Published 24 March 2022
Some of the wonks out there might have heard that the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. The attack comes in response to Ukrainian interest in joining NATO as a defense against Russian aggression. Putin justifies the attack by claiming Ukraine’s bid to join NATO is aggression toward Russia. So the invasion wholly justifies Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and probably gives all of Russia’s other neighbors good cause to join too.
I wish to be clear that, given some of the sorts to whom what I write below might appeal, I am not one of these Putin apologists who believes Russian imperialism is somehow anti-imperialist. Russia claiming the need to invade Ukraine to “liberate” it from the Nazis who run it and have biological weapons labs but the Ukrainians and the Russians are one people even though the Russian military is murdering Ukrainian children but also Lenin invented Ukraine out of nothing—the Kremlin’s narratives are complete nonsense. Their smell somehow reminds me of WMDs. Vladimir Putin is a kleptocratic dictator who presides over a profoundly and proudly unequal and genocidally anti-LGBTQ regime with overt fascist influences and ample propaganda apparatuses. He and his flunkeys have opposition assassinated and jailed and dissent outlawed, and sometimes all three, in the case of Alexei Navalny (who survived the assassination attempt) and this dissident’s political organizations Russia of the Future and the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Putin and friends have executed and abetted atrocities in Chechnya, Georgia, and particularly Syria comparable to what they are now doing in Ukraine (how mysterious these earlier evils didn’t trigger half the outrage). The press calls powerful Russians “oligarchs,” and while it is true, as some, such as Bernie Sanders, have said, that America’s billionaires whom the press so often coddles are also oligarchic robbers, this should in no way make us condemn Putin, Abramovich, Mishustin, and the lot of them any less. Men like Putin should be the common enemy of every human.
What I am writing about is the wave of sanctions against Russia. I know, for this, that a lot of people will say I am a sanctimonious clown or worse. And I prefer to avoid writing straight-up political content, as I do not want to be a political commentator. But I have been moved to say something. Politicians and companies vie to outdo each other in their summary collective punishment against Russians (and sometimes Belarusians) so that the public will not perceive them as “doing nothing” to save Ukraine when, tragically, there is little more that can be done. Or rather, what else can be done would probably mean the end of the world, a toll so high that nothing is worth the price.
I define “terrorism” as the deliberate use of violence against civilians to achieve political goals. I understand “sanctions” to be a state or states reducing or blocking trade to another state or states, or to non-state entities, in order to damage the target’s economic wellbeing to achieve political goals, e.g. blocking the trade of certain commodities to compel the targeted state to release prisoners. Sanctions do not pursue directly economic goals, so one state blocking trade to compel the target state to lower tariffs, for example, is not a case of sanctions. There are also multiple types of sanctions. Partial and targeted sanctions may affect a specific industry, such as an arms embargo, or certain individuals or companies, as in the case of asset freezes. Comprehensive sanctions forbid all trade except humanitarian aid and, in fact if not in law, more or less that too. Most of what I am talking about are comprehensive sanctions and similarly extreme cases. All these types of sanctions can be imposed simultaneously, the exact policies varying between countries. Russia is not yet under comprehensive sanctions with the US (the only polities under comprehensive sanctions are Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Crimea), which in effect means a complete cutoff of international trade, but it is creeping closer.
In popular discourse, people seem to understand sanctions as an effective and more merciful alternative to military conflict. But among academics, the contested consensus, but consensus nonetheless, is that sanctions kill innocents, degrade human rights, and do not work. I understand sanctions “working” to mean that the sanctions extract concessions from the target state or otherwise achieve the nominal political goals of the sanctioning state.
A major text arguing for sanctions as effective foreign policy tools is Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, a lengthy 1985 study by Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott (or HSE) whose second edition came out in 1990 and third in 2007. HSE analyze what they identify as the 115 sanctions programs imposed since 1914 and conclude that these policies succeeded in achieving foreign policy goals in 40 cases. Even this (relatively) optimistic interpretation, however, is not terribly optimistic. A 34% success rate suggests sanctions usually fail, the argument goes, but they will succeed often enough to be a viable tool in international relations, not to mention more humane than military operations.
But in “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” a 1997 response to HSE published in International Security, Robert A. Pape of Dartmouth College disputes HSE’s findings, claiming they misidentify several instances of what he deems “economic warfare” as sanctions (i.e. they were wartime tools to weaken the enemy’s economy). According to his analysis of the same 115 sanctions, only five succeeded. While a 34% success rate suggests sanctions are a viable strategy, a 4% success rate, Pape argues, means they are useless as an alternative to military force. Furthermore, the five successes all concerned what Pape deems “trivial issues” (105), though one of these, Canada responding to sanctions from the Arab League by agreeing not to move its embassy to Jerusalem, Palestinians might, I speculate, not consider trivial.
