Are Sanctions Enough?

By Anne Lipsett

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is moving swiftly to a head, causing world leaders to scramble to figure out how to contain and deescalate the situation. Recently, the United States has joined other nations in imposing sanctions on Russia as a way of forcing Russian President Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table. Sanctions are economic penalties placed on countries or individuals who are citizens of another country. It is a foreign policy action that puts economic pressure on the object of the country’s attention in order to facilitate some kind of action or discussion. It is used as a generalization that covers many different types of economic pressures, including tariffs and embargoes. A unilateral sanction is enacted against one country by another and a multilateral sanction is enacted by multiple countries against a target country. Export and import sanctions also have varying effects, with an export sanction (which blocks the flow of goods into the targeted country) being less severe in impact than an import sanction (which blocks the outflow of goods from the target country). The goal of both types of sanctions is the same: to increase the economic burden on the targeted country to the point where they are willing to come to the table and reach a resolution. Using the current Russia-Ukraine crisis, as well as the recent history of US-Russia sanctions, this article will explore the impacts of sanctions and determine if, in situations such as the current crisis, sanctions are effective.

The Impact of Sanctions

A sanction is an attractive option when opposed to military intervention, and is a common tool used in situations such as this one since it is less expensive and there is no direct cost of human life from it. The impacts are less deadly, but can still be devastating. When a sanction is imposed on a country, the ultimate goal is to create enough political and/or economic instability to force a resolution. However, in most scenarios, the people who bear the brunt of the burden are citizens. The political instability can give rise to extremism or solidify the regime already in place. Another consequence borne by the citizens is the increase in prices outside the targeted country as the loss of an entire market of potential consumers means businesses have to make up for the loss through increased prices. Businesses may also lose access to resources, upsetting the supply chain and increasing the cost of doing business. 

The United States vs. Russia

While the Cold War has ended and the constant threat of war a has abated, the United States is still trying to police Russia. Since 2014, the United States, along with other Western countries, has engaged in multilateral economic sanctions against Russia. The cause for this first set of sanctions was the annexation of Crimea, and more have been imposed following the accusations of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, and after the poisoning of a Russian spy in the United Kingdom in 2018. 

Despite these measures that were meant to curb Russia’s hegemonic ambitions, there are currently around 100,000 Russian soldiers stationed at the Ukraine border that appear to be ready to invade. Western governments are scrambling, as they need to inflict damage that would bring Putin to the negotiation table, but also are heavily reliant on energy resources from the nation. Given the current issues with supply due to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting energy availability further could further damage the already weakened supply chain as well as raise prices even more. 

Focusing on the US, Reuters has reported that there are plans to levy sanctions on Russian elites who are close to the Kremlin and have financial ties in the West, as well as sanctions on Russian financial institutions and increase export control measures to limit the amount of technology entering Russia. President Joe Biden has stated that he has not ruled out sanctions on Putin as an individual yet either. While this maneuver may not have much effect on Russia as a whole, the reputational damage to Putin as well as the blatant personal attack could prove beneficial in upsetting the balance of power. The Kremlin has responded to this threat, saying they would consider it a breach in relations, which could have catastrophic outcomes for the United States. In theory, the sanctions imposed by the United States and its NATO allies should be enough to persuade Russia from invading, but recent history has shown that any measure to curb behavior has been met with resistance and has only escalated the situation and further solidified Putin’s power. While these sanctions would mean avoiding military intervention, they have not been an effective deterrent. On February 4, China’s President Xi Jinping and Putin made a united front while US troops were sent to Germany to back up NATO allies. Next week, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have separate trips to Moscow and Kyiv planned to push peace talks and aim to reduce the military presence along the Ukrainian border. As the world teeters on the precipice of war, it has become abundantly clear: sanctions are not enough.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

Photo by Michael Parulava on Unsplash

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