We are just over a year into the Russia-Ukraine war, and yet the much-hyped economic sanctions from the West appear to have had little effect in persuading the Kremlin to back down. If anything, the opposite is true.
That’s a shame, because so far 300,000 people died in the conflict, according to some estimates. And the sanctions didn’t help.
Last week I was invited to speak on the issue of sanctions Detroit’s NPR radio station based on a story I wrote for Time magazine just as hostilities broke out last year.
Alas, the episode with the title Why Sanctions Against Russia Won’t Work, has stood the test of time. Everyone would be better off if the sanctions worked and the war ended.
However, it didn’t work out that way. What almost always happens with sanctions happened.
Let me quickly jump to the highlights from the WDET broadcast.
On the show, a proponent of sanctions said that these economic edicts are working because the Russian economy is collapsing. That’s right, Russia’s economy is shrinking by 3.7% in the last quarter, compared to gains of 3.5% in the first quarter of 2022. according to TradingEconomics.
However, as far as I can see, the purpose of the sanctions was not to crush the Russian economy. Rather, it was to change the mindset of people in the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin, and get the Russian military to back down. In that sense it failed. Putin did nothing to withdraw. Instead, he responded to his army’s fruitless efforts by calling up more troops and throwing them into Ukraine.
That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. As my sources argued in the Time article, the problem when a country is sanctioned is that the population tends to rally around the metaphorical flag. This case represents overwhelming support for the Kremlin. Last month, more than 80% of the population expressed support for Putin, according to Statista data. This is more than in September.
The sanctions have also not stopped Russia from selling oil, one of its key exports. Oil production is slightly lower than before the invasion, but still remains above levels 10 million barrels per day.
You can bet that if a country mines or pumps oil, then the black gold goes to other countries like China. It’s also hard to see how the lousy Russian economy could consume 10 million barrels a day for itself.
History should also tell us that sanctions don’t work. Cuba has not fared any better despite decades of US sanctions.
Neither has Iran’s theocratic regime, sanctioned since the regime’s inception – in fact, the Islamic Republic has actively sent its Quds Expeditionary Force, part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, to other countries to wreak havoc around the world, including Syria, Iraq and others. locations, according to reports.
Is there anything good about sanctions against Russia? Maybe.
In the broadest sense, sanctions are a way for political leaders to send a virtue signal to the domestic population. Put simply, it would be something along the lines of: ‘I’m horrified by the misery Russia has caused, so I’m going to penalize them.’
If the goal is that simple, then it succeeded. But it has done little to persuade the Kremlin to stop its unprovoked and unnecessary war.