Pape understands that sanctions can only be claimed as a successful alternative to military force if the target accedes to political demands without military force or other violence. If the target state is overthrown, Pape believes such an event can only be considered a success of the sanctions if the sanctioning state did not also assist the assassins or coup plotters. Otherwise, these other modes of effecting foreign policy goals are, obviously, what brought about the change instead of the sanctions. Pape dismisses such cases as “overdetermined.”
In a later issue of International Security, Elliott responded to Pape in her own paper, “The Sanctions Glass: Have Full or Completely Empty?” She claims Pape criticizes a straw man of Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, which did not investigate whether sanctions are an alternative to military force but asked only if they could make for effective foreign policy. Pape further responded to Elliott in yet another paper, “Why Economic Sanctions Still Do Not Work.” Their back-and-fourth largely focuses on quibbles about what counts as a sanction, whether a few borderline cases are successes, whether HSE is optimistic, and which one of them is misrepresenting HSE. For example, Pape considers the 1981 US sanctions against Communist Poland a failure because they did not cause the Polish state to democratize (103), whereas Elliott insists these sanctions had the more modest goal of forcing the release of political prisoners and that of course sanctions could never force democratization (57). But as Pape points out in his response to the response to his response, “given that [he challenges] 35 of HSE’s 40 claimed successes, disputing the facts on a small number of cases in insufficient to justify even moderate optimism on sanctions” (74).
And despite their disagreements, Elliott agrees with Pape that sanctions can succeed at nothing but modest objectives of minor significance to the targeted countries. Elliott, like Pape, also contends that sanctions are not an alternative to military force. Rather, they should be part of a more comprehensive strategy: “economic and military pressure can act together synergistically—just as naval and infantry forces usually work with air power—so that goals can be achieved” (54). So much for sanctions as the peaceful option.
These and most such discussions are conversions of real-world phenomena into abstract data. The major issue with sanctions, my major issue, is not a question of utility, for states pursue ineffective policies all the time, but their grim human cost. Pape ends both his responses by touching on the extraordinary Iraq sanctions that halved the country’s GDP (for which, incidentally, HSE publicly advocated). In “Why Economic Sanctions Still Do Not Work,” Pape puts it more emphatically:
“Although sanctions are sometimes credited as a low-cost and relatively humane alternative to other coercive instruments such as military force, these are not sufficient reasons for employing sanctions in situations where we do not have high confidence that they will work. First, economic sanctions often inflict significant human costs on the populations of target states, including on innocent civilians who have little influence on their government’s behavior. Recent evidence suggests that the international economic sanctions on Iraq since 1990 have led to the deaths of as many as 567,000 Iraqi children, compared with the reported 40,000 military and 5,000 civilian deaths during the 1991 Gulf War” (76, emphasis mine).
Even going by a lowball number, the 100,000 Daniel W. Drezner cites in his history of targeted sanctions “Sanctions Sometimes Smart” (97), this cost is appalling. While I cannot speak for what murder and manslaughter other people might be committing, I myself consider letting a single child die unacceptable. Drezner quotes two researchers, Mueller and Mueller, as writing “economic sanctions may well have been a necessary cause of the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history.” US officials knew this and even embraced it. Drezner also quotes Madeleine Albright, in 1996, stating that this price was worth it (98). Saddam Hussein never caved to US pressure until the Bush administration overthrew him in the unprovoked war (that rather reminds me of a certain other war) the sanctions were apparently intended to avoid. So what exactly did Albright think her country was buying with these children’s deaths?
The second reason Pape gives not to employ sanctions, by the way, is that the narratives this policy promotes may fill people on both states fuller with hatred for each other. But Pape does not necessarily endorse violence either. Diplomacy is the solution sometimes. At other times, Pape concludes, “the United States may have to accept that it simply cannot impose its will at an acceptable cost” (77).
