Why Sanctions on Russia Will Fail Without Diplomacy | Opinion

In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and its Western allies have put together a devastating package of sanctions that is already wreaking havoc on the Russian economy. In addition to policies aimed at Russian elites like seizing the yachts of oligarchs, these sanctions include restrictions on trade with large Russian banks, freezing their assets and kicking some of them out of the SWIFT payment system.

It is of course proper to express moral outrage against Russia's invasion and attacks on civilians. And yet, there are good reasons to believe that the response has been driven more by emotion than reason, which is unfortunate because relying on moral outrage as a guide to policy can cloud judgment and make it difficult if not impossible to achieve desirable outcomes. In the case of Ukraine, those outcomes are urgent: minimizing economic damage and the loss of life. So it is incumbent on us to think carefully about what sanctions can—and cannot—accomplish in a case like this.

Perhaps the best place to start is what the scholarly literature says about sanctions more generally. And the literature is clear: By and large, they do not work. The U.S. has sanctioned dozens of countries over the decades, and there are few unambiguous cases of them changing behavior in important ways.

Moreover, in recent years, scholars have presented evidence that in addition to the economic damage that they do, sanctions are associated with a number of undesirable outcomes. These include increasing repression within targeted countries and making transitions to democracy less likely.

It's not difficult to see why: Governments care about their fundamental security interests above all else. The more important they perceive an issue to be, the less likely they are to let economic considerations influence their decision making. This is especially the case because elites are able to maintain a high standard of living even during bad economic times, which hurt poor people the most.

In his study analyzing a database of economic sanctions, the political scientist Robert Pape finds only five cases of them working; three of those cases involved relatively trivial concessions while in two others, it was ambiguous whether restrictions on trade were a determining factor in the outcome.

As it turns out, when leaders face sanctions that cause economic damage and can potentially turn public opinion against them, they tend to choose increasing repression over making concessions or giving up power.

This means that, in the case of Ukraine, the most important question is how much Russia cares about the future of that country. In debates surrounding the causes of the war, there have emerged two major camps. One argues that Russia is reacting much like any other country would to NATO expanding into its backyard. The other view stresses ideology, arguing that Putin is either a Russian nationalist who denies the possibility of an independent Ukraine or that he sees democracy on his doorstep as an existential threat to his regime.

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But when it comes to the efficacy of sanctions, it doesn't matter which of these views is closer to the truth, because both sides agree on one crucial thing: What happens in Ukraine is of fundamental importance to Putin and his government, whether for reasons having to do with classical security concerns or ideology. We therefore should not expect sanctions to break the regime. Much smaller and weaker countries—North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, and Saddam-era Iraq—have been willing to tolerate extreme forms of deprivation when regime survival or national security has been at stake. Furthermore, the sanctions on Russia are far from the most extreme any nation has faced, as the EU is still too dependent on Russian energy for a complete break.

And as Pape's analysis would predict, since the war started, Russia has become more repressive at home, with the government clamping down on the last independent sources of media in the country. This follows the pattern of other rogue regimes that have been made poor and desperate by U.S. sanctions but remained willing to suffer through them rather than capitulate.

Moreover, if we really believe that the suffering of civilians can force governments to surrender or sue for peace, then the Ukrainians might be expected to be the first to do so; right now, the Russian army is blockading cities, bombing them, and cutting off their food and power in the hope that they will submit to occupation. Whatever pain the U.S. and EU can inflict on Russia, what Russia can do to Ukraine is much worse because it includes military force, even if the latter may have more resolve because it is fighting in its own country. The current sanctions policy risks a cruel race to the bottom in which the more the West makes Russia suffer, the more pain Russia inflicts on Ukraine, all leading to the same outcome in the end.

The U.S. and EU have so far admirably shown a willingness to provide humanitarian assistance and welcome refugees from the conflict, but these efforts are likely to be negated by sanctions and the reaction to them.

But all hope is not lost. There is something that the U.S. can add to a sanctions regime that turns them from an amplifier of misery to a strategy for change. There have been two notable successes that U.S. sanctions can claim over the last decade: the transition to democracy in Myanmar and the Iranian nuclear deal. These cases demonstrate that it is at least possible for sanctions to work if they are paired with serious diplomatic efforts. In neither situation, however, did the U.S. ask the country it was negotiating with to give up territory. In the case of Myanmar, although the generals in charge were willing to facilitate a transition to democracy, the deal they ultimately agreed to left them with enough power in parliament and the ministries to overrule any changes to the new constitution that would further dilute their influence. And in the case of Iran, the regime gave up the ability to make nuclear weapons it claimed it did not want anyway.

Meanwhile, when the Trump administration pulled out of the JCPOA and enacted new sanctions in an attempt to fundamentally change Iranian foreign policy in other areas or achieve regime change in Tehran, its efforts failed.

Thus, even successful uses of sanctions teach us that if the U.S. wants to use economic pressure to end the conflict in Ukraine, it is going to have to moderate its ambitions.

What would that look like? Consider the approach favored by French President Emmanuel Macron, who talked of the West and Russia potentially agreeing to a "new security order" in Europe. At the very least, this would involve the West being willing to recognize the annexation of Crimea, which will forever remain under the control of Moscow no matter what other countries do. Even Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition figure who has become a hero in the West, will do no more than call for a second referendum to determine the future of the peninsula. Great powers do not give territory they consider their own back, and any politician serious about settling the current conflict will have to accept that fact.

The appeal of sanctions as a tool to change behavior is straightforward. War with Russia is unthinkable, and the Biden administration has wisely ruled out establishing a no-fly zone in Ukraine. At the same time, moral outrage over the invasion leads to demands that we "do something," regardless of whether or not the policies we choose are effective.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the West can sanction its way to a desirable outcome in Ukraine. In the end, the results of the war will be determined by negotiations, the terms of which will for the most part reflect battlefield realities. Economic pressure may also have a role to play, but there is nothing to suggest that it can be relied on to make Russia abandon its core national security interests, which at the very least include a no-NATO commitment, the acceptance of the secession of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the recognition of the annexation of Crimea. Russia recently said that if Ukraine can accept those conditions, the war could stop "in a moment."

Any talks might of course fail, but maximalist demands from the Ukrainians and their Western supporters that do not take Russian core interests into account are all but sure to lead to more escalation and despair. The sooner we become more realistic about what sanctions can and cannot accomplish, the sooner we can begin to have an honest discussion about what kind of settlement we are able to live with if we are not willing to go to war.

Richard Hanania is the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology and a Research Fellow at Defense Priorities (Twitter: @RichardHanania).

The views in this article are the writer's own.