according to senior US officials.
To track down potential violators, federal agents will search tips from industry sources and work with customs and border protection to find anomalies in export data that could indicate shipments to Russia. They are also contacting known exporters to Russia to get them on board with the new restrictions, speaking with about 20 or 30 companies a day, US officials said.
Their efforts extend beyond US borders. On March 3, trade officials spoke to a meeting of 300 business people in Beijing about how to comply with the new restrictions. US officials have also coordinated with other governments to ensure they take a strict stance on enforcement, senior US officials said.
Emily Kilcrease, director of the energy, economics and security program at the Center for a New American Security, said the level of Allied cooperation in forging the export controls was “completely unprecedented” and that international coordination would have a significant advantage.
“The allied countries will be active partners in enforcement efforts, rather than the United States trying to extraterritorially enforce its own unilateral rules,” she said.
It remains to be seen how effective the rules will be at reducing Russia’s military capacity or discouraging its aggression against Ukraine. But in their original form, the broad scope of the measures appears to be a victory for the multilateralism that President Biden promised to restore.
Mr Biden took office and pledged to restore ties with Europe and other allies estranged by former President Donald J. Trump’s “America first” approach. A key part of the argument was that the United States could put more pressure on countries like China if it didn’t act alone.
That approach has been especially important for export controls, which experts argue can do more harm than good if imposed by just one country — a criticism sometimes leveled at the Trump administration’s export controls on China.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has united western governments like some problems before. But even with countries eager to punish Russia, coordinating restrictions on a wide variety of complex technologies between more than 30 governments has not been easy. The Commerce Department held more than 50 talks with officials from other countries between late January and February 24, when the controls were announced, senior US officials said.
Much of that effort fell on Matthew S. Borman, a three-decade employee of the Department of Commerce, who began almost daily talks with the European Commission and other countries in late January.
In mid-February, Mr. Borman and a senior aerospace engineer flew to Brussels to meet Peter Sandler, Europe’s director-general of trade, and other staff. When a “freedom convoy” protesting coronavirus restrictions tried to drive into Brussels, they worked from dawn to dusk amid piles of paper and spreadsheets with complex technological descriptions.
Each country had its own Byzantine rules and its own interests. The European Commission had to consult its 27 member states, notably tech powerhouses such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and Finland, about which products could be cut off. Officials debated whether to crack down on Russia’s oil industry at a time of rising gas prices and inflation.
As Russia’s neighbor, Europeans wanted to ensure that Russia would still have access to certain public safety goods, such as nuclear reactor parts, to prevent a Chernobyl-style meltdown. At least one other country insisted that auto exports to Russia continue, a senior government official said.
The breakthrough came when US officials offered a compromise. The Biden administration planned to enact a rule that would prohibit companies anywhere in the world, even outside the United States, from exporting certain products to Russia if they were made with American technology. But those measures would not apply in countries that have joined the United States and Europe in imposing their own technological restrictions on Russia.
In an interview, Mr. Borman said U.S. allies had historically been concerned about the extraterritorial reach of U.S. export controls, and that the exclusions for countries that imposed their own rules “were really the most important part.”
The war between Russia and Ukraine and the world economy
“We all realized that at a strategic level the most important thing was to have a united Allied position,” he said.
The rules now prevent companies around the world from sending high-tech goods such as chips, telecommunications items and navigation equipment to Russia. They are even more difficult for certain entities associated with the Russian military, which cannot import as much as a pencil or toothbrush.
Ms Raimondo said the impact of the measures is likely to be felt over a period of months, rather than weeks, as Russian tanks and planes are destroyed and controls prevent the Russian military from obtaining equipment to repair them. Over time, she said, the restrictions should be “deeply disabling to their military.”
While some companies want to continue supplying parts to Russia in violation of those rules, there are strong incentives to do so, US officials said, including detention of goods, fines and even jail time.
The Department of Commerce currently has 130 federal agents working in 30 cities across the United States to check for offenders, as well as nine employees abroad. It expects to add staff in Europe and Asia to conduct more extensive checks, officials said.
Kevin Wolf, an international trading partner at Akin Gump and a former Commerce Department official, said implementing the policy would likely be “extremely complex” but it would immediately change the company’s behavior.
“Even if they’re not perfect, I still think you’ll see a significant response from multinationals to do everything they can to meet them,” said Mr. Wolf.
“Just because people are speeding doesn’t mean you don’t have a speed limit,” he added.
One possible focus is China, which has shown worrisome loyalty to Russia. But Chinese leaders have also hinted that they will comply with the sanctions to protect their own economic interests.
Ms Raimondo has warned that the United States could take “devastating” measures against Chinese companies that violate the policy, cutting them off from the American technology and equipment needed to make their products.
“They have their own interest in not supplying this stuff to Russia,” she added.
On Monday, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, met with Chinese foreign affairs official Yang Jiechi in Rome to discuss reports that Russia had asked China for economic and military aid for its war in Ukraine.
China has denied those reports. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that she could not confirm any intelligence, but that Sullivan had conveyed that if China were to provide military or other aid that violated sanctions or supported the war effort, “there will be significant repercussions. †
“But in terms of what the details look like, we would coordinate with our partners and allies to make that decision,” she added.