But Iraq’s situation was unusual. When reading about what is beginning to happen to Russia, I have asked myself about the other “rogue” states US and its allies have squeezed with comprehensive sanctions and what has resulted. The oldest of these are the comprehensive sanctions on trade with Cuba that have been in place since 1962, albeit with some variance over time, as when the Trump administration ended a period of relative liberalization. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lester D. Mallory wrote that that this policy’s objective is “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” The Kennedy administration, then, explained the comprehensive sanctions, at least internally, as terrorism. Their goal was to immiserate the Cuban people, who had so recently overthrown their US puppet dictator Batista, into a revolt against the leaders who had just completed a revolt. How well has this gone? After eighty years, sanctions never led to the collapse or overthrow of Castro’s government or a change in Cuba’s political scene, or at least not one in line with US interests. According to former US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, they are “counterproductive” and have achieved absolutely nothing. These are their policy results, divorced from the human costs. To these sanctions, the same France 24 article attributes a medicine shortage in the midst of the 2020 pandemic. The Cuban president calls the sanctions “genocidal.” As of June 2021, the UN has called for the US to lift the sanctions for twenty-nine years in a row. What is the point of continuing to deny and obstruct food, medicine, and other necessities and amenities to millions of Cubans? How many of the people who even participated in the revolution, if we consider that a sin, are still alive to punish with privation? How many of the people whose businesses Castro expropriated—the Kennedy administration’s justification for imposing the initial embargo—are even still alive?
While the Cuban sanctions are ongoing, the comprehensive sanctions on Iran feel more contemporary because their imposition occurred more recently. The sanctions began with the freezing of Iranian assets in 1979 and have continued to the present, sometimes with more restrictions and sometimes with fewer, as “Western” policy has unreliably flip-flopped (see the nuclear deal). According to the Singapore Institute of Management Economics Society’s concisely titled “Impact of US economic sanctions on Iran,” inflation of the rial reached more than 50% as of 2019, and the Iranian state “estimated that 57 million more Iranians will fall into poverty over 2020 and between 23% and 40% of Iran’s population will be living in absolute poverty soon.” The authors conclude that the sanctions have destroyed Iran’s economy, as intended, but that in response Tehran’s policy line has not changed, funding of terrorism has not stopped, “and the country’s poorest have been the most affected” instead of the legislature and supreme leader who were, one would hope, the intended targets. Incidentally, I do not think they are the intended targets. It is not only Iran that supports terrorism.
While, according to Drezner, the UN has not imposed comprehensive sanctions since 1996 (101), the US does, installing comprehensive sanctions on Iran starting in 2006. The same principles are also true in Cuba’s situation, but for now let’s focus on Iran and medicine, a rather important tool for the art of stopping people from dying and from suffering in the meantime. In theory, there is no ban on humanitarian goods. But in practice, secondary sanctions make transactions with any Iranian firm too risky for most businesses to undertake. The US imposes fines and sanctions on those who violate US sanctions by doing business with Iran, leading to the “overcompliance” of companies refusing to do even business that might technically be legal. The added red tape of doing business in Iran further discourages most ventures. The prohibition on trading with most Iranian banks and their removal from SWIFT blocks buying such equipment anyway, but this is on top of the threat from inflation itself. In 2019, after the Trump administration (what a shock) clamped Iran with an even more savage sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch reported that the devaluation of the rial on its own “resulted in severely limiting Iranian companies and hospitals from purchasing essential medicines and medical equipment from outside Iran that residents depend upon for critical care.” The sanctions block the inflow of insulin, anticonvulsants, chemotherapy, and other essential, life-saving drugs and medical treatments, leaving even sick children to die. But, once again, terrorism is the point. Human Rights Watch quotes Mike Pompeo telling CBS: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we are convinced that will lead to the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” This ludicrous fantasy scenario reappears again. It is not that impoverished people have never revolted, but they have not revolted because their home is being attacked by outsiders.
A country whose nightmare is even more contemporary is Afghanistan, which, no longer an active warzone, has now been trapped behind the wall of US sanctions. These are, notably, not comprehensive sanctions, but their inhumanity compels me to mention them. The Biden administration did the impossible and ended the eternal and atrocious war with which the US has murdered tens of thousands of Afghans for the last twenty years, most of my life. Naturally, the Biden administration did a poor job ending it, abandoning many US allies to die. But the major mistake is that the war hasn’t ended at all. The US is still terrorizing Afghanistan. A USA Today article by Mark Weisbrot argues the sanctions, through mass starvation, will kill more people in a year than the official war killed in twenty. Food prices have shot up over 40% since August, and with the US having seized (i.e. stolen) $7 billion of assets from Afghanistan’s central bank, the country’s financial system can barely function anyway, and the economy has collapsed.
