The increased sanctions on Russia give the world the illusion that real action is being taken in Ukraine, but will they have any effect on Putin’s decision-making? History suggests that this is quite unlikely.
In fact, the entire theory behind sanctions is fundamentally flawed, since it assumes that strongmen like Putin will change their policies if enough pain is inflicted on them, their cronies, and their populations.
This theory was outlined by an unnamed senior Biden administration official who explained to CNN on Wednesday that as a result of escalating sanctions against Russia, Putin would eventually have to face his people.
Well maybe. Strong men usually don’t care much about the feelings of their people and preside over governments that ban freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. They have also typically amassed vast mountains of ill-gotten wealth in their own countries, and thus may no longer need access to the international financial system to keep their nests extremely well feathered.
Let us not forget that after Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia was subjected to a series of sanctions by the US and the EU. Those sanctions did nothing to deter Putin from clinging to Crimea, nor from waging a proxy war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine for eight years during which more than 14,000 people were killed.
For many years, the US and the UN have imposed increasingly punitive sanctions on the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which have not stopped Kim from continuing and even expanding his nuclear program.
Meanwhile, for more than a decade, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has imprisoned, tortured and murdered large sections of his own population despite an ever-increasing set of US sanctions that began in earnest in 2011 when war broke out. Syrian civilian. Today, Assad has effectively won that war.
In the years before the 9/11 attacks, the UN sanctioned the Taliban because they were protecting Al Qaeda. None of this deterred the Taliban from continuing to harbor Al Qaeda, which launched the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.
Now, of course, the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. More than half of the cabinet-level appointees to the Taliban government announced in September have some form of UN sanction against them. None of that stopped the Taliban from announcing last month that girls older than sixth grade would not be able to attend school.
For its part, the Trump administration increased sanctions against the authoritarian socialist regime of Nicolás Maduro. Today, Maduro remains in power while the Venezuelan population is increasingly impoverished.
This is an area where sanctions tend to take their toll: they impoverish the populations of the countries to which the sanctions apply.
Exhibit A of this is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq. Nearly a decade later, the Red Cross found that in Iraq “wages are as low as $2 a month, there is about 50% unemployment.” Meanwhile, Saddam’s grip on power remained as firm as ever.
And don’t even get me started on Cuba, which the United States has sanctioned since the Kennedy administration. Cuba is now experiencing its worst economic crisis in three decades, while the Communist Party remains in control of the island, six decades after US sanctions first took effect.
To be fair, the Iranian regime’s “smart” actions that made it difficult for Iran to connect to the international financial system brought the Iranians to the negotiating table during the Obama administration. That led to the nuclear deal in 2015 that halted the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
But when the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran, the Iranians expanded their nuclear program and are now closer to having a nuclear weapon than at any time in the past.
One of the only cases where sanctions appear to have produced the desired result was against the apartheid regime in South Africa. International sanctions appear to have contributed to South Africa’s decision to end apartheid in the early 1990s.
Instead of turning the Russian population against Putin, the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West seem to have produced a rallying around the flag effect for the Russian leader.
An independent Russian poll released in late March found that 83% of Russians approved of Putin’s actions, up from 69% in January. Even allowing for some Russians to tell pollsters what they think they are supposed to say, Putin appears to be more popular today than he was at the beginning of the year.
The “reckoning” that Putin is supposed to face on the part of the Russian people does not appear to be underway, yet. That, of course, could change as the US and its allies impose some of the strictest sanctions ever imposed on any state on Russia. But if the West wants to do anything effective to undermine Putin’s war in Ukraine, sanctions are unlikely to be an effective tool.
What would likely be effective, aside from continuing to supply Javelins and Stinger anti-tank missiles that are effective against helicopters, is arming the Ukrainians with as many S-300 missiles as possible, according to a group of senior retired US military officials. and former Eastern European defense ministers who published an open letter to this effect last month.
The S-300s can shoot down high-flying Russian jets and ballistic missiles, creating a de facto no-fly zone over Ukraine that would stop short of instituting a formal no-fly zone enforced by jet aircraft, a move the US .and NATO have dismissed Russia with nuclear weapons as too provocative.
Sanctions are feel-good measures for sanctioning states, but they mostly inflict pain on the populations of those sanctioned, while leaving their rulers in place on their ill-gotten heaps of spoils determined to enforce their will.