Is Russia an example of how not to sanction?
Sanctions against have failed twice. Will the third time be the charm?
As noted previously, I co-edited a special issue of International Affairs that came out earlier this month entitled “International Relations: The ‘How Not To’ Guide.” My contribution to the special issue was an essay called “How Not To Sanction,” which is accessible to everyone for the next few months.
In some ways my paper was an extension of my “United States of Sanctions” essay for Foreign Affairs from last year, with a particular focus on catastrophic outcomes. I examined two prominent instances in which sanctions failed badly: the 1990s United Nations sanctions against Iraq and the Trump administration’s re-imposition of sanctions against Iran in 2018.
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An autopsy of those cases reveal a few cautionary warnings about sanctions as an instrument of statecraft. First, the recipe for sanctions success is not merely a function of the ability to impose costs on the targeted actor. Second, an underappreciated impediment to the successful use of economic statecraft is a failure to articulate clear and consistent demands.
How do these lessons apply to the U.S.-led sanctions against Russia after that country invaded Ukraine? This is the last paragraph of “How Not To Sanction”:
The mistakes made in [Iraq and Iran] look as if they have the potential to recur in the sanctions imposed against Russia in response to Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Soon after invading, Russia found itself the most heavily sanctioned country in the world. The array of multilateral sanctions and private-sector divestments initially caused the ruble to plummet in value and interest rates to skyrocket. The cost of the sanctions has been high, but, as with Iraq and Iran, they have been imposed with inchoate demands. Indeed, the initial G7 statement on sanctions declared: ‘[We] are resolved to continue imposing costs on Russia that will further isolate Russia from the international financial system and our economies.’ While it is possible that this maximum-pressure campaign will work, it is also possible that the future will consist of the imposition of punishing sanctions but no resolution to the conflict. Unfortunately, catastrophic sanctions outcomes could be a persistent feature of the next century of international relations.
Now, that paragraph was published this month but written in March of this year, around the same time I was asking questions about the purpose of sanctioning Russia. It’s six months later: have the sanctions against Russia been a catastrophe?
I don’t think so — yet. It is worth recognizing, however that these sanctions have failed at least twice already. If they fail again, that would complete the trifecta.
The first way that sanctions failed was as an attempt at deterrence. Putin was informed that if he moved on Ukraine the resulting sanctions would be crippling to the Russian economy. This obviously did not work. One of the reasons it did not work was that the United States had to be deliberately vague about what sanctions would be imposed. The more detail provided in advance, the easier for Moscow to pre-emptively shield assets. It would have been counterproductive, for example, to have told Russia about freezing its central bank assets in advance. Without a full appreciation of the costs of invasion, the deterrent threat was weak.
The second way that sanctions failed was as an attempt at coercion. Once the invasion started, the idea was to maximize the economic pain felt by the Russian economy, so they would reconsider their actions. While the ongoing sanctions have hurt the Russian economy more than is commonly realized, this attempt was almost certain to fail. The energy carve-out for Europe was too large, and the ask — territorial concessions on Russia’s border — was too great for this to ever have a chance at succeeding. Sanctions alone were never going to coerce Russian forces to withdraw from Ukraine.
This leaves us with the final way that sanctions can have an impact on Russia: by helping to deny Putin the ability to do what he wants in Ukraine. Sanctions in this instance play more of a supporting role. The key here is that the Armed Forces of Ukraine have a strong will to fight and are employing Western military aid to great effect. The sanctions make it that much harder for Russia to ramp up military production.
Here the sanctions are having some bite. Stories about Russia exhausting its precision-guided munitions are pretty widespread, as are stories about its deployment of World War II-era weaponry on the battlefield. That is not a sign of a modernized, well-equipped military. Russian efforts to import arms have not gone terribly well either; when Kim Jong Un is denying arms sales it’s a pretty obvious sign of desperation. It would seem that as a form of denial, the current sanctions are working reasonably well.
As a means of hindering Russia’s warfighting capacity, the U.S.-led sanctions seem to be working. Which means that they cannot be categorized as having failed. If they succeed, however, it will be through a mechanism other than coercion or deterrence.