Part of what moved me to write this post is not only the Russian situations but reading an article from The Telegraph whose headline sums it up: “Afghans forced to sell their kidneys as extreme hunger tightens its grip.” The article quotes a man named Nooruddin saying he regrets selling his kidney on the black market because it has left him in too much pain to work. It quotes a woman named Aziza who says that if no one buys her kidney, she will be forced to sell her daughter. The abject desperation that would drive someone to do such things is unimaginable. And these sanctions have inflicted such a fate upon thousands, even millions of people. The official purpose of the sanctions, one assumes, to dissuade the Taliban from harming civilians—the Taliban, yes, that organization so famously concerned about human health and wellbeing. Surely the Taliban will see the suffering in the streets and decide, well, let’s improve our human rights record. This is what is called a joke: There is no amount of mass death (save their own) that could persuade mass murderers to stop murdering.
Do comprehensive sanctions and similarly extreme economic weapons have a history of cowing those inclined to mistreat their people into not doing so? Just the opposite. As Drezner writes, “Research emanating from wildly disparate theoretical and methodological perspectives came to the same conclusion about the effect of comprehensive sanctions: they disproportionately hurt politically weak groups and benefitted target regime sympathizers” (99). One of the sources that leads him to this conclusion is “Better or Worse?” published in the Journal of Peace Research and written by Dursun Peksen of East Carolina University. Analyzing data from 1981 to 2000, Peksen concludes without reservation that sanctions always worsen human rights, as measured in increased extrajudicial killings, disappearances (state forces kidnapping people), torture, and political imprisonment (i.e. imprisoning dissidents).
Peksen rejects the “naïve theory of sanctions,” which holds that sanctions will deny elites the resources with which to oppress people (if only). Instead, he hypothesizes four reasons the opposite happens. The first is one that Pape also touches on, namely that, to be more blunt than either of these two writers, elites, so as to recoup international trade losses, steal surpluses from lower classes. In Iraq, for example, Pape’s original paper suggests Saddam Hussein was able to stay afloat despite the comprehensive sanctions by dismantling the welfare state and public education and sending the money back to his own supporters (110). Peksen gives the same hypothesis (62). So while the poor are even more oppressed and impoverished, the rich are mostly unaffected and their control over the cops and military continues. The second reason is that, in fact, economic privation does lead to more instability, and the resultant public grievances and rising crime demand additional and more extreme state violence to quash. The third reason is that—as Putin is doing already, claiming the sanctions are not a response to the invasion but a premeditated “blitzkrieg”—the target states wield the sanctions as a propaganda tool to direct the public’s enmity away from their own government and toward the external enemy, the sanctioning states. Thus sanctions may give a state more legitimacy and so more public support for battling dissent. The fourth reason is the most obvious: sanctions isolate a country from the international community, leading to greater poverty and preventing anyone who is not already in power from gaining societal influence. For “economic coercion inadvertently worsens public health, economic conditions, the development of civil society, and education” (60), the improvement of all of which is necessary for the improvement of human rights. Though I believe it is not so inadvertent.
Killing thousands and starving millions will not stop the Taliban but only further punish the people the sanctions are allegedly meant to protect while the Taliban can entrench their rule. As Fereshta Abbasi of Human Rights Watch reports: “Taliban authorities have arbitrarily arrested activists and journalists, executed former government officials, and engaged in widespread violations of women’s and girls’ rights. But Afghans need all their rights protected, including the right to food.” Somehow the US state only takes action when it is Ukrainian children being murdered but cannot stop murdering children themselves. It is not that Ukrainian lives are not important. The outpouring of support for Ukrainians is heartening and shows such things are possible. It is that Afghan children also deserve a chance. By now we all understand that pointing out hypocrisy is pointless, but it infuriates me.
No two countries’ situations can be alike. They can at best be analogues. My point so far is that sanctions, in these other cases, have not achieved their foreign policy goals (beyond terrorism) but have succeeded in killing at least hundreds of thousands of poor people. Russia is not like Cuba or Afghanistan, not least in that it is a developed country and, before the invasion of Ukraine, well-integrated into the world economy. Cubans might never have had a chance to fully embrace modern internet culture and business, for example, but Russians have been for decades.
Yet in the first ten days alone—not even a month—Russia’s unprovoked violation of another country’s sovereignty caused it to beat Iran and North Korea as the world’s most-sanctioned country. At least it took Iran decades to rank up the shackles. This “most-sanctioned” reporting is misleading, as Russia is the most-sanctioned country in terms of the total number of sanctions, not necessarily the amount of money that has been lost, say. Furthermore, of these sanctions, the vast majority—2427, according to Bloomberg on 7 March—are targeted sanctions.
