Sanctions Against Russia Are Futile

Experts are divided into two groups: those who think sanctions usually fail and those who think they almost always fail.

In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter came up with a way to retaliate: stopping grain sales to Moscow. The boycott, said Commerce Secretary Philip Klutznick, would prove to the world that "aggression is costly" and induce the Soviets to "halt their aggression."

The Soviets did halt their aggression and pull out of Afghanistan. But that didn't happen until nine years later, and it had nothing to do with the grain embargo. American farmers suffered because their prices dropped, but the Kremlin managed to buy grain elsewhere. So the following year, President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban.

The fact that those sanctions proved useless has not stopped President Barack Obama or congressional Republicans from proposing new ones. On Thursday, the president announced he would deny visas and possibly freeze the assets of Russian officials and entities deemed complicit in the invasion of Ukraine.

The measures would prevent American companies from doing business with those individuals and firms. An administration official told The Hill, in words that could have been beamed straight from 1980, that this response would "send a strong message" and "impose costs on Russia."

The real message is different: We have no desire to take military action and don't really expect economic punishment to work, but we have to do something, however pointless. In international relations, governments would rather engage in empty symbolic action than no action at all.

Economic sanctions exert a perennial appeal during geopolitical crises because they spill no blood and cost little money, at least compared to the toll of war. These virtues are enough to make everyone forget that they rarely accomplish anything beyond allowing our leaders to posture.

A revealing example is the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, which was imposed in 1960 with the goal of driving Fidel Castro's communist government from power. The boycott is still in place, more than a half-century later, and so is the regime.

We also tried tightening the economic screws on Iraq before our first war with Saddam Hussein, starting in 1990, and it was highly effective—if the goal was to torment ordinary Iraqis who had no control over the government. Upward of half a million children died as a result of malnutrition and disease brought on by the embargo. The tyrant we were straining to dislodge, however, stayed in power until the U.S. invasion of 2003.

Experts on the subject are divided into two groups: those who think sanctions usually fail and those who think they almost always fail. Gary Hufbauer, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, says sanctions have been effective in about 30 percent of the cases they've been used. But he doubts the steps taken by Obama—what he calls "light" sanctions—will make any difference in Ukraine.

"The success rates for symbolic or 'light' sanctions, for sanctions against autocratic governments, and for sanctions seeking territorial concessions are lower," he said by email. For anyone hoping to get the Russians out of Crimea, he said, "these findings are not auspicious."

Pessimists are even gloomier. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape calculates that sanctions have worked less than 5 percent of the time. The intractable obstacle, he has written, is that modern governments are "willing to endure considerable punishment rather than abandon what are seen as the interests of the nation."

Crimea is unquestionably regarded as a vital interest by Moscow. Weak regimes are more susceptible to pressure, but Vladimir Putin's regime is not a weak one.

Advocates may claim success in the case of Iran, which recently agreed to temporary curbs on its nuclear program after years of economic warfare. But it's too early to know whether this step will yield a permanent solution.

As for Putin, our best hope is that he bites off more than he can chew. The invasion of Afghanistan looked like a success at the outset, but it spawned a fierce insurgency that cost thousands of Soviet lives, forced a humiliating retreat and helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The farther Putin pushes and the longer he stays the more likely this occupation will end in tears.

There is a very slim possibility that Western economic sanctions will undo his ambitions in Ukraine. There is a better chance that those ambitions will undo themselves.

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  • WTF||

    The threat of sanctions has, however, stopped the alt text in its tracks.

  • Swiss Servator, alles klar?||

    I think we can all agree that is the worst effect they could have.

  • db||

    I thought Nikki was the worst?

  • Snark Plissken||

    Chapman manages to nail one, all is forgiven. Sanctions never work, except arguably, South Africa. And quite often make things worse by entrenching dictators and isolating and impoverishing the people: Myanmar, Cuba, Norks, etc etc etc.

  • Ted S.||

    When I was growing up in the 80s, it never made sense to me why people would think the sanctions against South Africa were so self-evidently correct and virtuous, while sanctions against Cuba were so obviously evil. Granted, I was too young to have coherent views of my own on the matter....

  • Hawk Spitui||

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    It's a good quest why sanctions worked in the case of South Africa. I think it's because the European colonists felt the rejection of their parents countries more. The more politically isolated a state is, the less effect sanctions have.

  • Snark Plissken||

    I think it's because they weren't sadistic dictators and saw the writing on the wall. Also why Ghandi's passive resistance worked against the British.

  • hotsy totsy||

    100% agree with the Snark.

