Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo prior to their talks in Beijing, China, Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin / AP

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When do we sanction sanctions?

A month ago, I hoped against hope that a Ukrainian crisis could be avoided. But it wasn’t.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is no dummy. Facing a deteriorating domestic situation, he “wagged the dog” in pursuit of nationalist goals. His address on Monday was a wide-ranging paean to the pre-Bolshevik golden days before – in Putin’s view – Lenin mucked it up and let Ukraine have its independence.  

An inference in this situation is that, somehow, Putin is a new tzar leading Russians back to glory.  

The United States has few direct interests in the matter. Russia’s occupation of two Ukrainian oblasts does not have a substantial impact on this side of the Atlantic, nor did their earlier occupation of Crimea.  

Yet, there is a real argument that authoritarian adventurism can be like weeds in the spring. If you address them early, your garden can flourish. But if you do nothing, they’ll spread and choke out worthwhile growth.

Ultimately, that can have a very significant impact on the United States. If China believes the consequences from occupying foreign lands are minimal, then Taiwan is squarely in their crosshair. Xi Jinping, emulating Chinese emperors past, believes the island is integral Chinese territory the same way Putin claims Ukraine.

Taiwan is a strong friend to our nation. The island also produces more than 60 percent of the world’s semiconductors. Disrupting that core component of modernity will have very real effects here. Our inflation numbers are substantially driven by ongoing new vehicle shortages. Those are caused in no small part by a lack of semiconductors.  

So, the Biden Administration and the European Union have settled on sanctions against Russia. They are substantial. The hope is that they will force Russia to yield.  

The international arena has been described as Hobbes’ state of nature. There is no higher authority; there is only struggle between equals, and strength wins. Are sanctions enough to force Putin to bend? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a different type of sanctions were issued. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked his emergency powers in response to the “truckers’ convoy.” This included the ability to freeze citizens’ bank accounts without court oversight. And he did, depriving Canadians of nearly $8 million of their own money with the stroke of a pen.  

It was a shocking move.

Much ink has been spilled  contrasting the “truckers’ convoy” and various 2020 events, be they described as “protests,” “demonstrations,” or “riots.” The Canadian event was similar to “CHAZ,” the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone taken over by Black Lives Matter activists in Seattle.  

There is plenty of inconsistency in reactions to what are, at their core, the same actions. The groups’ political objectives may differ, but both BLM and the truckers closed down portions of a city.  

Yet, at no time did any American official threaten to effectively sanction the “CHAZ” protestors by freezing their bank accounts. Democracies are not meant to be a state of nature. A constitutional government should not let an official strip citizens of private property rights by fiat.    

Trudeau backtracked. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association  filed a lawsuit against what they deemed executive overreach.  

So when do we sanction sanctions?  

A government’s ability to impose financial penalties – sanctions – is an extraordinarily powerful tool. Like most tools, used correctly, it can have a great, positive impact. Hopefully they do with Russia.

Yet, like most tools, they can be used in ways which cause great harm. And in a constitutional, democratic society, checks-and-balances are supposed to make sure citizens do not unfairly or unilaterally lose their rights.

It is an incredibly difficult balance to strike. So here’s to sanctioning sanctions in the international arena, while sanctioning sanctioners domestically. Simple, right?

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.