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Almost All Sanctions Are “Unserious”

The New York Timesreports on the Russian response to the latest U.S. sanctions:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed a decree on Monday formally recognizing Crimea as a “sovereign and independent state,” laying the groundwork for annexation and defying the United States and Europe just hours after they imposed their first financial sanctions against Moscow since the crisis in Ukraine began.

The predictable hawkish view of this news is that the initial sanctions were far too limited to have any effect, but that assumes that there is a sufficiently punishing sanctions regime that could have prevented or reversed Moscow’s recent actions. As always, hawks fault Obama for going too slowly in doing what they want, but the problem here as on other issues is that he is attempting to do the wrong thing. It should give sanctions advocates pause that threatening punishment and then following through on the threatened punishments has had absolutely no effect on Russian behavior. Then again, why would they have any positive effect? It’s almost as if Western punishments are useful to Moscow, because they provide something for it to ignore and/or defy. The administration’s position is that it can impose additional sanctions as needed, but this suffers from the same flawed assumption that Russia can be successfully coerced out of what it is doing. What if that isn’t true? If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter whether the sanctions that Obama announced are “unserious” or not, because imposing such sanctions is based on a misunderstanding of how to alter Russian behavior.

Like many other regimes, the Russian government doesn’t usually take kindly to foreign governments telling it what it can and can’t do in its own neighborhood, and it doesn’t respond well to threats and punitive measures. If this has surprised Westerners in the past, it shouldn’t be a surprise now. When the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act, did this cajole Russia into adopting reforms of its legal system or force it to commit fewer abuses? Obviously, it did nothing of the kind. All that it achieved was to irritate Moscow and convince them of American hostility, and it led to a series of Russian retaliatory measures that damaged relations with the U.S. and made the situation inside Russia significantly worse than it was before. Attempting to compel desired changes in Russian behavior contributed to a deterioration in the conditions that the attempt was supposed to ameliorate. These tactics almost never work, but Westerners keep trying them out of a misguided belief that anything that the other government dislikes must be the right and the smart thing to do. All sanctions are ultimately “unserious” in that they are reflexive responses to international events that often achieve nothing good. Sanctions frequently can’t deliver the results that their advocates claim that they can, but they can be dreadfully serious in their ability to wreck relations with other states and make bad situations worse.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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