  • PaulW||

    Sanctions only work if the populace is used to having something. If the world could somehow sanction Obama, and ordinary Americans started suffering because of it, he would be out of the presidency in no time. Either that or we'd go to war with the rest of the world for fucking with us.

    If you sanction a place like Cuba, where they were already pretty poor, it has little effect.

  • hotsy totsy||

    Cuba was fairly prosperous and cultured when Castro took over. It's just that the Castros couldn't care less how everyone else lives as long as they maintain power.

    I think it has more to do with whether those in power have a conscience or not.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    The colonial American boycotts of British goods had some effect in scaring British merchants and manufacturers into yelling at Parliament. I suspect it was partly because they were not government mandated, thus a better gauge of public opinion, although the enforcement did get pretty heavy handed at times.

  • UnCivilServant||

    The only sanctions which will have any effect are when Gasprom shuts off the pipe to Western Europe, at which point NATO screams at Obama to capitulate like the punk he is. In fact, it wouldn't have to get that far, Putin would mention it casually and the pressure would be on to kowtow.

  • Swiss Servator, alles klar?||

    Dumb ol' Ronnie Raygunz, looks like he was right warning the Euros about hooking up a gas line to Russia.

    /astonished prog

  • MJBinAL||

    Yes, frustrating isn't it?

    Reagan was right ...
    Palin was right ...

    Oh my goodness, even Mittens was right!

    Just goes to show that just be cause you are "conservative" does not mean you are wrong, and just because are progressive does no mean you are correct.

    I am tempted to jump out there and just assume progressives are always wrong ... but struggle to keep balance!

  • wareagle||

    ironically, Obama has a significant hammer that could be used in the form of the US energy industry. Of course, he won't use it because oil and natural gas are icky, and using that industry would require him to piss off the enviros and allow drilling.

    Tell the world you've just signed Europe as your newest energy customer and see if that doesn't get Vlad's attention. Or you can send John Kerry over in hopes of boring the Russians the death.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    I think their excuse is the infrastructure for delivery can't be built in time to make any difference. Sort of like the same excuse they've used for 30-40 years:

    "No need to start because we can't do it fast enough to help or prevent (insert energy issue)"

  • db||

    That, and Europe has learned that there will always.be.someone to.bail them out.of a.shitty.mess.they set themselves.up for. WWI, WWII being the.biggest examples.

  • PaulW||

    Perhaps we should tell the Europeans we're not going to pay for their military indirectly any more so they had better get on it.

  • Bryan C||

    And, of course, the reason the infrastructure takes so long to build is because those very same people make it take so long to build.

  • David Wall||

    Interesting idea. Go north with the Alaska pipeline and then go south to Europe? I guess liquifying natural gas and shipping it on tankers is more likely. Could happen. The amount of natural gas in North America now coming available with new drilling technology will probably make green alternative energy too expensive to develop for a couple of generations at least.

  • Sevo||

    ..."Or you can send John Kerry over in hopes of boring the Russians the death."

    Won't work; they read Tolstoy and live through it.

  • prolefeed||

    As for Putin Bush/Obama, our best hope is that he bites off more than he can chew. The invasion of Afghanistan looked like a success at the outset, but it spawned a fierce insurgency that cost thousands of Soviet American and Afghani lives, forced a humiliating retreat and helped bring about hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union. notion that Republican or Democratic politicians can meddle in foreign countries without bad outcomes.

    FTFY, Chapman.

  • ||

    I'm not here for AM Links, so i'm posting this now for your pleasure

    The finest reaction to being bitten by the second deadliest land snake in the world

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    “I said to myself, if I’m going to cark it I’m going to have a beer. So I got a Goldie out of the fridge and drank that.”

    He makes awesomeness more difficult for everyone else.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Why do the aussies hate people who are allergic to electronic cookies?

  • David Wall||

    Thanks, ifh! My wife and I collect stories about resilient people with which to inspire our students. Sommerville's story is now included.

  • db||

    As for Putin, our best hope is that he bites off more than he can chew. The invasion of Afghanistan looked like a success at the outset, but it spawned a fierce insurgency that cost thousands of Soviet lives, forced a humiliating retreat and helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The farther Putin pushes and the longer he stays the more likely this occupation will end in tears.

    This is ridiculous. It may well end in tears, for a lot of people, but comparing Poutine's invasion of Ukraine to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is, for a multitude of reasons, foolish.

