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.