Even so, with these and the remaining 343 sanctions (assuming the division between “individual” and “public” can be cut that neatly), a number sure to increase in the time it takes me to write this post, Russia has been struck with what Peter Piatetsky and others ominously call “financial nuclear war” and many outlets call sanctions “unprecedented” in their speed, severity, and unified enforcement. Several Russian banks have been removed from SWIFT, preventing them from carrying out transactions with the outside world. This crashed the value of one ruble to something like one US cent. And then Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal suspended their services to Russian customers. Visa and Mastercard have apparently continued to function within Russia, but the point is to isolate all Russian customers from the outside world. Formerly residents of a major piece of the world economy, millions of people are now finding their savings evaporating and job security crumbling in a heartbeat.
A Washington Post article by Craig Timberg, Cat Zakrzewski, and Joseph Menn bearing the bleak title “A new iron curtain is descending across Russia’s Internet” reports that Cogent Communications, a “backbone carrier” of internet services, made the unprecedented move of disconnected all its customers in Russia. The company claims it considered the possibility of the Russian state using its services to carry out cyberattacks the lesser evil compared to cutting off its faultless customers. But why not specifically stop serving the state clients, in that case? The Kremlin might kick Cogent out, then, but at least this would not be an ISP unilaterally executing nationality-based collective punishment. The article quotes Mikhail Klimarev of the Internet Protection Society, an internet freedom organization, saying it well: “I would like to convey to people all over the world that if you turn off the Internet in Russia, then this means cutting off 140 million people from at least some truthful information.” Lumen, another ISP, has also shut down its services to Russians. With both Apple and Microsoft opting to stop selling products in Russia, it seems as though the international community wants Russian people severed from computer and internet access and all the possibilities of information exchange, business, and connection that this makes possible, at least with a good VPN. Meanwhile, Roskomnadzor is blocking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Deutsche Welle, the BBC (though I’d have thought the Kremlin would approve of its contempt for trans people), and other services. In the words of a letter the digital rights nonprofit Access Now sent to Biden to request that the administration issue exceptions to the sanctions for internet and computer providers, shutting down Russian access to digital platforms “would inadvertently speed up what the Kremlin has set out to achieve through its ‘sovereign internet’ tools – a complete and total control of information space inside Russia.” Bizarrely, then, some of these sanctions may serve the same goals Putin pursues: cutting Russian people off from the outside world. Cruelty aside, why would anyone want to help him?
Adobe, Sony, Samsung, EA, Nintendo, and Netflix (among others) have stopped selling to Russia. Would allowing purchases in the Nintendo eShop fuel the military effort? In what way does preventing Russian people from buying replacement iPhone chargers improve the situation? Does someone out there sincerely believe forbidding Russians from buying Elden Ring on their PS5s will end the war? But of course it was necessary to cut off Russian sex workers on OnlyFans, as everyone is aware that camgirls, already a precarious group, are the sadists murdering Ukrainian children. In the words of one OnlyFans model, Kanra_cosplay, as quoted in Yahoo! News: “[OnlyFans] decided to delete my account without any warnings! I had money there and without them I will not be able to live. Why they do this to ordinary people?! You decided to ruin our lives??!” YouTube and Google have blocked all Russian users from monetizing their videos or paying for subscriptions, and obviously there is a strong chance online creators’ Patreon accounts and other similar lifelines will no longer be able to process payments. Several months ago, I wrote a review of Nikita Kryukov’s moving depiction of schizophrenia Milk outside a bag of milk outside a bag of milk. On his Twitter, Kryukov has since confirmed he can no longer receive payments for it, though fortunately his Ukrainian friends and relatives are still alive. Yes, the independent artists—surely summarily cutting off their incomes will show Putin, whom we all know adores low-budget digital experiments in narrative presentation. Online freelance gig platforms Fiverr and Upwork (these are the ones I know about) have also suspended all Russian accounts indefinitely, and Belarusian ones too in Upwork’s case. Again, every single person who happens to be registered in a particular country is indefinitely suspended not for violating any rules of the platform but for happening to live in the wrong place. But Russian oligarchs are well known for their day-to-day reliance on contract gig work—wait, they’re not? No, instead thousands of people have lost their incomes because apparently some distant foreigners decided they were not proactive enough against a government prepared to immediately jail them (and sometimes assassinate them) for protest. Upwork’s statement also adds that any users who can get out of Russia can immediately resume using their accounts, as though to highlight this decision’s cruel arbitrariness. Too poor to leave? Well, go to Hell then, we hate you. Though no country can stop itself from abusing the poor, so what else is new?
