Published 24 March 2022
This continues from the ending of my previous post, “Sanctions! Part One.” Please give the first part a look before reading this, or else the context might be unclear. It will feel even more like walking in on the middle of some strangers’ conversation. Oh no! Sources linked in part one will also not be linked below.
That seminar I mentioned at the University of Wisconsin concluded with a Q&A. The faculty did not record anything after the lectures, and I regret that I did not think to either, for now there is no documentation except my notes and memory: a student brought up that comprehensive sanctions, contrary to the economics professor’s optimism, had failed to effect regime change in Cuba, Iraq, and Iran. So why did this professor, he wanted to know, believe that deprivation would make people overthrow Putin? With far more academic roundaboutness than my paraphrase, the professor responded that, true, in Iran the sanctions only caused a rally-around-the-flag effect, completely failed to shift policy, and made Iran more hostile and less “free”—but, you know, maybe with Russia everyone can pretend this time they’ll “work.”
This, I thought, was some bad thinking.
But the Q&A is a compelling format, and I’m sure the audience has noticed some aspects of this situation I’ve overlooked, so I’ll open up the floor to questions. Let’s start with you…
“Hi, WD. I’ve been following this mess of yours, and boy am I ready to tell you what’s what. Whatever you claim, you’re a Putin-lover. Don’t you know he’s also critical of the sanctions?”
And he has also lied about them, as I said. From his position, the sanctions are a great propaganda tool because he can correctly claim they are hurting tens of millions of people. For normal people, they may ruin their lives, basically. That can make for a receptive audience. For Putin personally, in terms of whether he can continue living in luxury day-to-day, they are more an inconvenience. Though that is, if you ask me, no reason not to go after his yachts and mansions and shell companies.
“How about you ask the Ukrainians what they want, eh? It’s not like any of them have Russian relatives or anything who might be worried about rapid inflation, soaring food prices, or losing their incomes. Zelenskyy himself talked to Congress the other day, WD. And he specifically said to add more sanctions—said for every American company to withdraw from Russia, every last one. I for one will never eat an Auntie Anne’s pretzel again, knowing that, right now, some guy in Krasnodar might be enjoying one. Why is it you seem more with Putin, the attacker, than with Zelenskyy, the victim?”
I am aware, thank you, that, in his moving 16 March speech to US Congress, Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for all American companies to leave Russia, to “leave their market immediately because it is flooded with our blood.” I understand the response, but I believe it is in error, and I know it is in error for essential services. Zelenskyy also called for increasingly comprehensive sanctions to be placed upon every Russian politician. As I hope to get to later, that seems more sensible: instead of destroying an economy, it might directly squeeze individuals who have power and influence.
Considering that, in the same speech, Zelenskyy also renewed his request for a no-fly zone and hence nuclear war (albeit as a rhetorical maneuver to make his subsequent request for matériel seem more reasonable in comparison), I do not believe this brave man has the right idea about everything (including his politics). But then, easy for me to say. A Yemeni survivor of a US-funded bombing might react by wishing all Americans die. In the same way, responses of this kind emotionally and, in terms of appearances, even politically make sense. And I do not judge people for thinking such things. However, they are not prudent or ethical courses of action to execute.
At the same time, characterizing Cinnabon as wading through blood for serving Russian customers may be fair. The company must be paying some amount of taxes to the Russian government, after all. And its departure would, I think, be relatively trivial, so long as it gave its Russian employees forewarning and financial stability. But following that logic, I would like to ask in what way the company is not flooded with blood serving Americans. I want to ask, just once, everyone not shrug when those murdered and robbed are Afghans or Yemenis or Palestinians. At least if someone said that you and I (for you, imaginary prickly interlocutor, are American) should also be forbidden from buying Auntie Anne’s junk food because of where we happen to live, that person would be consistent. But Cinnabon is an American company, so somehow I doubt this could happen. In any case, I oppose civilian companies, as opposed to military companies or civilian companies with military contracts, being pressured to shut down.
“The situations with American and Russian wars are totally different because, I’ll have you know, the media framed them to me very differently. But instead of doing the Kremlin’s dirty work, WD, if you genuinely believe they’re victims, why didn’t you write a post about the plight of the Ukrainian people? I’ll assure you I cared about Ukraine plenty before the last month. Haven’t you seen the news? The old woman with her legs blown off—the murdered children—the pregnant woman crushed to death—residential buildings smoldering? Cry me a river about some Russian freelancer who can no longer afford a place to live.”
