Sanctions are one of the most frequently used tools of U.S. foreign policy and are serving now, along with military and economic aid for Ukraine, as the principal means of countering Putin’s war of aggression. The international sanctions against Russia are the toughest and most extensive ever imposed on that nation. More than thirty countries, representing more than half of the world’s economy, are joining in an unprecedented multilateral attempt to lock down the world’s eleventh-largest economy. The sanctions have barred Russian access to the global financial system and frozen the foreign assets of its state bank and of hundreds of Russian oligarchs and senior officials. Global export controls are blocking Russian access to high-tech components and semiconductor products that are essential for economic growth and advanced weaponry. The United States and its European partners are embargoing Russian coal and oil and reducing imports of natural gas, jeopardizing the Kremlin’s main source of state revenues. Hundreds of private companies have shuttered their operations and left the country, accelerating an exodus of Russian tech workers and further depleting the economy.
The sanctions are imposing serious costs in Russia and may be constraining the military’s ability to repair and replace damaged equipment. Still, whether sanctions can be successful in ending the war and reversing Russian aggression remains uncertain. What can we realistically expect from the use of sanctions against Russia? What are the moral and political implications of using this tool? Past examples may help us answer these questions.
The use of international sanctions in foreign policy dates back more than a century to World War I and the League of Nations. The modern era of sanctions and their emergence as a common instrument of international policy began in 1990 as the United Nations Security Council, freed from the constraints of the Cold War, reacted to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait by imposing an oil embargo and comprehensive trade sanctions against Iraq. This was followed by the use of Security Council sanctions in Yugoslavia, Liberia, Libya, and other countries to achieve various purposes: ending civil wars, countering terrorism, and preventing nuclear proliferation. My colleague George A. Lopez and I wrote about this period in our book The Sanctions Decade. Since then the United Nations has entered a seemingly permanent sanctions era. As of this writing, the Security Council has more than a dozen sanctions in place.
Over the past two decades the United States has also greatly increased its use of economic sanctions: it now has more than 9,400 measures in place against individuals and entities in dozens of countries. The European Union has also become a major sanctions actor and is applying “restrictive measures” in many countries as part of its common security and foreign policy. The African Union has also attempted to use sanctions against states on the continent to uphold international norms and prevent military coups.
Despite their widespread use, however, sanctions often fail to achieve their intended purposes and are hampered by weak implementation, poor design, and a lack of international cooperation. They tend to stimulate corruption and the growth of illegal economies. They often inadvertently impede the work of humanitarian agencies and independent civil-society groups. In some cases, sanctions also cause severe hardship for vulnerable populations. They may be a form of collective punishment against ordinary people who have no say in decisions that violate international norms. Sanctions can generate a rally-round-the-flag effect that increases nationalist sentiment in affected countries. In Russia, Putin gained in popularity after sanctions were imposed, as the Kremlin blamed the United States and NATO for the hardships people were experiencing.