I confess that I may be reacting based on my own personal experience. Imagining such things happening to me due to powers I cannot control, losing the ability to replace my iPhone and computer, my primary tools for communication with all my friends and family—losing my access to Microsoft Word, in which I do all my writing—and losing all my sources of entertainment—this would be emotionally devastating. Losing access to online freelancing and PayPal would erase my primary stable income, though in this case my employer would have already fired me for being Russian. Don’t drop that iPhone, for it may be the last you will ever have. Would sure bring the thoughts of suicide and weeping fits sweeping back in! So much for my years of recovery. Not everyone would respond so severely. But to say morale in Russia is low would be an understatement. This evidence is anecdotal, but I have seen enough Russian users on social media expressing enough anger, despair, and suicidal ideation that it fills me with such sadness, for it is so unnecessary. (Those telling them to get the hell over it stir a different emotion.)
Perhaps there is some manner that letting Russian people eat at McDonald’s was actually a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s imperialist schemes, but I do not know what it would be. As much as I hate McDonald’s, given the brand’s symbolic significance at the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” this withdrawal feels especially cruel, like an effort at telling those people I have seen online wondering if they are going to be trapped behind a new Iron Curtain that might, depending on their identities, mean the end of their lives—yes. Suspended flights just make it more difficult for those who want to get out (if they have the money) to do so. To McDonald’s credit, though, the company is still paying its Russian employees.
I speculate the main motivation behind most of these departures, particularly those involving the transfer of money online such as Twitch or the Nintendo eShop, is an inability to process payments from Russians due to the sanctions on SWIFT, PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard. In the case of OnlyFans, this is the confirmed explanation. Part of it is also likely an anticipation of future comprehensive sanctions that could leave stragglers slapped with secondary sanctions or entangled in hostile bureaucracy. Dressing up such withdrawals in a cruel moral patina may be PR, but at least some companies have shown legitimate support with donations to charities helping Ukrainian refugees and victims of Russian brutality. In any case, even the most admirable charity work does not justify a blanket attack on all Russian people.
The New School’s Nina Khrushcheva, incidentally the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, has announced “Russia is done.” Edward Alden of the Council of Foreign Relations said, “It’s pretty clear that Russia will become poorer and more technologically backward, [sic] the choices for its citizens will be radically diminished and for many, many years to come. That’s an astonishing series of penalties in a very short period of time.” At an emergency seminar of the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin that I recently attended, an economics professor reviewed the sanctions as a case of “weaponized interdependence” and concluded matter-of-factly that Russia would be “knocked back several stages of economic development.” Such assessments treat “Russia” abstractly, as a monolith or wall to be knocked back or flattened, and erase that this means isolating and “radically diminishing” the prospects of over a hundred million people. Yes, Putin may do this anyway, but why help him? He will lie regardless, but why give him fuel for propaganda to make his citizens “rally around the flag”? Don’t you see, oh Russian people, that these haughty, degenerate foreigners and the scum and midges who side against me truly hate you—not just me, but you specifically? Why else are they targeting you? I’m the best you got.
Some people would argue this is what Russians deserve, another case of tens of millions of lives and potentialities abstracted away into a statistic to be shrugged off because these souls happened to be born far away in the wrong place. I, if you haven’t noticed, am not one of the people who would argue this. Based on the examples of Cuba and Iran and North Korea (whose legitimating ideology, Juche, is based on a fanatical devotion to national self-sufficiency as a result of extreme isolation), I doubt even comprehensive sanctions could cause the Kremlin to change course. And once on the books, these sanctions against Russia, like all of the other sanctions the US wields as perpetual terrorism against assorted other countries to the point that not doing so strikes politicians as incomprehensible, are likely going to remain indefinite. The same article by Alexander Nazaryan that quotes Khrushcheva also observes bluntly: “The initial sanctions were not a surprise for the Kremlin, which almost welcomed them with a show of defiance. Nor, so far, have they served as a deterrent. Putin […] may be willing to countenance collective suffering to achieve his vision of a restored Russian empire[.]”
The harshest sanctions do sting the political and economic elite, but for these monsters it is a matter of inconvenience. As with all issues in society, ordinary, innocent people will bear the brunt of the sanctions. Putin and the other “oligarchs” are rich anyway and will find ways to stay rich like the rulers of every state so chained. No amount of suffering average Russians may under go can move them to anything but more lies, for, as Alexei Navalny himself put it in what is looking to be his final speech, at least for a while, these warmongering thieves are “just a group of sick, crazy old men. They don’t have sympathy for anyone or anything. And our country is the very last thing they care about.” (He also adds they will “be devoured by demons in hell,” one of those few times I wish such things actually existed.) Harsher sanctions will not convince them to change course either. In “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” Pape finds no statistically significant relationship between the extremity of sanctions as measured in GNP loss and the success of their official objectives (108). But severity does affect target governments, for Peksen finds that the severer the sanctions the more exacerbated the human rights violations (69–70). So who, again, are these policies hurting? Rather, severing more and more ordinary people from their incomes (I cannot repeat this enough) will never affect the rich, but maybe more sanctions against all the wealth these rich people hide abroad might.
