From Havana to Tehran to Pyongyang, the United States has often touted the effectiveness of economic sanctions in isolating an unfriendly government from the world. Such sanctions, which vary in their scope and their implementation, are intended to reprimand hostile action and also serve as a deterrent for continued hostile action. Whether or not you judge sanctions in the above mentioned cases as instances of success or failure, the limitations of these measures has become apparent this year with one particular country: Russia.
Following the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March, as well as with allegations that Russia has supported rebel elements in east Ukraine, the United States and the European Union implemented financial sanctions on Russian elite. The type of sanctions should well be noted. These freeze the assets of some top Russians but do not go as far, say, the sanctions on Iran, which have crippled Iranian industries, particularly in its energy exports. West and central Europe rely too much on Russian energy exports (and Russia is significantly stronger than Iran) for such wide-ranging sanctions to be a feasible course of action.
Are Sanctions Working?
According to United States President Barack Obama, these sanctions “are working as intended." If one uses the sample definition of sanctions I used above -- that they reprimand and deter -- this does not appear to be the reality.
Certainly, they have had some effect on Russia’s economy. Oleg Zasov of the Russian economic ministry noted recently that “the economy is close to recession.” However, a great deal of that stems from Russian defiance: in response to the sanctions imposed on it by the United States and the European Union, Russia banned Western food imports. While this Russian-made component does not explain entirely the reduction in economic growth, the fact is, the Russian ban can be turned off assuming a political desire to do so. Yes, ending the ban will not blunt the sanctions -- but higher energy prices moving into the winter and increasing turmoil in the Middle East will.
Increased Russian Involvement in Ukraine:
At the same time as the mixed results on Russia’s economy, the very incident that the sanctions are meant to reprimand Russia over has gotten worse, and Russia steadily increased its involvement. Rather than convince Russia to drop its support of rebel forces fighting the Ukrainian government, Russia has expanded its support.
Speaking at an emergency meeting in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, “Columns of heavy artillery, huge loads of arms and regular Russian servicemen came to the territory of Ukraine from Russia through the uncontrolled border area.” So not only has Russia maintained its cooperation with rebel troops -- even after those same rebels may well have downed flight MH17 using Russian weapons -- but it has gone so far as to enter Ukraine outright.
There’s certainly the argument that these latest revelations that Russia has entered Ukraine directly are misleading. Russia, for one, denies any intervention in Ukraine while many analysts would suggest that Russia has already been deploying troops to the country. However, the fact is, sanctions have evidently not stopped Russia from such behavior. The intent of the sanctions was to give a clear message to Russia to leave. This did not happen.
Beyond Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated its defiance. Russian warplanes violated American air defense zones near Alaska 16 times in the span of 10 days earlier in the month. Several days ago, Finland, a member of the European Union, alleges that Russian aircraft violated its airspace. In what way here was Russia reprimanded or deterred?
But alas, perhaps the sanctions have convinced the Russian public that their President, Vladimir Putin, should not be warmongering. These sanctions must have. Unfortunately, they did not. Last year, prior to this conflict kicking off, Russian approval of Mr. Putin was at 54%, a very low figure for him. In July, Gallup polling found that 83% of Russians approve of the job Mr. Putin is doing. Some of that approval does come from Russian state-owned media spinning the news into a way that benefits the government. But those same apparatuses were in place last year, when approval was low, so they are not a guarantor of complete support.
What I am suggesting here is that, if you want to send Russia a strong message of disapproval of its actions and warn it from further aggression, these weak sanctions are not the answer. In fact, they may have made things worse -- what concern does the West instill in Russia with these asset freezes? A concern over particular oligarch’s private fortunes stashed away in Western banks, but no more.