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Ukraine and the Futility of Sanctions (II)

Rand Paul has joined [1] the “punish Russia” chorus:

It is important that Russia becomes economically isolated [bold mine-DL] until all its forces are removed from Crimea and Putin pledges to act in accordance with the international standards of behavior that respect the rights of free people everywhere.

Sen. Paul makes several proposals in his article, most of which seem unworkable or irrelevant, but this is the one that has the least chance of succeeding on its own terms. Russia has the eighth-largest [2] GDP in the world. Even if it were somehow politically possible to get all of its major trading partners to agree to “isolate” it, it would be economically ruinous for many of them to do so. No matter how assertive or bold the U.S. might be, there is no real chance that Russia will be isolated economically, and even less drastic punitive measures could have very undesirable effects [3].

Paul Pillar observed [4] recently that the costs and consequences of sanctions are often overlooked in these debates:

The multiple drawbacks and limitations of economic sanctions are too infrequently considered before sanctions are enacted. These include issues of who exactly in the target country will be hurt, and who might actually benefit. They also include consideration of counterproductive political reactions, including resistance to be seen buckling under pressure [bold mine-DL].

The costs, including economic costs, to ourselves of sanctions we impose are insufficiently acknowledged. In some situations trade patterns are such that the costs to ourselves may be minimal, but in those circumstances, and for that very reason, the desired impact on the target country is likely to be minimal as well. This may be the case with Russia today, with which the European Union has much more trade than the United States. Unilateral U.S. sanctions are thus likely to be ineffective with regard to Russia, while being needlessly disruptive to cooperation and common purpose with regard to the Europeans.

If the situations were reversed and a number of foreign governments sought to use economic sanctions to compel the U.S. to withdraw from territory that it had invaded, we can be reasonably sure that our leaders would react very badly to the attempt. Even if those leaders could be persuaded that they had erred by invading, they would be reluctant to give in to foreign pressure and could easily become even more intransigent in the face of such pressure. If there were no recognition of error, and our leaders believed that they were in the right to act as they did, they would be even more likely to respond to sanctions with punitive measures of their own. Sanctions are generally useless in achieving anything desirable, but they are frequently not harmless, and they can make the targeted regime even more determined to persist in the course of action that prompted them. While it may be satisfying and politically convenient to impose sanctions as a punishment, it usually doesn’t produce in the change in behavior that the U.S. wants, and it could very well contribute to a dangerous increase in tensions that will make the larger crisis harder to resolve.

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21 Comments To "Ukraine and the Futility of Sanctions (II)"

#1 Comment By Rojo On March 10, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

If American politicians were sincere in their stated desire to de-escalate the situation (of which I’m a bit doubtful), they would be aiming for a means of recognizing Russia’s international interests in relation to the Black Sea fleet and discouraging their Ukrainian nationalist clients in Ukraine’s new government from pursuing maximalist objectives w/ regards to the Russian-language population.

Since they appear to be instead doubling-down, I’m forced to conclude that they are either stupid or insincere (or both).

While it is true that Russia is acting somewhat hypocritically in relation to their concerns about sovereignty (as expressed by Putin in the NYT recently, for example), it’s not like the Europeans and the Americans have been strictly hands off of the internal Ukrainian situation at all.

And, Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty certainly has far more direct relevance to Russia’s interests than our numerous violations of Serbian, Libyan, Iraqi, etc. sovereignty. Calling someone a hypocrite when you are just as a much a hypocrite… What is that, meta-hypocrisy?

The American propensity to make this all about Putin is just ridiculous too. This is about Russia and how the Russian government perceives its interests. Any Russian government that was not domestically dealing with a basket-case country (as in the 1990s) would likely be behaving very similarly.

#2 Comment By David Dickson On March 10, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

I think we need to be sure not to miss the bigger picture here. Sanctions do, indeed, take a long time to work. And they can, in fact, have adverse effects on those who impose them. But Russia is uniquely vulnerable to certain types of financial sanctions right now, to an extent they were not in the Soviet era (and which, to reverse the situation, America never was during its invasion in Iraq).

I agree that we need to have an honest accounting of what costs we are willing to incur via sanctions. And I also agree that Putin is unlikely to withdraw his forces from Ukraine for any reason–the man has too much politically invested in this. But I strongly disagree that certain sanctions cannot be imposed, that Europe will simply say “no” to all significant plans America comes up with on that front, or that it’s a fool’s errand to make Russia feel the consequences of forcibly annexing territory from a sovereign nation. The stakes are too high. If this were Georgia, or Bosnia, or Moldova, that’d be one thing–but Ukraine is simply too big, with too much potential. Europe can’t, from a realist perspective, accept Russian terms on this one.