During World War II, both the Axis and the Allies, beginning, of course, with the former, embraced terrorism. It took many forms, particularly for the fascists who could not help themselves but to commit every evil a human can. But what concerns me here is “strategic bombing.” The name is a euphemism for the targeting of civilians via aerial bombardment, destroying their lives and homes, murdering and displacing millions—see the Tokyo firebombing, the Blitz, and, most atrociously of all, Little Boy and Fat Man. It remains an indictment of the Allies that they embraced this savagery we rightly highlight as monstrous when the fascists did it but mysteriously downplay when it is “our” side. The Allies trounced the fascists, and I only wish they could have done so sooner, but targeting civilians was incidental to victory.
YouTube good boy Shaun speaks about this subject in his dissertation-level video essay “Dropping the Bomb.” His sources make clear that the Allied leadership understood their objective as terrorism, evidenced by, for example, Bomber Harris explicitly stating, “[T]he destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.” Please recall my earlier quotations from Madelaine Albright, Lester D. Mallory, and Mike Pompeo. They know whom they are targeting.
Shaun argues—and I agree—that terrorizing civilians trapped under “militaristic, totalitarian, fascist” states is conceptually ineffective both at forcing the fascists to surrender and at compelling their populations to destabilize them. “[M]ilitaristic, totalitarian, fascist regimes don’t care about the opinions or wellbeing of their civilians. So they’re not likely to throw in the towel just because lots of ordinary people are getting killed or injured or made homeless.” Regarding the civilian side, Shaun continues: “It’s one thing to have your morale shaken and decide things would be better if Hitler was gone, and it’s another thing to translate that into action and go and fight the Gestapo.” See where I’m going with this?
After the war, bombing civilians became unpopular for a respectable liberal democracy, not to mention illegal (not that this has stopped the US in, say, Vietnam, Iraq, or Yemen). If strategic bombings are too cruel, financially powerful US-aligned states now accept sanctions as the more humane alternative. There are no children buried in rubble, but comprehensive sanctions are nonetheless a deadly weapon sprayed at millions of innocents. They are not so immediate or bloody as the artillery with which Russian troops have been shelling Kyiv or Mariupol, but in the end they kill just the same, and depending on how things go, the people they will kill and the millions they will irrevocably harm are not those manning the artillery.
If sanctions either barely or never work, why do policymakers pursue new ones? Why do policymakers maintain and the tighten comprehensive sanctions against Cuba, Iran, etc.? Why do policymakers want to put a similar constriction on Russia despite all these past failures and the pain, grief, isolation, and murder inflicted on so many innocent people? Pape offers a few hypotheses. I judge the truth to be the third he suggests, that the imposition of sanctions is a matter of domestic politics (109). Starving people abroad is abstract enough that Americans just want to keep doing it. Regarding the invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration, thank the Lord, does not (so far) consider human extinction an acceptable risk for going to war with Russia. Facing demands to “do something” coming from a public bombarded with Russian depravities in Ukraine and already primed with hatred after “Russiagate,” politicians and private groups throw down to see who can bandy the wildest talk of actual war for the sake of (I hope) scoring points with a bloodthirsty base rather than as serious proposals and to see who, for actual practice, can set up further- and further-reaching sanctions. And the US finds lifting sanctions painful indeed.
As Peter Beinart puts it in, of all things, a New York Times op-ed, “[Abandoning sanctions] would require admitting harsh truths: North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons. Iran will remain a regional power. Mr. Assad, Mr. Maduro, and the Communist government in Havana aren’t going anywhere. America’s leaders would rather punish already brutalized populations than concede the limits of American power.”
Beinart also observes that sanctions, or rather comprehensive and secondary sanctions, are a siege. They are a tool to starve out a population and wreck the prospects and lives of whole peoples. Whether extreme sanctions de jure block medicine and other essentials, de facto they do. Russian soldiers are, at the time I write this, laying siege to Mariupol the old-fashioned way, leading to mass graves for the people dying of thirst (and at the rate things are going, the Russians may have seized the city by the time this post goes live). I expect some people would argue another form of siege is a justified response. In the antihuman calculus of politics, perhaps it is. But I am of the opinion that terrorism cannot stop terrorism. Better to stop the terrorists specifically. And despite their human costs, and financial costs too given the profits “Western” companies are losing by forsaking Russian customers and users, the harshest sanctions do not even succeed at coercing their alleged targets, instead, if they are left in place, just immiserating and killing thousands.
