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article imageOp-Ed: Why the present sanctions on Russia will not work

By Ken Hanly     May 14, 2014 in Politics
An article in the Daily Beast by Meghan O'Sullivan argues that the sanctions in place today stand little chance of altering Putin's behavior in the Ukraine.
O'Sullivan notes that the US and EU are threatening more sanctions against Russia to deter attempts by Russia to meddle in the scheduled May 25 elections in the Ukraine. Given the events in some eastern cities in the Ukraine the coming elections are already facing problems in that some areas may not allow elections to take place. In any event O'Sullivan argues that the sanctions imposed on Russia must be "clarified, deepened, and integrated into a broader strategy that looks beyond Ukraine".
O' Sullivan observes that the view that sanctions rarely work is oversimplified. In some cases they do seem to have achieved their objective. Sanctions against Iran arguably helped bring that country to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. Sanctions against South Africa may have helped end apartheid. O'Sullivan suggests a number of factors relating to the success of sanctions.
First the sanctions must have clear goals attached to them and those imposing them must be unified in imposing them. O'Sullivan appears to think that the main goal of sanctions is to alter behavior and success is achieved only if behavior is altered. But in many cases this may not be the goal at all.
Sanctions may be imposed simply to impose penalties for behavior that is not approved by those who impose the sanctions. I expect that this is the main reason for the imposition of sanctions on Russia. The imposition of sanctions may have a political benefit to governments, imposing them as citizens see that their government is reacting to inflict costs on those who are described as aggressive, violators of international law etc. etc. Where military or other force is either unwise or politically impossible sanctions can be a substitute whether they alter behavior or not. In the section concerning the role of sanctions as part of a strategy using other tools as well, O'Sullivan recognizes that the goal of sanctions may just be to punish as in the case of Cuba but she is using this example as a way of showing that sanctions "do not work." They worked in that they punish Cuba and also they serve an internal political function within the US garnering votes for a government that retains the sanctions. Of course, O'Sullivan is correct that they did not result in regime change or the downfall of socialism in Cuba.
O'Sullivan claims that sanctions by themselves are simply one tool to be combined with other strategies. Sanctions must be accompanied by other tools such as military force, diplomacy , economic assistance and other tools that achieve desired ends. This depends upon what the ends are. Cuban sanctions did not achieve regime change but they did punish Cuba. Nevertheless, O'Sullivan's point holds true in most instances.
Unilateral trade and investment sanctions she claims are of limited use in a global market. However, the US is such a large and important economy that even unilateral sanctions can have considerable influence. However unilateral sanctions may have unintended negative effects for the sanctioning party. Sanctions on Russian banks have encouraged Russia to develop its own credit card system and decrease reliance on the dollar. It has also resulted in punitive fees on Mastercard and Visa for Russian operations. As O'Sullivan says such sanctions can end up creating costs for the sanctioning country .
O'Sullivan suggests that mild sanctions such as those against Russia cannot be expected to produce very significant results especially if the aim is to change behavior which is quite important to the country targeted. Sanctions were unlikely to deter Putin from annexation of Crimea since the Crimea is quite significant to Russian interests.
O'Sullivan argues that sanctions require time to work and they work better when other tools are used at the same time. Finally she points out that practice of "secondary sanctions" by which third countries are sanctioned when they violate unilateral sanctions imposed by another country often have quite negative results.
O'Sullivan applies her analysis to the present sanctions against Russia. She notes that there is no real consensus either within the US or EU about exactly what the sanctions are expected to achieve. Republicans would like to see the annexation of Crimea reversed according to O'Sullivan while Obama talks of changing Putin's "calculations."
Secondly, there is little evidence of combining the sanctions with other tools to "push back on Russia's aggressive behavior, past and future." Notice that it is just taken for granted that it is Russia's behavior that is aggressive. O'Sullivan nowhere suggests that the US and the West might have any responsibility for what is happening. Nor is it mentioned that in the case of Crimea there was an overwhelming vote in favor of annexation.The promise to Gorbachev that NATO would not move east was never kept. NATO members now border Russia. The color revolutions promoted by the west and the huge sums spent to influence political outcomes in the Ukraine are apparently nothing for Russia to get upset about and are no challenge to Russian interests.
O'Sullivan claims that relatively minor sanctions "are expected to deliver very ambitious results and are potentially reverse actions that have driven Putin's popularity rating above 70 per cent." She does not say who expects this or her grounds for saying this. I expect that most officials do not expect this at all. More likely many see the sanctions as at least doing something to show displeasure and punish to some degree and as politically necessary.
O'Sullivan points out what should be obvious anyway that the sanctions are not likely to undo Russia's annexation of the Crimea. She claims that they are not likely to deter Putin from "further meddling." O'Sullivan then examines whether "sectoral sanctions" against the Russian financial and energy realms have more chance of "scaling back Putin's ambitions to restore Russia' status as a global hegemon?" Surely it is the US in cooperation with EU that is establishing hegemony over all the countries bordering Russia on the west often accompanied by NATO protection. Yet it is Russia that needs to be curbed from its ambition to be a global hegemon. Western hegemony is also pursued through chaining development in countries such as the Ukraine to the IMF and EU and US loans. If only Russia would behave the real hegemon the USA along with the EU could eventually incorporate the Ukraine into theTransatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) once the deal is finalized.
O'Sullivan is correct that the US could alone could cause much greater damage to the Russian economy through sectoral sanctions, and if the EU joined in the effects could be even more severe. Given the dominance of the US dollar barring Russia from US financial markets could seriously harm Russia. While this is true it would also bring about the demise of dollar dominance very quickly rather than the slow erosion of its power as is happening now.
O'Sullivan thinks that a broad embargo of oil and gas would have too great an implication for the global economy to use. No doubt Europe would not go along with such a move either. She argues that even if some sectoral sanctions could be used to inflict greater pain on Russia this does not mean that they would be successful: The real test in this instance is not whether sanctions can exact an economic toll, but whether they can alter Putin’s grandiose visions for Russia and his willingness to break international china to achieve them. She argues that not only might there be negative effects on the global economy but on Russian politics.
O'Sullivan concludes that the US and EU need to contemplate a wider strategy not to deal just with the Ukrainian situation but with Russia's challenge in general. It must go far beyond sanctions: "No doubt there is a role for sanctions, but—as the historical record shows clearly—sanctions alone cannot take on the massive current and future foreign policy challenge that Moscow poses to the region and the world."
Nowhere in her article is there any recognition that Russia has interests that might be negatively impacted by US and EU actions and that the US and EU might have any role in creating the crisis. A successful resolution to the Ukrainian crisis must involve negotiations in which no side gets everything it wants but is forced to recognize the interests of the other parties in the conflict.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Russia US relations, ukraine crisis, Sanctions on Russia
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