Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--Sanctions usually fail to achieve any stated policy goals, and they frequently backfire and encourage more of the behavior that they are meant to stop.
The maximalist sanctions on Russia imposed in response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine are proving to be no different. A recent Bloomberg report called attention to the unwelcome but predictable consequences of broad Russia sanctions: “But some Biden administration officials are now privately expressing concern that rather than dissuading the Kremlin as intended, the penalties are instead exacerbating inflation, worsening food insecurity and punishing ordinary Russians more than Putin or his allies.”
These harmful effects of broad sanctions should not come as a surprise to anyone that has followed these issues closely, since this is what almost always happens when a country’s entire economy is targeted for punishment.
Often sold as a “low-cost” alternative to military conflict, broad sanctions in practice are an indiscriminate attack on an entire nation. They inflict punishment on tens of millions of ordinary people while leaving the wealthy and well-connected mostly untouched.
Sanctions are often imposed on countries under the de facto control of abusive authoritarian governments, which means that the people suffer twice over from those that rule them and outside powers that wage economic war in attempts to isolate those rulers.
The Russian case is unusual in that it is the first time in recent history that the United States and its allies have attempted to use this kind of extensive economic coercion against such a large state, but in other respects it is following the same pattern we have seen with previous sanctions regimes.
Economic warfare consistently worsens food insecurity in the targeted country, and now the same destructive effects are being felt around the world because of the disruptions created by the war itself, the sanctions response to it, and Russian retaliatory moves in response to the sanctions.
If the costs of economic warfare are high, what about the benefits? The truth is that there are few or none. The limited effectiveness of sanctions as a policy tool has been well-understood among scholars for decades, but that understanding has scarcely influenced policy making decisions.
Mulder writes: “Yet while in the 1985-1995 period, at a moment of great relative Western power, the chances of sanctions success were still around 35-40 percent, by 2016 this had fallen below 20 percent. In other words, while the use of sanctions has surged, their odds of success have plummeted.”
One reason for this declining efficacy is the relative decline of U.S. and allied economic clout and the rise of other states, which creates more opportunities for other countries to act as sanctions busters.
For example, the United States remains committed to keeping “maximum pressure” sanctions on North Korea and continues to threaten North Korea with additional sanctions if its government conducts new missile and nuclear tests.
In other cases, such as Afghanistan, the United States refuses to acknowledge the de facto government of a country and continues to sanction it as if it were just a band of insurgents. The risk of violating sanctions is great enough that most firms and financial institutions won’t take the chance of doing business in the country even if some transactions are technically permitted.
The predictable and predicted result has been deepening poverty and starvation for tens of millions of ordinary Afghans. The collapse of purchasing power over the last year means that there might be food available, but it is beyond the means of most people to buy it.
Economic coercion through broad sanctions can cause tremendous destruction, but it routinely fails to advance U.S. interests or improve security conditions in other parts of the world. It is time to recognize that broad sanctions do more harm than good, and they worsen many of the problems they are supposed to remedy.