If you honestly feel it’s not America’s/Europe’s place to tell Russia what to do or who not to invade in its near-abroad, and that when America/Europe does that, bad things invariably happen. . . well, that’s one opinion to have. But if you feel there’s no way to meaningfully make Russia experience costs for its actions (thereby perhaps deterring them from pulling similar shennanigans in Lithuania/Kasakhstan/the rest of Ukraine), well, we’ve come to different conclusions on that.

#3 Comment By SDS On March 10, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

“Economic sanctions and visa bans should be imposed and enforced without delay. I would urge our European allies to leverage their considerable weight with Russia and take the lead on imposing these penalties”

Less than meets the eye?

Sounds like bluster for the base; but a challenge to Europe to put up or let it go…. and a push to sell more resources on the world market….

#4 Comment By VikingLS On March 10, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

Rand Paul just gave his base the finger. The ironic thing is that by caving into the neocons he just lost anything that distinguishes him from any other Republican.

#5 Comment By dave On March 10, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

I’m afraid I don’t understand why this post focuses on sanctions, while admittedly silly, don’t begin to approach the absurdity of Paul’s call to implement missile defense, at Europe’s expense no less.

#6 Comment By Andrew On March 10, 2014 @ 4:13 pm


Rand Paul just gave his base the finger.

The problem is not with Rand Paul per se, the problem is with the base. The one which really matters. Libertarian idealists of Rand Paul-variety are not the base, they are vehicle. IMHO, of course.

#7 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 10, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

For sanctions to work, or even bite, there has to be either some unique vulnerability or there must be some degree of uniformity. The USA’s sanctions on Cuba hurt, even though most other countries don’t recognize them, because the USA is the natural market for Cuba’s agricultural and tourism products, and because no other big market is nearby. Even at that, it isn’t as if the sanctions have succeeded in bringing down the Castro regime, despite their extraordinary longevity.

Sanctions worked against South Africa because they were coordinated internationally, eventually through the UN. And South Africa desperately wanted to be treated as a “normal” country by the West.

Russia is not particularly vulnerable to US only sanctions. Nor are the sanctions likely to be well coordinated internationally. Certainly, with a SC veto, UN based actions are out of the question. And one wonders too just how much the Russians care about Western approval. A decade of UN sanctions of the most nasty and draconian kind, plus no fly zones and other sanctions, seemed to have very little effect on the grip of the Saddam regime in Iraq. Between the cheating, and the fact that Saddam just didn’t care if either of the George Bushes or Bill Clinton liked him or not, the sanctions could have, conceivably, gone on infinitum, without causing regime change. And I think Russia has a much more stable and strong regime than Iraq did.

I think this Russia sanctions business, whether for Paul, Obama, or whoever, is more about domestic US politics than anything else. “Something” has to be done. But almost no one wants war. That leaves, pretty much, sanctions. This type of half steppin’ has a long history. Hell, Jefferson and Madison embargoed pretty much all US international trade, in an attempt to do “something” short of war about foreign misbehavior, more than two hundred years ago.

#8 Comment By Tatiana On March 10, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

I am almost devastated by Rand’s foolish attempt to show his toughness towards Russia. A smarter idea for him would be to go to Moscow, meet Putin and bring back some compromise package. That would bring him enormous publicity as a peace maker and almost 100% victory chances in 2016. Putin is ready for compromise and Rand could be a beneficiary. Now he has to compete with the war machine which is unlikely to bring him dividends. Whoever advises him on foreign policy should be fired immediately. I think Rand missed his chance but I wonder where his father Ron was to slap the kid in the buttocks.

#9 Comment By Keith On March 10, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

“I wonder where his father Ron was to slap the kid in the buttocks.”

If Rand does not stay firm in the realism and non-interventionism which his father brilliantly articulated and promoted, he will lose his core of supporters. If Rand gives in and starts to conform to the neo-conservative position, he will be nothing more than a opportunist. it is sad, because his father is the most principled statesmen this country had in the 20th/21st century

#10 Comment By Just Dropping By On March 10, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

The thing that seems especially ill-conceived about sanctions in this case is a Western-led effort at sanctions against Russia would also certainly strengthen Russian relations with China for a whole variety of reasons. Historical balance of power logic would dictate trying to avoid creating incentives for improved Sino-Russian relations.

#11 Comment By jim rummy On March 10, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

The rights or wrongs of sanctions to one side, we’d be hard pressed to come up with legal and moral grounds for sanctions against Russia that wouldn’t apply equally well to Israel. Mr. Netanyahu and his gang manage to complicate and burden US strategy even when they aren’t directly involved.

#12 Comment By Ken Hoop On March 10, 2014 @ 7:40 pm


Rand Paul is a soft imperialist or imperialist-lite, take your pick.

