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Russia and the Futility of Sanctions

The Washington Postwants the U.S. to subordinate all other interests to punishing Russia:

Russia will respond with sanctions of its own, including against Western companies in Russia. Governments must be prepared to discount that damage [bold mine-DL], knowing that the economic cost to Russia — including from its own sanctions — will be far greater.

The most important piece of the Western response will be staying power. The policy probably won’t bring quick results, other than Russian retaliation. Mr. Putin may respond with more aggression [bold mine-DL]. He may seek an early “normalization” of relations, dangling as a lure Moscow’s supposed influence over Iran and Syria or its facilitation of shipping to Afghanistan. The Obama administration should not abandon its work with Russia in these areas, but it also cannot temper its reaction to the situation in Crimea on behalf of other interests. If Mr. Putin threatens to suspend cooperation, the response should be to call his bluff.

As we can see from this, the case for a punitive response to Russia’s incursion is remarkably weak. Sanctioning Russia isn’t likely to yield any improvement in Russian behavior, it will in all likelihood produce even more undesirable behavior, and it could very well undermine U.S. goals on a number of otherwise unrelated issues. U.S. and European companies will very likely suffer from retaliatory measures, many European allies will suffer substantial economic harm, and the ongoing escalation of tensions could result in an armed conflict in Ukraine that the punitive measures are supposedly intended to prevent.

There is not much reason to think that a sanctions policy will have many good results over the longer term, either. Sanctions generally don’t get the results that their advocates want, and they have more often than not strengthened the domestic position of the targeted regime. This makes it that much less likely that the regime will feel compelled to yield to demands from other governments. However, it is likely that sanctions on Russian banks could backfire on Western governments in a number of ways. Jamila Trindle outlined what that could mean last week:

If the United States tries to isolate Russia financially, Juan Zarate, formerly a senior Treasury Department official charged with overseeing the Bush administration’s sanctions program, said the effort could backfire. If Russian banks are cut off from the financial system by sanctions, they could react by slacking off on enforcement of those rules or creating financial havens for sanctions-breakers and criminals.

It is true that Russia would experience more economic pain, and would experience it much sooner, than European countries that have to endure Russian retaliation, but it’s also true that Moscow believes that it has far more at stake in this crisis than the U.S. or EU do. Besides, there are few things that seem to appeal more to authoritarian nationalist leaders than to defy overt Western efforts to compel changes in their behavior.

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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