March 24, 2014

JARA | Why Sanctions Can’t Fix the Russian Problem

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On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a formal decree making Crimea, a Ukrainian territory on the north shore of the Black Sea, part of Russia. Once a Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union, Crimea was included into the newly independent state of Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Putin has referred to this as a “great injustice,” and in response to the protests in Ukraine that ousted corrupt and Russia-friendly Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych, unmarked Russian troops have occupied Crimea since February 28.

To try and curb Putin’s aggressiveness, the United States and the European Union have placed sanctions on top Russian officials, issuing travel bans and freezing their assets. These sanctions have not deterred Putin; if anything, they’ve barely made him blink. Russian officials, even Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, have publicly laughed off these sanctions as utterly inconsequential.

In fairness to the State Department and the EU, the Russian financial sector hasn’t gone untouched. Russia’s MICEX stock index dropped another two percent on Friday, and the Russian ruble has stagnated, down ten percent since January. Standard and Poor’s released a statement suggesting they may downgrade Russia’s credit rating, as the reluctance of foreign banks to lend to Russia amidst the crisis could contribute to Russian growth falling below one percent. The steps the United States and European Union have taken so far make it clear that they aren’t taking this issue lightly.

However, Putin has made it even clearer that these fairly small-level sanctions aren’t going to cut it if the West wants the Russians to respect Ukrainian sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the West hasn’t been left with many options. Some are suggesting that the sanctions be taken further to boycotts of the Russian private sector, but the current state of the EU’s reliance on foreign oil and natural gas (namely Russian) make this completely out of the question. According to reports by the EU Commission on Energy Issues, of all of the crude oil and natural gas the EU consumes, about 80 percent of the oil and 60 percent of the gas is imported. Of these imports, almost 40 percent originates in Russia. The European Union relies so much on Russian energy that it borders on absurdity, and this has severe geopolitical implications. Any economic sanctions cutting off these imports could cripple the economies and infrastructures of the EU, especially as you move east, where many nations receive 75-100 percent of their natural gas from Russia.

These complications aside, economic sanctions have an absolutely abysmal track record as a means of accomplishing effective political change. In his research on sanctions, political scientist Robert Pape found that sanctions were successful in five of 115 historical attempts, or a pathetic four percent.

More importantly, economic sanctions have a tendency to harm civilian populations significantly more than their governments. Many point to more extreme examples like Iraq where UNICEF-acknowledged statistics released by the Iraqi Ministry of Health suggested that American sanctions were responsible for the deaths of over half a million Iraqi children. But one could also point to the sanctions placed on nations like Myanmar, Iran and Cuba, where sanctions have not deposed the targeted regimes. Instead, the specific targeting of infrastructure has resulted in unnecessary suffering that disproportionately hurts civilians.

As a much more developed nation, the effects of sanctions on Russia would not be anywhere near as drastic as in Myanmar, or especially Iraq, but it is undeniable that the nature of sanctions makes them a tool that harms civilians as a means of persuasion, which raises moral questions.

With military responses out of the question, and the prospects of broader economic sanctions unquestionably poor, the burden on the West is to pursue more diplomatic avenues. Travel bans and asset freezes are a Band-Aid covering up a very serious Russian problem. And Putin isn’t going anywhere; electoral changes in Russia will almost undoubtedly result in President Putin keeping his office until 2024. The West needs to find a way to contain Putin, and soon.