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When In Doubt, Impose Sanctions

Anne Applebaum issues a call for economic warfare with Russia:

At the same time, Europeans and Americans must also cease to facilitate either Ukrainian or Russian corruption. We must start to take serious threats seriously. A trade boycott must be met with a trade boycott [bold mine-DL]. Dishonest propaganda must be answered. If we want to use sanctions, we should use real economic sanctions, and we should direct them at the real perpetrators, in Moscow as well as Kiev. But before doing anything else, we need to be honest about the scale of this setback, the regional nature of the problem, and the profound weakness of our past policy. Slogans just aren’t good enough anymore. It’s time to get back on the ice.

This is the conclusion of the column, so there’s no discussion of what any of this would mean in practice or what consequences it might have. Complaining that “slogans just aren’t good enough,” Applebaum rattles of quite a few, several of which can be reduced to “we need to fight fire with fire.” “A trade boycott must be met with a trade boycott.” Why? Other than giving us the satisfaction that we have “done” something, responding to Russian tactics in kind seems much more likely to lead to a series of back-and-forth retaliatory measures. The main losers in this exchange will be the smaller nations caught in the middle.

It’s not clear how an escalating economic war with the Russians will do anything except kill weak economic growth there and across eastern Europe, and that will in turn have undesirable effects on the rest of Europe, which is already coping with major economic and fiscal problems of its own. She doesn’t say what “real economic sanctions” would be, but presumably they would be sufficiently punitive and damaging that they would also do harm to the populations of these countries. Economic sanctions may even prove slightly useful politically to the regimes being targeted, since it will give them something else to blame for economic problems. None of this seems very wise. Such actions would likely only stoke tensions inside Ukraine even more than they have been, and they are already very high. She recommends that Western governments interfere in a way that is more likely to exacerbate the crisis while failing to resolve any of the problems that this interference is supposed to remedy.

It may be possible that outside governments could try to help mediate the dispute, but that would require not taking sides as openly and blatantly as Applebaum wants. Ideally, outside mediators would not be seen as parties to the dispute, but would be accepted as neutral and fair by all involved. Unfortunately, given U.S. policies towards the former Soviet Union in recent years, that is a role that the U.S. could not possibly fill.

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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