Sanctions: A Curse or a Blessing?

This Thursday, February 12th, representatives from all 28 EU member states will meet in Brussels to deliberate renewal of sanctions launched in response to Russian involvement in Ukraine. Regardless of the EU decision, one thing is clear: the strategy of economic sanctions has failed, as it historically always has. It’s a tactic which harms the citizens of the targeted nation, but fails to pressure the leadership. And as one can see in Russia, sanctions often even reinforce the targeted leaders by feeding them a scapegoat for their problems.

President Obama in the State of the Union praised the sanctions “demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy,” but the results don’t look good: the war in Ukraine rages more violently than ever, with rebels capturing Donetsk Airport and shelling Mariupol; Kiev has been losing as much as $10 million a day and borrowed new funds from the IMF; so many Ukrainians flee to Russia that the parliament has authorized local commanders to shoot deserters and is considering drafting women; and Putin’s popularity at home is as strong as ever. Though the ruble has collapsed, the pro-Russian foothold in Ukraine remains steadfast, and Obama’s SOTU self-congratulation seems as unearned as Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished.”

This is in line with sanctions’ historical track record. As Obama declared immediately following his comment on Russia, we are now acknowledging that such sanctions have failed in Cuba, nearly 60 years after we implemented them. Economic sanctions on North Korea have been in place for years with no improvement – they tested allegedly new missiles earlier this week.

Instead, sanctions punish countries by isolating them from the world. We push already-insular North Korea further into itself, cut Cuba out of the Americas, and alienate Russia from the West. But when we isolate countries, this leads to defensiveness, nationalism, and xenophobia. It’s great for state propaganda.
In Russia, one hears everywhere that Western sanctions are to blame for everyone’s money troubles. It’s the common refrain, from Putin down to the Russian public. Fruit has disappeared from stores or doubled in price? Blame Western sanctions. Your savings have been decimated by hyperinflation? It’s the sanctions.

Sanctions are the civilized world’s replacement for military pressure against out-of-step nations. But the similar effect on a seemingly besieged population means a leader facing sanctions enjoys the same boost of popularity as the war time leader.

Americans remember well how, immediately following the September 11th attacks, President Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed to 90% and stayed in the 80-90 range for four months thereafter. Putin is no stranger to these boosts – he first climbed 50 percentage points after Chechen separatists bombed Moscow apartments a month into his first term as Prime Minister, and his approval reached its all-time high of 88% just after Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia.

The terrorist attacks on their nations gave Bush and Putin a patriotic ethos: “rally with me against the terrorists.” Considering the accompanying popularity surges, little wonder that Russia Today trumpeted Bolivian President Evo Morales’s characterization of the sanctions as “economic terrorism.”

But Bush’s ratings sank to dismal levels as the Iraqi occupation dragged on fruitlessly, and as Putin’s victories faded into the past his too had fallen to record lows by the start of the Ukrainian conflict. Sanctions, on the other hand, seem to be the gift that keeps on giving. Putin’s ratings have stayed in the 80-90 range for nearly a year since rising 15 percentage points in the first 2 months of last year.
The unavoidable truth about sanctions is that they backfire spectacularly because they only impact the common citizens of the targeted nation, never reaching the regimes in charge.

It doesn’t matter how much sanctions hurt the citizenry. It doesn’t matter that, for example, my acquaintances in St. Petersburg now rarely buy green vegetables because the price of a head of lettuce exceeds that of a pound of meat, or that a colleague in Moscow saw his real wage effectively cut in half by the ruble’s collapse. Just as it didn’t matter how much more Cuban infrastructure stagnated due to the embargo, and it doesn’t matter how much more difficult life is made for the already horrifically oppressed North Korean people. Even a neglected child will cling to their parent when threatened by a stranger.

Instead, what we hand those regimes is an excuse. In George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopic government maintained fearful patriotism in the population in part by waging perpetual war. In replacing military action with sanctions, rather than real diplomacy, all we’ve done is provide Putin an alternative way to conjure a modernized specter of that same patriotism in his own populace.