Every news feed documents well the atrocities the Russian looters continue to carry out in Ukraine—shelling residential buildings and hospitals, recklessly attacking the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (and others), sadistically feigning ceasefires to murder yet more people, targeting civilian shelters and even a maternity ward because their objective, as terrorists, is to destroy the innocent. And Ukrainian people heroically fight back, sabotage Russian tanks, build Molotov cocktails, and take up arms to defend their communities. Others—now over ten million in total—flee their homes, for which I do not blame them, most to carry trauma that will follow them to their graves. European states welcome the influx of refugees fleeing this naked aggression, proving, shockingly, that the EU can respond to refugee crises humanely. And Zelenskyy has transformed himself from a middle-of-the-road comedian-turned-liberal politician into a folk hero.
I have nothing to add. People are conscious enough of these matters. As, I hope, a leftist—and overall buzzkill—I feel the need to use this platform, tiny as it is, to draw attention to harms people overlook.
The pain that concerns me is not that of invaders. I am not upset to see a Ukrainian shoot a Russian attacker. For it is possible to consider two issues at once. The pain of one person is not less real or less worth addressing because someone somewhere else is in greater pain. Suffering is not a zero-sum game. And if you think it is, mere “first world problems” or whatever, then we fundamentally disagree.
“But, WD, these ordinary Russians you talk about believe in Putin’s propaganda. The punks in all these countries hate us. And it’s sad, sure, that a lot of blameless jerks might get hurt or die. Not that I’d volunteer myself for that, but I’m not brainwashed like these fanatical foreigners. You have to water the tree of liberty with blood or however that goes, like an Aztec sacrifice, which were pretty cool, you must admit. But there’s no perfect way. There’s always some collateral damage, even to this ‘revolution’ stuff you lefties fantasize about—yes, I see you lot fantasizing about plenty of murder. So why are you getting offended on Russia’s behalf?”
Granted, comprehensive sanctions kill thousands of people and ruin many more people’s lives. But at least Pape, Drezner, and Peksen all conclude they also further entrench the power of the leaders they are (allegedly) meant to target. In his original response to HSE, discussing how targeted governments adapt to sanctions by stealing from vulnerable groups, Pape finishes, “Thus it was possible for economic sanctions to cause the incomes of blacks in Rhodesia to fall while the standard of living for whites rose” (107). Drezner cites research separate from Pape and Peksen’s to conclude that “[i]n authoritarian regimes, leaders [have] an incentive to create private and excludable goods for supporters, as opposed to public goods for the mass citizenry. Comprehensive sanctions [create] the opportunity for target governments to allocate rent-seeking opportunities to those supporters” (100) and so further consolidate power. Peksen argues that sanctions almost always lead to worsening human rights abuses and greater dictatorial power in direct proportion to their extensiveness (74).
There is evidence, yes, I write with a sigh, that Putin still enjoys a high approval rating among the Russian public. While I trust the Levada Center, I am not confident in the ability to conduct unbiased polls in Russia. And even if people have bad opinions, unless they are actively, personally hurting the world with them, I do not think they deserve punishment, and I do not wish penury even on the evil. As much as I hate that some people are racist and ignorant enough to vote for Donald Trump, I do not think every one of them should have their lives ruined. From a theoretical perspective, guilt for the crimes of society may be dispersed across millions, fair enough. But I am completely against collective punishment. That family down the street from me should not lose their financial security as a punishment for not having driven south to the border to storm an ICE concentration camp (and probably go to federal prison for their trouble).
“Anyway, the Russian citizens pay taxes. Any American company over there is paying taxes too, as you yourself admit. That’s the real reason it’s betrayal to remain. In Iran, at least, I think the people vote. Are any of these people civilians?”
That is the thought process of atrocity, of genocide—and of “strategic bombing.” In the past, I too have fallen into this kind of thinking, an armchair realpolitik. The taxes go to the state and from there to paying for tanks and bombs. So whatever stops taxes, however trivially or otherwise, is a legitimate strategy. Following this logic, for years I myself felt as though I deserved die—I am no psychologist, but that perspective seems unhealthy.