  • ||

    If you can find anyone still alive from the Soviet Union then, ask them how well that went reenslaving Ukraine during and after the second act of WWII.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    All the Russians are doing is retaking an area (The Crimea) that historically belongs to them by conquest and tradition. The main purpose is to have a warm water port so the Russians can project their naval power.

    Reading up on the Crimean War of 1854-1856 would have helped Americans who are not going to read up on it anyway, and who can't even remember what happened two weeks ago much less 150 years ago, even in their own history.

    In any event, one of the first questions that should have been asked is: How does the Russia retaking of the Crimea affect the national security of the United States of America? Also, the question of who is going to profit ($) from another Cold War with Russia should be asked?

    Again, Americans should remember (just for fun) that the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 started because the United States wanted those warm water Southern California ports. So just think of the Crimea (and even the Ukraine) as a Russian "Manifest Destiny."

  • db||

    States have no inherent right to force their governance on any set of people, regardless of whether the "justification" is ethnicity, language, geography, historical conquest, or anything else. "Manifest destiny" by any rational standard is a superstition worthy of a fairy tale about King Arthur.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    I read you db. It looks like the United States of America is going to have to return the entire Southwest to Mexico.

  • ||

    Like we'd notice a difference? Shit!

  • ||

    Like we'd notice a difference? Shit!

  • Mickey Rat||

    It is one thing to admit we cannot do much about this without risking a general war with a major power in their backyard. It is entirely another to offer an apologia for what that power is doing.

  • Bryan C||

    It's not up to the US alone to decide if we end up in another Cold War. Crimea may not mean anything to US national security, but if this indicates or encourages Russian expansion into other territories lost by the Czars or the USSR then that might be kinda important.

    And it's not like Russia and the US are the only two countries in the world. Russia's future actions will inevitably have implications for Europe, China, and Japan. Much like the Mexican-American War and our Civil War had implications for the French, Spanish, and British.

  • MJBinAL||

    So, are you comparing the EU to the Ottoman Empire?

  • OneOut||

    To compare the warm water port in the Crimea to a US need for a warm water port on the Pacific is ludicrous.

    Is the Pacific frozen north of Southern California's southern ports ?

  • Mickey Rat||

    "The farther Putin pushes and the longer he stays the more likely this occupation will end in tears."

    It may end in tears, but it is just as likely to end with Russia owning all or significant parts of Ukraine, particularly the Crimea. As long as he achieves that, Putin will think any amount of tears was worth it. The comparison to the Soviet failure in Afghanistan is entirely spurious, they are quite different political and historical situations.

  • Curt||

    I take issue with one line from this article. Chapman says, "In international relations, governments would rather engage in empty symbolic action than no action at all."

    He just shouldn't have limited that statement to international relations. Drug war, gun control, etc etc etc. That's their meat and potatoes.

  • drevildoer||

    My wife lived through sanctions as a poor coal miners daughter in the Serbian war. As she told me, it makes the poor suffer horribly, while the rich and powerful continue to thrive. Sanctions is another of those liberal ideas that fails in any country that has rulers that don't care, never mind those that have taken slaughtering up their own peoples.

  • David Wall||

    Author should have mentioned, though, there are instances where trade embargoes should be imposed--on principle.

    Citizens should not be allowed trade with countries that want to destroy your country or who harbor those that want to destroy your country. That is suicidal.

    Arguably, Cuba would fit that category, at least at one time. Today, for sure, Iran and Saudi Arabia do (yes, the Saudi have and still financially support terrorist that have attacked this country and still pose a threat). Not sure why one would trade with NKorea, but that monstrous place should probably should be on the list, too.

  • Bradley Strider||

    Wanting to do something, and having the capacity to do it, are two very different things.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Upward of half a million children died as a result of malnutrition and disease brought on by the embargo

    I never heard that before and I'd like to see a citation.

  • ||

    That's a paraphrase of the Lancet study. It's seriously flawed propaganda - they didn't find half a million bodies - they projected what the population "should" have been vs what the actual population was, and concluded the difference was dead children.

    What there was is a culture with serious enforcement of monogamy for religious reasons and a dearth of men due to the Iran Iraq war. Women not getting pregnant is not dead children.

  • steve153||

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  • John-David||

    Thanks, anon! I did that and earned over $503.10 per week. Unfortunately, it involved being a power bottom.

  • Sevo||

    ..."Advocates may claim success in the case of Iran,"...

    Hey, one out of 10 or 15 ain't...

  • McStinklebuns||

    Sanctions would likely prompt retaliatory measures, like undermining the dollar as reserve currency. The Chinese would surely be on board. The Ukraine conflict might provide convenient cover for dismantling the aging petrodollar system.

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