In 2014 Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin reacted to U.S. sanctions imposed against him by telling Congress – “Send me your teeth ground in impotent rage”

Three years on, amid much grinding of teeth, Congress has imposed another set of sanctions against Russia and people in the leadership. The public reaction will be similar, and as in 2014, the more covert response will play out.  Moscow will push back in various ways.

The sanctions against Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea are hurting, especially with the oil price relatively low – but they have not caused Russia to back down. As the W&Y has argued many times Moscow’s intervention in Syria is connected to these sanctions: Russia has made itself a problem in Syria and therefore part of the solution. The price of a solution will include discussions on the sanctions. Russia has other buttons to push.

So, do sanctions work?  It’s a frequently asked question with the frustrating answer – ‘occasionally – in different ways’.

A 1985 study by U.S. academics looked at 200 cases and judged 16 of them to have achieved their aims. For example in 1925 the League of Nations threatened sanctions against Greece unless it withdrew from Bulgaria’s border territory. Greece withdrew.  In 1958/59 the U.S.S.R. imposed economic sanctions on Finland after Communists were excluded from the Finnish government. The Finnish Prime Minister eventually resigned. In 1977, after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Taiwan after learning it was secretly developing nuclear weapons. Taiwan abandoned the programme.

However, in all these cases others factors were involved and the issues were not ‘die in the ditch’ crisis for the party on the recieving end of the sanctions.  In Russia’s case involving Crimea, this is an matter of utmost importance to Moscow and there is no question that they will give the territory back. In the North Korean situation if the leadership has arrived at the conclusion that their survival entails having a nuclear bomb – sanctions will not prevent it. In the Venezuelan example the leadership of the country has already fabulously enriched itself – yes ‘smart sanctions’ against individuals such as president Maduro will hurt but the life of luxury the leadership and their children enjoy will remain mostly intact.

Sometimes sanctions seek to build a wall around a state – but rarely does everyone agree to guard the wall, and frequently one state will actively build a gate, open it, and drive through supplies.  It has not been proven, but it is suspected that Russia has supplied crude oil to North Korea and in certainly tries to help Iran in a variety of ways.

Sanctions can also give a state’s leadership an excuse for their own failings. President Putin points to them as part of the problem of Russia’s economic woes, the same thing happens in Iran.

So they are a flawed, and sometimes blunt instrument in the diplomatic tool box, but they sometimes work, and even when they have less of the effect than intended they do usually go someway in punishing what one or more parties sees as a serious transgression. Against this lies the law of unintended consequences which, while it should give pause for thought, is not neccesarily an argument for not acting.

Sanctions lie between doing nothing, and a military response, and as such are useful. Ask yourself what are the alternatives.

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4 Comments on "Sanctions And Sensibility"

  1. I actually think this set of sanctions make the US look weaker and more isolated than if they did nothing. It has highlighted further their differences with the EU and at the same time falls short of hurting Russia in any meaningful way.

    On Wednesday Jean Claude Juncker had the following to say:

    “If the US sanctions specifically disadvantage EU companies trading with Russia in the energy sector the EU is prepared to take appropriate steps in response within days,”
    “We are ready. We must defend our economic interests vis-à-vis the United States, and we will do that,”

    The rift continues to widen and this time Trump isn’t the convenient scapegoat.

  2. With no evidence or expertise whatsoever, it seems to me that whether Sanctions against a country work or not is directly related to the reaction of the people of that country and how much power they have, whether through a democratic vote or the possibility of revolt.

    If the government in power feel that their people will react negatively to the government over sanctions, then there might be some movement. If the government think the people will react against those imposing the sanctions, then that government will feel empowered.

    With the DPRK, I doubt they even care what the people think since what the people KNOW is not necessarily the truth. If Kim Jong-un and those that can pull his strings feel they can still operate freely and just put the cost of the sanctions onto his people without them revolting, then that is what they will do. Since the people are quite literally told what to think and how to react, there is no influence at all either one way or another.

    In that case, the only reason for the sanctions is so that countries like the US are seen to be doing something and looking strong to the rest of the world, especially to any other states that might be wandering in the direction of North Korea.

    There has always been a political case for posturing, sadly, but whether that is a good or proper way to do diplomatic business in our modern, highly connected world, is debatable.

    • I would say you are right. The first rule of despotism is to give your army and security forces special status. Better conditions for them, and crucially, their families. Not only do you buy loyalty, you tie them into your success or failure. By the time sanctions are applied, the countries with this type of leadership are normally already in dire economic straits so the effect is often negligible. If you are used to eating three rotten potatoes for tea then a total ban on western imports into your country isn’t going to change your life. As Tim points out, there is also normally at least one state who will see the sanctions as an opportunity for them to extend their influence in that country, normally providing the vital commodities needed to stay viable.

      Against Russia, posturing is all the US can do, it doesn’t even have it’s traditional allies on board for real sanctions. Increasingly it would seem that posturing is the only strategy with North Korea also. Arrange some more sanctions, fly a few aging bombers over South Korea, talk about consequences and that’s probably the default US response against any nation with something better than a 3rd rate military. There is simply no appetite in the US for tens of thousands of dead soldiers, and why should there be.

      I thought that the recent comments of the DPRK ambassador to the UK were interesting.

      “As you have read in newspapers, the US has been attacking only the weak countries, including Afghanistan and Libya,”

      “They cannot actually attack the strong countries, although they talk about it.

      “We have to have nuclear power. We have shown our strong military power and nuclear power this April. Because of our strong military power, the US could not attack us first.”

      • I sometimes wonder if part of the whole problem here is the emphasis put on the US as “leader of the western democratic world.” I doubt I am not the only one who is uncomfortable with a country over which I have no influence having top billing (whether they are good or not), given the fact that I don’t feel I have any influence over my OWN country most of the time!

        The US, like most richer western countries, has been pretty two-faced in how it has dealt with non-democratic countries. Happily selling arms or fuel to both a Despot and a Democrat. The UK has done similar, though with a different history. It is interesting that the US was and is very critical of Great Britain’s imperial past, and yet both countries have ended up in the same place with similar thinking.

        In the end, sanctions are, possibly by necessity, opportunistic. Russia has often not backed sanctions proposed by the EU and US because they rely on the trade with the very countries that are being affected. It is too easy to forget that despite a big army and a ridiculous amount of territory (most of it sparsely populated), that Russia is not a trading powerhouse like China and the US. Sanctions against countries that Russia has trading relationships can hurt Russia’s economy, let alone any idealistic/political objections they may have.

        This has also been a problem in Europe. The US does not need Russian gas, but some European countries rely on it.

        I think this is only going to get more complicated. With modern communications and many of the products that are vital to economies now being digital rather than physical, global trade will get harder and harder for traditional nations to manage without them becoming more draconian. That undermines at least some of the impact of sanctions. Russia has already shown that you can have a leader who would like to see USSR 2.0 but also has a world-capitalist outlook. China is now similar, a very different beast to 30 years ago.

        Hmm, it makes me wonder if the true death of democracy will be simply that we trade it away in exchange for advantage at the top table. At which point, sanctions become meaningless. Even the US might not be able to resist that drift.

        Sorry, that was all a bit waffly!

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