I have since realized my error. For this is the logic with which Osama bin Laden justified targeting civilians. Incidentally, Shamil Basayev, whose bloodier terrorism (comparable to Putin’s own) failed to remove Putin from office, used nearly identical excuses for indiscriminately targeting Russians. In his “letter to America,” bin Laden argues that Americans pay taxes and vote for their leaders, so all Americans support Israeli settler-colonialism and other atrocities, which means all Americans are guilty for all of the US state’s atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine the same as if they had executed these acts personally.
That enflamed essentialism might make for an emotionally compelling argument. But in terms of rationality, of morals—I doubt my nephew, who has only recently learned to talk, can be held responsible for the Biden administration’s genocidal sanctions against Afghanistan. When bin Laden wrote his letter, I was a young child barely aware that other countries existed. Did I deserve to be blown up because my family paid taxes, a cent of which might have hypothetically gone to the scum running the Abu Ghraib prison?
If you accept the perverse “justice” of collective punishment for inaction or insufficient action, then it seems consistent to consider 9/11 a fundamentally ethical as an act of war—even if every one of the people the terrorists murdered that day personally opposed American imperialism, these civilians still paid taxes, right?
“You think there’s no difference between starving someone and blowing someone up or burying them in rubble?”
Each method kills. And my point is not that strongly disincentivizing the sale medicine to Cubans is the same as hijacking a passenger airliner and flying it into a skyscraper. Rather, my point is that the same depraved reasoning that justifies terrorism in a case widely condemned also does so in a case many consider acceptable.
“Maybe saying there are no civilians is a bit much, fine. So what, WD, you’re a fan of all these authoritarian regimes? You hate freedom, do you? You want us to do business with the Taliban, who we all know are evil?”
Human lives have value whether or not they exist under a liberal democracy. Privation adds only an additional terror to their lives. In Afghanistan, these sanctions are just murdering innocent people and absolutely not stopping the Taliban. Ordinary people of every country have far more in common with each other than with their rulers and should not be made to hate or resent each other. The structures that render some lofty hoarders who face no consequences and others “ordinary” people who must suffer evil is what is fundamentally wrong with the world.
“Let’s admit you might have some evidence. These sanctions will hurt innocent people and not stop the bad guys. But be realistic, WD. What else can we do?”
Online, I have seen many comments of this sort, comments that follow a strange logic. Their writers seem to accept the premise that sanctions will hurt innocent people and also not succeed at stopping Putin. But then they somehow do not conclude from these premises that there should be no sanctions because it is so important to “do something,” apparently even if “doing something” is unproductive terrorism.
I do not consider all sanctions “unproductive terrorism,” but that should be the conclusion based on these premises. And in this case, for example, you can do things like donate to causes helping Ukrainian refugees.
“Oh? You think not attacking innocent people is an option?”
Yes, particularly if your stated goal is to stop attacks against innocent people. Whether or not a state is up to no good is irrelevant to the question of if we should shun those who liver under it. Everyone deserves life and joy and love! A lot of folks understand that the states “we” consider our enemies and that consider themselves our enemies are oppressive. What does oppression mean? That they terrorize their people and their neighbors, and this, we would hope, is why we consider them “our” “enemies.” But what does “oppression” matter to us if we don’t care about these people the state is busy oppressing—if we want to oppress those sorry bastards too for daring to be born in the bad guy place? They might feel good to those who want to “do something” without directly shooting or stabbing anyone, to those distant from the despair of their effects, but whom do such sanctions help?
“Personally, I’m all for a nuclear war. I think human extinction and nobody ever feeling love again is a reasonable price for stopping evil. You, though?”
Are you a serial killer or something? Why is this electorate so bloodthirsty?
“Interesting that you answer questions with questions. Hello, WD. I am an imaginary version of the political scientist Nikolay Marinov, author of ‘Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?’ Your examples, the classics of Iraq, Cuba, and Iran, overemphasize the most atypical cases.”
I’m honored an (imaginary construct of) a Yale political scientist is responding to me. Thank you, Professor Marinov, for being more respectful than the last guy.
It is wrong to apply the examples of Iraq, Cuba, and Iran’s responses to comprehensive sanctions to every instance of all types of sanctions. However, Russia’s position seems pretty similar, at least until we see how long the sanctions last.
“Your error is generalizing all sanction programs based on what you acknowledge as the rare, atypical cases.”
