The Purposes and Limits of Sanctions

The dramatic suite of sanctions that have been imposed upon Russia in the wake of the latter’s invasion of Ukraine represent the endpoint of a failed policy more than the beginning point of a potentially successful policy. The principal utility of sanctions lies in the threat of their use should the target engage in behavior that the wielder of sanctions seeks to discourage. By threatening costs contingent upon the target’s behavior, the state making the threat is engaging in an act of attempted deterrence. Should the target go ahead with the proscribed act, then this represents the failure of deterrence: the target either doubts the credibility of the deterrent threat or deems the costs to be imposed more than countered by the benefits to be gained from acting.

If the threat of sanctions fails, then the problem shifts from one of deterrence to compellence. Instead of seeking to dissuade the target from undertaking a proscribed act, the focus turns to reversing a step already taken or changing ongoing behavior. Compellence is much more difficult than deterrence. For one thing, once the act has occurred, it might prove difficult or even impossible to fully reverse the consequences. The damage brought by war, for instance, does not disappear once a cease fire is declared. Moreover, the target, once publicly committed to a course of action, would suffer political and reputational costs by buckling under to sanctions. Finally, as suggested above, if the cost of sanctions have already been priced into the target’s decision to act, then the likelihood of sanctions successfully serving the purpose of compellence will be low.

Beyond changing the target’s behavior, a more ambitious goal of sanctions might be to provoke the removal of the target’s leadership, through electoral loss, coup de etat or more thoroughgoing regime change. The actor may target elite supporters of the target state leadership in hopes they will abandon the leader. Sanctions may also seek to stimulate broader popular rebellion via sanctions that undermine the fundamental stability of the target state’s economy. If changing the behavior of a present set of target state leaders is difficult, removing them via sanctions is much more difficult.

Moreover, if leaders of the target state believe that the real purpose of sanctions is their removal, rather than just a change in their behavior, then they will be most unlikely to accede to demands. After all, no behavioral change on the part of the target state will suffice to relieve external pressures if regime change is the goal.

In fact, many studies have shown that sanctions seldom achieve all or a portion of the stated goals, whether the latter involve changes in behavior, leadership or both. So if sanctions fail for the purposes of deterrence and offer little prospect of success for the purposes of compellence, why impose them at all?

One purpose is to establish the credibility of future deterrent threats. Even if the threat of sanctions fails in the present case, a state will want to preserve the effectiveness of sanctions threats in future cases. That can only be accomplished by carrying through sanctions threats, even if there is little chance that such sanctions will compel the target to change behavior in the present case. The downside of doing so, of course, is that sanctions always involve costs to the states that imposes them, as well as to the target. There is, then, a price to preserving credibility.

Another purpose in imposing sanctions is not to alter the target’s behavior, but to convince politically significant domestic audiences that a leader is “doing something” about a problem, even if the “something” has little change of success. Indeed, rival political factions may compete over who is “tougher” on the issue by bidding upward the extent of sanctions. From the public’s standpoint, it may be sufficient that the sanctions “punish” the target state, even if they fail to alter that state’s behavior or leadership.

Which factors are driving Western sanctions on Russia? Preserving the future credibility of future sanctions threats does not require sanctions as broad and severe as those imposed upon Russia over the past week. So this would not appear a major factor.

Although the sanctions directed at Russia have been accompanied by demands that Russian troops leave Ukraine, it remains unclear whether Western policy-makers actually believe that this is a realistic goal. Reports suggest that some high-level officials are instead worried that the severity of Western sanctions may prompt escalatory moves on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s part, rather than retreat. Also, if the goal was near-term change in Russian behavior, we might expect some delineation of the conditions under which sanctions would be removed, so as to more precisely incentivize Putin’s conduct. So far, an explication of such conditionality has been missing in public statements by Western leaders.

There seems little doubt that the domestic demand for action has forced policy-makers in the US and Europe to impose sanctions far more severe than initially planned. This is linked to the determined resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and population along with the extraordinarily effective messenging and leadership presented by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

There has been speculation that the West seeks to use sanctions as a tool to force Putin out of office. Some of the sanctions specifically target members of the Russian elite who are closely allied with Putin. The hope may be that these pillars of regime support can be stripped away. However, the severing of connections between Russian business elites and Western economies may simply make them all the more dependent upon their relationship with Putin. Regime change via ruptures in elite politics may be a goal of the West, but sanctions could nevertheless prove either ineffective or counterproductive for this purpose.

The most severe sanctions seek to isolate Russia’s Central Bank, force major Russian banks into bankruptcy and collapse the value of the ruble. Even if successful in destroying Russia’s economy, such measures will not impact the military situation on the ground in Ukraine in the near-term. But success is not assured, in part because China could provide a lifeline for Russian finance. The purpose of such thoroughgoing sanctions is not clear, but may rest upon the idea that Putin will pull back if faced with an economic downturn so severe as to produce popular unrest directed against his rule. Some Western officials may even hope that a popular uprising could remove Putin from office. If so, this expectation must be weighed against the possibility that the Russian people will direct their anger against the West rather than overthrow their rulers. One must also consider the morality of all-out economic warfare on a population which is, in a sense, hostage to the misdeeds of their ruler.

In the West’s clash with Russia over the invasion of Ukraine, sanctions are a second-best option. The focus on sanctions has somewhat obscured the more fundamental fact that Western leaders early on ruled out the threat of military force as a deterrent to Russian invasion or as a tool to repel or reverse such an invasion once it occurred. Indeed, it is the West that has been deterred from intervention in the conflict, mainly by Russia’s nuclear capabilities, and, to a lesser extent, by Russia’s conventional military superiority in the vicinity of Ukraine. Sanctions are what the West has left to wield once NATO’s military capabilities are removed from the equation. But they are unlikely to be enough to save Ukraine.


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