There may be individual factors that inspire greater optimism regarding the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia.
The scholarly consensus that economic sanctions are ineffective in coercing a target government to make major policy changes clashes with continued calls for sanctions by Western politicians and policymakers in crisis situations. Just because sanctions do not work as a general rule, however, does not mean that they cannot work in an individual case. Individual circumstances may make a particular country more susceptible to sanctions than others. Arguing that sanctions are ineffective is not the same as arguing that they can never be effective.
When it comes to adjudicating whether or not economic sanctions will be successful in coercing Vladimir Putin and the Russian government to stop their aggressive foreign policy actions in Eastern Ukraine and Eastern Europe more generally, it is important to analyse the individual factors at play in the Russian case before determining a priori whether or not sanctions will be effective. Due primarily to Russia’s authoritarian government, nationalist underpinnings and the inability to credibly couple sanctions to military action, it is unlikely that sanctions will have much effect. In fact, they may backfire and solidify, rather than weaken, Russia’s opposition to Western Europe and the United States.
The classic argument that economic sanctions are an ineffective tool of coercion is Robert Pape’s 1997 analysis of 115 separate uses of sanctions from 1914 to 1990. Pape found that in only 5 cases (4% of the time) sanctions caused a target government to alter their policies substantially.1 While some scholars have argued that policy change is not an adequate measure of the “success” of sanctions,2 the lesser barriers that such scholars propose, such as cost imposition or rallying of domestic support, do not seem an adequate substitute, especially in the case of the current debate over Russia. The main goal of such sanctions appears to be policy change, not some lower standard. More recent evaluations of the effectiveness of sanctions have reinforced Pape’s conclusions about their ineffectiveness and further added that “smart” sanctions, which target individuals or select groups, are also ineffective.3
Still, there may be individualised factors that make sanctions successful in a particular case without breaking the general rule of their overall ineffectiveness. Some of the major factors that appear to affect whether or not sanctions are successful in an individual case are: 1) the regime type in the target country; 2) the level of nationalism in the target country; and 3) whether or not sanctions can credibly be linked to the threat or actual use of military force. With regard to regime type, democratic governments are often thought to be more susceptible to sanctions since they are responsive to the suffering and needs of their citizens.4 Furthermore, sanctions, like other forms of coercion, often trigger outpourings of nationalist sentiment that inhibit the effectiveness of sanctions since such outbursts make people more willing to endure the suffering that comes with sanctions.5 Finally, it is supposed that sanctions will be more effective if they serve as the precursor to potential or actual military action.6
How might these individual factors influence the effectiveness of the recent round of sanctions against Russia? In each case it would appear that Russia is a uniquely inappropriate environment for sanctions to succeed.
With regard to democratic governance, it is clear that the authoritarian nature of the Russian government headed by Vladimir Putin contrasts strongly with the ideal responsive democratic government that would cave under sanctions. The Putin government, while certainly interested in maintaining its grip on power, cares more about regime security then the well-being of the Russian population. Certainly the two are connected in so far as domestic unrest caused by sanctions might eventually grow to challenge Putin’s government. Still, such an occurrence seems unlikely. Authoritarian governments, including Putin’s, generally rule through a combination of fear and a stranglehold on government functions. Assuming that rival elites have not been completely eliminated, authoritarian governments depend on either the explicit or implicit consent of other elites to stay out of politics. While it is tempting to imagine that the effect of sanctions on broad sectors of the economy will disproportionately hurt Russian oligarchs, thus bringing them into conflict with Putin, this is unlikely. Authoritarian governments, such as Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, have generally been able to limit the impact of sanctions on themselves and those in their immediate circle.
High levels of nationalism in Russia will also contribute to the ineffectiveness of Western-led sanctions. The aggressive foreign policy moves undertaken by Putin, such as the decision to annex Crimea, have been couched in nationalistic terms that enjoy wide support within Russia. Even if the Russian government is generally not responsive to public opinion, it is clear that if public sentiment aligns with government goals and propaganda then it will make it easier to stay the course. Nationalism surges as a result of sanctions since suffering can be easily blamed on external forces. This triggers the population to band together on the basis of shared identity against the external foe. Nationalism helps explain why populations can endure great suffering in war that far exceeds the level of violence brought about by sanctions.7 Even if sanctions do cause discomfort or suffering in Russia, this might actually contribute to the failure of sanctions by solidifying public support behind, not against, the Russian government.
The relationship between the use of military force and sanctions is a complicated one. Some authors have suggested that sanctions either serve as a first step towards the use of military force or have a negative effect on the military preparedness of a target nation, thus accelerating their collapse if force is used.8 Other authors, however, dispute the positive connection between sanctions, the use of force and policy change.9 It is extremely unlikely that the United States or countries in Western Europe are seriously considering the use of military force in Eastern Ukraine. Apart from the considerable logistical challenge of such action, the risk of escalation to a large-scale conflict between the West and Russia is far too great. No author suggests that removing the threat of military force increases the efficacy of sanctions. Therefore, even if it is an open question whether the use of military force increases the effectiveness of sanctions, it is likely that its removal as a policy option will decrease the effectiveness of sanctions. If the Russians know that there is an upper limit to actions that the West is willing to take, then they know that the suffering they will have to endure is similarly limited.
There may be other individual factors that inspire greater optimism regarding the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia, such as the large number of countries that have signed up to the sanctions, the interconnectedness of the Russian economy to that of Western Europe, and the ultimate low salience of future aggression as part of Russian political plans. External events, such as the downing of flight MH17 by separatists in Eastern Ukraine, might also shift the circumstances surrounding the crisis in ways that bring about the desired goals of sanctions without requiring that sanctions themselves be effective. Nevertheless, given that much of the debate surrounding sanctions has focused on rhetoric rather than analysis, it is important to recognise the very real challenges that the sanctioning countries will face in engendering policy change. The potential costs of future Russian aggression in Eastern Europe are high enough that such a policy should be vigorously, and perhaps violently, opposed. If sanctions are not going to be effective in blunting Russian ambition and goals, then other measures need to be put on the table rather than continuing to debate ineffective measures because such measures are easier to propose.
1 Robert Pape, “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” International Security 22, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 90–136.
2 David A. Baldwin, “The Sanctions Debate and the Logic of Choice,” International Security 24, no. 3 (Winter 1999/2000): 80–107.
3 Daniel Drezner, “Sanctions Sometimes Smart,” International Studies Review 13 (2011): 96–108.
4 Ibid., 99.
5 Pape, “Why Sanctions Do Not Work,” 106–7.
6 Kimberly Ann Elliot, “The Sanctions Glass: Half Full or Completely Empty?” International Security 23, no. 1 (Summer 1998): 50–65.
7 Robert Pape, Bombing to Win (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
8 Kimberly Ann Elliot, “The Sanctions Glass: Half Full or Completely Empty?”
9 Daniel Drezner, “The Hidden Hand of Economic Coercion,” International Organization 57 (Summer 2003): 643–59 (p. 650).
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.