#13 Comment By Andrew On March 10, 2014 @ 7:44 pm


Putin is ready for compromise

I really doubt that. In fact, I have all reasons to believe that this is not true at all. As for Rand Paul, well, too bad, necessities of the election cycle and power aspirations are way more important than any principles.

#14 Comment By a spencer On March 10, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

Speaking of Pillar, he participated in a panel discussion – with TAC’s Philip Giraldi – broadcast last week on CSPAN:


Maybe I missed it, but kind of surprised I haven’t seen anything about it on TAC’s website (I haven’t watched the whole thing myself). I don’t think anyone will get too upset or accusatory, yelling “Sell out!” and such, when self-promotion involves CSPAN. 🙂

…well, they won’t get upset or accusatory about *that*, anyway…

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 10, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

Probably no one should be allowed a finger on the football until they are well past sixty. By then they should have the excess testosterone that fuels the reflexive urge to fight impulse drained out of their systems.

Until then, make love, not war, and spare us all the grief to come.

#16 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 10, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

I forgot to say that we need to also cut back on the viagra prescriptions for old dudes like McCain.

#17 Comment By WorkingClass On March 10, 2014 @ 9:33 pm

Well – Rand Paul just lost me. Thanks Daniel.

#18 Comment By Ken_L On March 11, 2014 @ 6:16 am

“If the situations were reversed …”

It seems to me that many Americans are literally incapable of the empathy required to conceive of a situation where the situations were reversed. They have become so accustomed to thinking of the world as one where the USA is the universally admired and/or feared patron of all other nations that trying to frame the world in any other way is beyond them.

#19 Comment By TomB On March 11, 2014 @ 6:58 am

Seeing as I think Putin just did the West a huge favor by scaring and alienating the hell out of all his surrounding powers I think some mere lip service condemning what he did is all that’s really necessary here on our part. Hard to stiffen the spine of our allies around him any more than he’s already accomplished.

Of course given our own recent history any such lip service would be hypocritical on our part, but that don’t make it wrong and indeed I think that this is part of the big picture that’s being lost sight of here.

That is, *regardless* of whether we are talking about this Russian invasion of the Crimea, *or* the U.S.’s of Iraq or its interventions in any number of other places, look at how much our arguments are now talk about the more tactical “smartness” of this or that intervention, and have lost sight of what was seen as *THE* great bulwark of peace that was erected after WWII which was the almost inviolate idea of sovereign borders.

I.e., the idea that … while whatever crap is going on within the confines of one country, it was far preferable to merely hold one’s nose about it because the option very likely was yet another frightful world war.

Just think now of how lightly we regard the idea of territorial integrity. Of all the instances in which we think we were so smart to dispense with the idea. Of all the oh-so-smart reasons that have been dreamt up to ignore it in oh-so-many instances.

And look too how Putin has now confirmed the smartness of that old idea of relative territorial inviolability and the wages of hypocrisy: We think aha, we can do it and nobody else can, only now to get smacked in the face with others saying oh no, they can do so too.

Putin’s move was wrong, and just because its hypocritical of us to say it, we are still right to say it.

Unfortunately, we aren’t even *saying* it right. Saying, that is, why it’s wrong, because that would mean having to reject all our own oh-so-fancy rationalizations of why we can do the same thing.

And in the meantime that idea of relative territorial inviolability gets further diluted, and into the unknown brave new world without bright lines and indeed without even many or any lines at all we go.

Stupid stupid stupid. Apparently the life of a world war memory even can last only 50 years or so.

#20 Comment By VikingLS On March 11, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

@Andrew I mean HIS base. Rand may have forgotten that he’s only in the senate because he’s Ron Paul’s son, but the people who voted for him (and I did) don’t. If the people of Kentucky had wanted another McConnell we’d have voted for Trey Greyson.

#21 Comment By Sean Scallon On March 12, 2014 @ 11:59 am

This statement by Sen. Paul is so blatantly political it’s just ridiculous. And not only that, it’s also a sign of weakness. Instead of stating we have no dog in this fight, we should be in the middle of negotiating a solution to avoid bloodshed as an honest broker and criticizing the Obama Administration for the encouragement of demonstrations which brought about mob rule in Kiev and precipitated Russia’s intervention in the Crimea. Instead Rand is saying whatever other Republican is saying. Why? Didn’t he just win CPAC with 31 percent of the vote? Why is he so afraid of what supposedly are his views, that of his father and his would be supporters? Hmm? Does that victory not mean anything then, just another straw poll win?

Non-interventionists are looking for a standard to follow, not the uncertain trumpet. If one says it’s all political, they can go ahead and do so. But what that means is the Paul Movement has not succeeded in changing minds among Republican rank n’filers about foreign policy. Because if the movement had done so, then Rand would not need to call sanctions against Russia just make it look like he was “tough” on Russia.