Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | March 4, 2014

Russia, Ukraine, and the Effectiveness of Sanctions

As I write this, it looks as though Putin may be taking steps to begin deescalating the tense situation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Helpfully, he says that, although Russia reserves the right to use “all means at our disposal” to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, he sees “no such necessity” at this time, and so for now Russia will not be invading any additional parts of Ukraine. Clarissa characterizes this latest rhetoric as Putin “blinking,” but I think it worth emphasizing that the Russian troops already in Crimea apparently aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Since military responses are “not on the table” — for a host of good reasons — the discussion of Western responses has focused on economic sanctions (and close cousins to economic sanctions, like visa restrictions). A natural question to ask is, Do sanctions work? I think the answer is Yes, if done right, provided we have a clear and realistic idea of what qualifies as working. As Dan Drezner says, sanctions will not work miracles like regime change. However, sanctions, when well designed, can exert pressure on influential people within a country. For example:

One thing that could really tip the balance here is introducing visa restrictions. Just let the Russians know that it will be a tad harder for them to travel to Europe and the US, and this will help Ukraine enormously. The only people who will suffer because of this measure are the bandits because regular folks in Russia are not likely to jet set all over the world, as you can imagine.

Visa restrictions are also one of the five non-military responses suggested in this ThinkProgress piece. (H/T: Anderson.)

Tyler Cowen has a post — “Do economic sanctions work?” — looking at some of the scholarship on sanctions, with an emphasis on Drezner’s work. Among other items, Cowen points to this 2003 paper (pdf, 18 pages), wherein Drezner writes:

There are numerous episodes of Russia successfully threatening its neighbors with economic coercion and extracting significant concessions, including the transfer of nuclear weapons. In 1990, the Bush administration explicitly and successfully linked the approval of a trade agreement with the Soviet Union to Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise not to intervene militarily in Lithuania.

In other words: “the most successful coercion episodes are likely to end before sanctions are imposed.”

Sanctions will not force Putin from power, and they will not fundamentally change the Russian regime. But sanctions may pressure Russia to take specific actions. Sanctions — or the threat of sanctions — may induce Russia to leave Crimea. And that would be a good thing.



  1. If threats of sanctions are not enough, and if sanctions are imposed, it is also important to give sanctions time to work. (Even if they are not pain-free for the powers imposing the sanctions.) Some time ago, in a slightly different context, Jim Henley wrote: “what we see over and over again is that we judge high-road approaches as failures unless they produce nigh-instant and complete favorable results, while we show nearly infinite patience for journeys down the low road.” (In the context of that post, Henley classifies sanctions as part of the “low road” along with war and blockades; but I think his point can also apply in the closer distinction between war and sanctions.)

    We should not expect instant results from non-military approaches, like sanctions and the give-and-take of traditional diplomacy; but the past decade of US military action in Iraq and Afghanistan should adequately demonstrate that military approaches do not always produce instantaneous positive results.

  2. Putin has no further territorial demands, in other words?… I do think sanctions would work, if the EU got on board, but I doubt that it will.

    • Maybe we can organize an Olympic boycott… oh, wait…

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