These actions resonate in an emotionally charged public debate as both sensible and the least we can do. Americans and Europeans are outraged by the atrocities of the invasion, yet most do not want to send their own troops into battle. But we mustn’t fool ourselves. Imposing economic sanctions, like the blockades and embargoes that accompany them, is every bit as much an act of war as a cross-border invasion would be. True, it comes without as much blood in the streets. But we should remember, too, that sanctions simply aren’t going to work—in neither economic nor political terms.
What’s worse, they are going to backfire on the sanctions-imposing nations of the West.
We can think of sanctions as the modern form of banishment. In premodern times, banishment was a powerful political tool used to punish opponents, miscreants, and heterodox dissenters. Shakespeare’s Romeo sees banishment from his fair city of Verona, and his beloved Juliet, as a fate worse than death:
Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say “death”;
For exile hath more terror in his look,
Much more than death. Do not say “banishment”!
There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence “banished” is banish’d from the world,
And world’s exile is death; then “banished”
Is death misterm’d. Calling death “banished,”
Thou cut’st my head off with a golden axe,
And smilest upon the stroke that murders me.
Shakespeare portrayed banishment as a dangerous double-edged sword, as his political saga Richard II also illustrates. King Richard exiled his cousin and political adversary Henry Bolingbroke, only to see Bolingbroke later return with an army and supportive nobles to successfully overthrow Richard’s kingdom and claim the throne for himself.
Modern sanctions similarly attempt to banish a rogue country, and its leadership, from the global village of the West by cutting off access to finances, trade, and the international interconnectivity upon which modern society presumably depends. The narrative is simple and clean, and plays well as a media soundbite.
Its logic is flawed, however, and begins with a false assumption. The assumption is that the target country feels like a member of a club—is part of the family or community—from which it is to be exiled, and will pay nearly any price to regain its good standing. In other words, sanctions work better against a straying ally than against an adversary that has already hardened its resolve and affirmed its enmity. The main impact of the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia following its invasion of the Crimea in 2014 was an increase in Putin’s popularity and Russian nationalism generally. They also hurt Western exporters more than the Russian economy. Why Western leadership doesn’t appreciate this recent lesson is befuddling.
What Do Sanctions Hope to Achieve?
The stated goals of the current round of sanctions include getting Russia out of Ukraine and potentially even toppling Putin’s government. That this second objective has been spoken out loud by the West’s leaders is foolish and likely only serves to stiffen Putin’s determination.
Sanctions may sound good in theory, but do they work in the real world? History suggests they do not.
The U.S. State Department says that sanctions are “adopted to counter threats to national security posed by particular activities and countries.” Yet it is hard to see how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine directly or indirectly impacts U.S. national security. The Biden Administration and U.S. congressional leadership have talked in vague terms about the threat to global democracy and the danger of imperialism, but have failed to demonstrate how the fate of America is intertwined with Ukraine’s. They have also mentioned the need to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine’s borders, a claim that rings exceptionally hollow considering how they have abandoned America’s own borders. The State Department also says that they maintain and enforce sanctions “to maximize their economic impact on our targets and minimize the damage to U.S. economic interests.”
This goal will fail miserably. As an economic tool, sanctions are ineffective, and mostly resound to the imposing countries whose own economies, and industrial manufacturing concerns in particular, suffer. As I write in Why America Matters:
Iran has been under various forms of economic sanctions for most of the 40 years since the seizure of the U.S. embassy by Islamic revolutionary forces in 1979. President Reagan, as well as every successive U.S. administration, believed that economic pressure and diplomatic isolation would be enough to break the will of Iran and, eventually, bring about regime change. These expectations have proven unrealistic.
While sanctions have been effective in isolating Iran and reducing the economy to rubble, they have permanently embittered Iranian leaders and citizens against the U.S. Iranian resolve has hardened to resist what they believe is America’s objective: to destabilize the regime and destroy the country. More than anything, sanctions and military strikes have emboldened the radicals’ anti-American stance, which allowed them to win support from moderates within the country.
In other words, decades of sanctions against Iran have done little to change the political situation and, in fact, have made it worse, by pitting Iran and its proxies against American interests around the world. The authoritarian regimes of communist Cuba and pseudo-socialist Venezuela have similarly managed to survive for decades in the face of economic isolation from the United States.
Go back further in 20th-century history and the illustrations are legion. The U.S.-U.K. weapons embargo against the apartheid government did little more than motivate South Africa to develop its own eventually thriving and export-driven arms industry. The Allies’ attempts to embargo Nazi Germany similarly forced it to develop its own highly successful war-materials and hydrocarbon industries. These moves also pressured Adolf Hitler, against the judgment of his general staff, to seek to conquer what is now modern Ukraine to capture the Caucasus oil fields and its agriculture. It would prove that only an all-encompassing military confrontation would work to defeat Nazism.
Later, Western economic sanctions against the Soviet Union—including President Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo following the invasion of Afghanistan, which mostly hurt American farmers—similarly failed in any meaningful sense if measured over less than a half century. Even the lessons of colonial America’s successful overcoming of British blockades before and during the Revolutionary War seem to have been forgotten.
These are inconvenient facts. Perhaps this is the reason that sanctions apologists fall back on the argument that sanctions are not an economic tool as much as a political tool drawn from the public-facing side of diplomacy. In other words, we must prove to our adversary, to ourselves, and to the world at large just how outraged we are by Russia’s actions, and the best way to prove this is with sanctions, even though they mostly hurt our own commercial enterprises and economies. Surely, we can’t “trade with the enemy,” so the best way to avoid this is to . . . shoot ourselves in the foot to prove just how serious we are. Are you following this logic?
Sanctions haven’t worked in modern history. So why does our leadership continue to insist that this time will be different?
Support of sanctions as the primary tool of “limited” war is not a particularly partisan position. Politicians and government officials across the spectrum, including some senior officials from the former Trump Administration, seem to believe—without much evidence other than that they are featured in the foreign policy playbook—that sanctions will work to bring down the Putin regime.
Instead, sanctions against Russia are going to substantially hurt American and Western interests by putting their food and energy security at risk, and by undermining the U.S. dominated global financial system. Here are a few examples of how this is already happening.