Russian Sanctions: The Helpful, the Harmful, and the Pointless

There’s a difference between actions that only make us feel good and actions that actually help Ukraine.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put economic sanctions back on the front page. Most of the focus has been on political sanctions—cases where public officials restrict commerce with another country to pressure its leaders to change their policies. For instance, the Biden administration has recently banned the importation of Russian oil and gas to weaken the Russian economy and the Putin regime along with it. But sanctions can also be private, when businesses or individuals voluntarily choose to stop doing business with the sanctioned country. Ford, Nike, Apple, and—in a true test of Russian President Vladimir Putin's mettle—Pornhub have suspended dealings with Russia in protest of the war. So, are these sanctions justified?

To start, it's harder to justify political sanctions than private ones. There's a world of moral difference between choosing not to buy from someone and being forced to not buy from someone. The former is an exercise of economic freedom whereas the latter is a violation of it. By analogy, choosing not to buy weed is one thing—the war on drugs is quite another.

Still, political sanctions can be justified when they effectively deter serious wrongdoing. For instance, this might have been the case during apartheid in South Africa. Even though sanctions interfere with citizens' freedom to exchange or associate with others, they aren't as morally objectionable as many of the alternatives, such as violent military intervention. And the harm of temporarily curtailing the freedom of some to truck, barter, and exchange may be justified to prevent an even greater harm or injustice to others.

Political sanctions are also more morally justifiable when they target a government's use of natural resources, rather than constraining private companies and individual consumers. Many oppressive regimes maintain their power by controlling access to natural resources. But as the philosopher Leif Wenar has argued, the leaders of these oppressive governments do not have property rights to extract and sell their countries' natural resources in support of unjust causes. Sanctions that target oppressive regimes' extraction and sale of natural resources don't violate anyone's property rights, and can potentially counteract the harmful "resource curse," which occurs when a country's possession of natural resources creates incentives for corruption and authoritarianism. To the extent that Russia's substantial oil and natural gas resources are an impediment to good governance and sanctioning those resources doesn't violate any individual Russian's rights, these kinds of sanctions would be morally justified as long as they didn't do more harm than good.

While political sanctions are justifiable in principle, they're tough to justify in practice. For one, public officials are not generally reliable in determining whether and how to effectively impose sanctions against unjust regimes. According to a recent analysis of political sanctions, they're generally unlikely to achieve major policy changes, regime change, or military impairment.

What's more, sanctions are not the least restrictive option for mitigating the injustices of an unjust regime. Though economic sanctioning is appealing because it's a nonviolent way for people to express their disapproval of unjust leadership, there are often better nonviolent responses available to counteract foreign aggression. American officials could, for instance, support policies that relax immigration restrictions for Ukrainian refugees as well as for Russian migrants, including scientific experts and military defectors. These policies would effectively undermine the Russian military while also respecting ordinary Americans' and Russians' freedom of association and exchange.

Another risk of political sanctions is that they'll be too broad, rather than targeted narrowly at political leaders or the military. Here political sanctions are likely to harm innocent people who have done nothing wrong. Most citizens have no effective control over the actions of their government, so ordinary workers and consumers should not be punished for the sins of their states.

The case for sanctioning often appeals to an imputation of collective responsibility, as if the individual citizens are culpable for their leaders' wrongdoing. This imputation of responsibility is implausible because, even in a democratic society, citizens rarely exercise meaningful control over foreign policy. Therefore, citizens shouldn't be morally responsible for what their governments do abroad. Just as American citizens aren't culpably complicit in the unjust wars that the U.S. military has prosecuted, nor are ordinary Russians culpably complicit in Putin's recent aggression against Ukraine.

If anything, this point is even more forceful in the case of citizens of countries like Russia that lack free and fair elections. As Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) recently argued, political sanctions may be permissible if they are targeted at Putin and the Russian military or oligarchs, but "broad-based sanctions…would amount to collective punishment of a Russian population that did not choose this." Imagine how you'd feel if your brewery went bankrupt because the Canadian government sanctioned your beer to protest something awful that Presidents Donald Trump or Joe Biden did. (We'll note in passing the inconsistency in calls from political leaders to buy American and boycott Russia—if cutting America off from the global marketplace were good for Americans, wouldn't cutting Russia off from the global marketplace be good for Russians?)

Private sanctions, by contrast, are less morally fraught because they don't prohibit Americans from trading or associating with Russians. If private companies or citizens choose to take their business elsewhere as a way of protesting Russian aggression, they're simply exercising their economic rights. Private companies aren't morally obligated to always maximize shareholder value. Individual consumers don't have a duty to purchase from anyone who's willing to sell to them (for instance, you're not under a moral obligation to buy Thin Mints whenever the Girl Scouts show up at your door).

Nevertheless, private sanctions can backfire too. Like political sanctions, private sanctions risk being enforced in an overly broad way that harms innocent people. Consider, for example, Visa and Mastercard's decisions to suspend operations in Russia. These private sanctions have left thousands of journalists, activists, and ordinary Russians unable to make international payments, which they may need to do in order to flee Putin's regime.

Private sanctions that are merely symbolic are also morally dubious, such as a recent proposal to cancel a lecture about the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky or a bar's decision to discontinue the sale of Russian alcohol. These sanctions won't prevent political leaders from acting wrongly and may worsen nationalist attitudes domestically and internationally (remember "freedom fries")? The philosophers Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi refer to these kinds of costless public expressions of political condemnation as "moral grandstanding." Moral grandstanding is usually an inconsequential vanity project, but it can have harmful externalities when grandstanding undermines the quality of public discourse, distracts people from more morally urgent issues, and makes it harder to build coalitions around effective solutions.

Performing purely expressive actions can also be morally wrong when they come at the cost of actually advancing the moral values you're expressing support for. For instance, it's wrong to toss valuable coins in a well while announcing your wish for an end to world hunger instead of using that money to buy food for someone who is starving. There's something perverse about missing the chance to feed people to show others how much you care about feeding people. Now take the case of bar owners dumping all of their Russian vodka to express their support for Ukrainians. They'd do better to sell that vodka and donate the proceeds directly to Ukrainian citizens, e.g. by booking an Airbnb in Kyiv. And instead of withdrawing from international markets, the leaders of private companies could protest Russian aggression by providing free or low-cost goods and services to ordinary Ukrainians, as Elon Musk recently did by delivering Starlink internet service to Ukraine.

Similar moral considerations bear on the ethics of individual boycotts. Another objection to individual boycotting is that it is an approach to consumerism that amounts to what the philosopher Waheed Hussain called "common good anarchism." This is view that individual consumers can make choices in the market with the goal of promoting the common good based on their own private judgment of what the common good entails. Unlike Hussain, we have no objection to individual consumers using their private judgment about which purchases do or do not advance the common good. Rather, we insist only that they use good private judgment, unlike those consumers who recently decided to throw away and boycott Smirnoff vodka, even though Smirnoff is manufactured by a British company and distilled in America. Cases like this suggest that "ethical consumers" are often more interested in grandstanding than sincerely protesting Russia. This isn't an indictment of ethical consumerism as such, but rather ethical consumerism done poorly.

The moral considerations that inform the ethics of sanctions have broader lessons for the ethics of consumerism, business, and international trade. The upshot is that government action is harder to justify than private action because political interactions aren't voluntary. Broad interventions are typically worse than targeted interventions because they harm innocent people. And purely symbolic gestures risk perpetuating counterproductive nationalist rhetoric without materially helping the victims of injustice. As is often the case in politics, it's important to distinguish between behavioral changes and policies that make us feel good or look good, and changes that actually do good for Ukraine and the Russian people.