Netflix, Sony, and other such services are not essential, I know. Of course, not that I would ever endorse piracy, but there are still ways to get movies and video games. As long as their employees are not summarily fired, I have no particular issue with McDonald’s or Starbucks closing shop—these moves almost seem silly. But these “unprecedented” sanctions are nonetheless an alarming indication of what is to come. First Russian-imposed blockages of social media sites cut such individuals off from many of their friends and then international sanctions cut off finances and livelihoods, and throw in their hobbies too in case a few of them might want some escapism.
Putting Russian officials and their kin on the No Fly List, confiscating oligarchs’ yachts and freezing their assets, continuing the arms embargo that has been in place since 2014, and even, despite more likely spillovers, restricting oil imports from Rosneft and Transneft are one thing (though it was on the last that Ilhan Omar drew the line). But blocking payment services is different. This alone kills people and ruins whole lives. Based on the examples of Cuba and Iran, it is only matter of time, the murderous force of poverty notwithstanding, before a lack of medicine starts destroying the most vulnerable, be it because hospitals cannot pay with their devalued currency, payments will not go through, or medical companies will not want to risk secondary sanctions for doing business with Russians. While this too is anecdotal, I have already seen such gut-punching stories online, though they reflect what people fear will soon be rather than what has yet occurred. And this is just the beginning. For the poorest wages will decline. The possibilities for emigration will decrease. And Putin and the other bandits will not change. Sucking the value from every Russian person’s savings, refusing to sell Russians computers, barring them from international payment systems—this is nothing short of terrorism.
It has also been concerning for me to realize that it is possible that SWIFT, a cooperative in Belgium, can basically flip a switch to wreck a country’s economy—no wonder people have called this a “nuclear option.” Like nukes, that power should not exist. It seems, I am sorry to confess, a victory for isolationists, who can reasonably argue that international interdependence is a vulnerability. It also highlights how, no matter what, the US and its allies cannot be sanctioned, or rather, since Russia is now sanctioning some US leaders, that sanctions against the US can be only purely symbolic. The US, NATO, and their allies wield the world’s financial power in SWIFT and in the plurality of powerful corporations housed within their borders. Moreover, the US cannot be sanctioned because US dollars are the most universal standard on which other currencies base their value. In the long term, this approach may not even serve American interests. For as Beinart points out, rather than allow the US to “bully non-Americans into participating in our sieges,” some banks and businesses are seeking alternatives to the dollar (my money, pun intended, is on the yuan), and this would also serve certain national governments well.
The notion that materially isolating millions of people could promote a democratic uprising is as ridiculous as the belief that a “militaristic, totalitarian, fascist regime” or similar forces of cruelty and indifference will begin caring about the opinions or wellbeing of the civilians they have so far busied themselves with terrorizing. The mental state conducive to the mass organization required for an uprising is not despair or a sense that the world hates you. Those who are willing to protest already are, and piling on misery will not coerce those who are too scared to overcome their fears. And I request anyone reading this to ask yourself if, in the course a few weeks, you found yourself in this situation and decided “things would be better if Hitler was gone,” you would actually “go and fight the Gestapo” and risk years in prison. And maybe you would. But if you equate deserving to live with being prepared to die fighting, if you maintain that only heroes are worth anything when so few are heroes, then I doubt anything I could say might convince you. And comprehensive sanctions hurt peace activists, anti-Putin dissidents, queer people, NGOs, and other well-intentioned groups inside Russia the same as the disaster hurts everyone else. To target the property of Russian officials, block these specific people from international transactions, or even sanction certain Russian corporations has sense behind it, even if some spillover might affect bystanders. But for states and companies to aim to hurt as many individual Russian people as possible is obscene. A whole country of people and their cultures must never be essentialized as the outlook of their state.
If anyone is serious about “self-determination of peoples,” “economic development,” and consequently better education and infrastructure leading to greater freedom and human wellbeing, then let people in less free states—states that continue doing everything for which they are being punished anyway—let these people participate in international culture and the international economy. It cannot make them less free, anyway. And let us recognize collective punishment for the grotesque, essentializing injustice it is.
But hasn’t our naïve WD overlooked some specifics? Does he propose some other move instead? Hasn’t he heard of the Navalny 35? Did WD forget BDS? To be continued in the second post, “Sanctions! Part Two”…