Sanctions May Sound “Nonviolent,” But They Quietly Hurt the Most Vulnerable

Today, people around the world are demonstrating against the disastrous Russian invasion of Ukraine, and rallying against potential escalation and expansion of the war by other world powers.

The current invasion is raising a dilemma for progressives in the U.S. who are sympathetic to the plight of the people of Ukraine, who believe that the invasion is abhorrent and unacceptable, and who want to stop Russia’s actions, but who question the notion that the U.S. can intervene in a way that is ultimately good and not harmful.

In particular, we are faced with the question of whether to support economic sanctions against Russia. Those of us who are grappling with the question are right to be skeptical.

If there were ever a hope for narrow sanctions targeting President Vladimir Putin and other individuals in the Russian oligarchy that would spare ordinary people of Russia, the possibility of such an approach has quickly evaporated. In the immediate days after the invasion began, the U.S. coordinated with the European Union, Japan and Canada to sanction Russia’s Central Bank and exclude Russia’s banks from SWIFT, the world’s primary inter-bank communication and currency exchange system. The result has been a crash of the Russian ruble. Individuals are lining up at ATMs and banks in Russia’s cities as they lose access to cash and see their savings threatened overnight.

Of course, those who have the fewest resources to survive in Russia — not the most powerful — will be hurt the most.

This was entirely predictable. As London-based financier and campaigner against Putin’s government Bill Browder told NPR about blocking Russia from SWIFT, “This is what was done against Iran. And it basically knocks them — any country that’s disconnected — back to the Dark Ages economically.”

The impact on Iran that Browder so casually refers to has been disastrous. Ostensibly meant to target the country’s regime for nefarious activities, U.S. sanctions have resulted in such isolation for the Iranian economy that the currency has crashed. The sanctions have especially impacted Iranian health care, severely undermining the country’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and producing shortages of medicines and medical supplies, particularly for people with rare illnesses. In other words, it is the most vulnerable who have suffered the most.

The experience of U.S. sanctions’ impacts around the world is important, especially because Washington and other Western capitals hold up sanctions as an alternative to war. We should understand them instead, however, as a weapon of war. Their devastating impact results in widespread suffering that may be quieter or less visible to most in the U.S. than an invasion or airstrikes are, but that is no less deadly.

Moreover, the U.S. has tended to combine a policy of sanctions with military operations — particularly in Iraq and Iran. The U.S. invaded Iraq in 1991 and imposed economic sanctions, and then invaded the country again in 2003. The U.S. bombed Iraq intermittently between the invasions while maintaining the sanctions — which led to the malnourishment of hundreds of thousands of children, promoted infectious disease outbreaks and disproportionately impacted people with disabilities in Iraq. And when Donald Trump unleashed his “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran, he did so while stationing aircraft carriers off of Iran’s coast and repeatedly threatening airstrikes.

The fact is that sanctions against Iraq in the past, Iran today, and perhaps Russia now, were designed to inflict harm on those countries’ populations with the objective of “regime change.” The sanitized term refers to actions of a government to change who is in power in another country. The U.S. uses economic sanctions to produce a level of misery in the places they target in order to foment unrest. Not only is this profoundly anti-democratic, it is also historically ineffective. The U.S. has maintained economic sanctions on Cuba, for example, since 1960 following the 1959 victory of the Revolution in that country. The government that came to power through the Cuban Revolution remains to this day, but generations of Cubans have suffered because of the U.S. embargo.

It is likely that economic sanctions will punish ordinary people in Russia for the horrendous actions of their leader. But there is an additional danger with a broader and more lasting impact: that the U.S. and its allies will take the opportunity of using sanctions in response to Putin’s invasion to re-legitimize the use of sanctions in general. If the policy of sanctions gets a new lease on life, the U.S. will continue to deploy it against countries — and most will have fewer resources than Russia does to mitigate the effects.

As those who want a more just world, it makes sense that we may feel pushed to support U.S. sanctions against Russia in the hope that it will force some restraint on Putin’s aggression. Unfortunately, the historic and current examples of U.S. sanctions regimes — and the sorts of sanctions that we are already seeing take shape in Western responses to Moscow’s invasion and their impacts — compel us to take a stance that is fundamentally critical of Washington’s use of sanctions rather than hopeful that they will benefit the people of Ukraine and the cause of peace.

We are called instead to find and create our own ways of building solidarity with Ukrainians, and be clear in demanding that our sympathies are not manipulated to build up U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) militarism — an outcome that will only produce more hardship. In fact, if we want the U.S. to respond to the situation in Eastern Europe, we should demand the demilitarization of the continent by the U.S. and NATO. There is absolutely no justification for Putin’s actions against Ukraine. But it is the case that the U.S. maintains nuclear weapons across the continent and has been adding to the militarization of Eastern Europe in particular in recent years. This includes the opening of a new naval base in Poland where a NATO missile system will be housed. That militarism escalates tensions. Right now, the people of Ukraine are paying the price.

As we find our own voice of protest, we can take tremendous inspiration from the outpouring of dissent in Russian cities against the war and in solidarity with Ukrainians. Our challenge is to build protest across borders that stands in solidarity with those facing the violence of war, and is independent — and defiant of — the governments where we reside.