Look, I understand why you would not do business with a government your country was directly at war with or why you would block the sale of weapons to a warlord. But there is never a justification for wantonly targeting civilians. Never.
“Your thinking and the approaches of every source you cite on the subject reflect a graver, foundational mistake. You believe sanctions ‘work’ if sanctions succeed in coercing the target leaders to make policy concessions to the senders. However, in assessing efficacy, we must ask whether the threat of sanctions, rather than only their imposition, compels leaders not to take destabilizing action they might otherwise consider. Why make these pronouncements on the utility of sanctions when, in fact, we know very little about this subject?”
I find appeals to what what sanctions hypothetically prevent unconvincing for the same reason as the argument that massive, invasive state surveillance prevents terrorism. One could respond by pointing to terrorist attacks that happened despite a loss of rights, but these could be dismissed as the few cases that slipped through the cracks, for you don’t see the attacks that they prevent. This reasoning justifies whatever you need it to justify.
What we do know about comprehensive sanctions is that they do not succeed at coercing their targets, they cause death and tremendous suffering by preventing the flow of food and medicine and communication, and they wither human rights even if the state already had no respect for such matters. Similar to what Pape argues, given the potential toll on human life, and I would add the toll on mental health, if it remains unclear whether sanctions work, that is not an argument for their use. If a drug has never been subjected to formal scientific testing but already shows a track record of not curing diseases while also causing deadly side effects, it should not be distributed.
Ah, you there. Do you want to ask something?
“Yes, thank you. In contrast to these other straw man voices in your head you’ve been talking with so far, I am one of those things people call ‘a leftist.’ Some stuff has slipped your mind, WD, and not trivial stuff either. I myself am skeptical of sanctions when they’re used against states I feel sympathetic toward, like Cuba. But leftist or otherwise, I hope we can all agree that Rhodesian and South African apartheid are in the top one hundred worst things imperialists ever blighted the world with. Tbf we are talking about Russians—but since you have felt the need to generalize, didn’t sanctions beat the South African National Party? Isn’t that a huge victory for this tool?”
You might recall what Pape argues about sanctions against Rhodesia. In addition to increasing inequality, the sanctions, Pape holds, did not topple the apartheid Rhodesian state. Instead he reasonably attributes this to the armed uprising that predated the sanctions.
South Africa, though, is an outlier for sure. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu promoted disinvestment and sanctions and in large part attributed the fall of apartheid to this strategy. Even that contrarian Pape accepts that sanctions against South Africa were effective, hypothesizing the cause might have been that the Black South Africans had no extra wealth for the white supremacists to wring from them to compensate for the loss in trade.
However, this narrative, while uplifting in the way it presents an international effort to fight racism, may not stand up to scrutiny. South Africa faced some sanctions from the 1960s and 1970s, notably the UN arms embargo, and then far-reaching sanctions in the mid-1980s. In “Sanctions on South Africa: What Did They Do?” published in The American Economic Review, Philip I. Levy argues that the sanctions had no strong economic effect on South Africa. In fact, GDP growth increased following the imposition of the mid-’80s sanctions (416), and he adds, unsurprisingly given the pattern, that crackdowns on Black activists may have intensified (418). If sanctions and divestment were decisive, Levy contends it is a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back and that the effect was psychological rather than material. However, he suggests the real issue was that the instability the apartheid system did not make economic sense and led to increased instability due to the existent protests, sabotage, and armed combat against it. Admittedly something less than an expert on the subject, I would assume that this activism is enough to account for Mandela’s eventual release. But Irving argues that the main mover behind disinvestment from South Africa was not anti-racism but rather companies not wanting to invest in such a volatile place. The history of the rise and fall of apartheid on the ANC website does not even mention sanctions and divestment.
Supposing Levy’s counternarrative is wrong, South Africa’s situation was still, as Pape would put it, overdetermined. At the same time as the disinvestment and sanctions, there were already uprisings, school boycotts, mass sabotage, armed rebellion, and organized opposition in the form of the ANC, the PAC, the SACPO, the Communist Party, the COD, trade unions, and other (often affiliated) organizations. The more comprehensive sanctions, as opposed to the oil and arms embargoes, lasted for only about five years, as opposed to the protracted and comprehensive siege against Cuba or Iran. Instead of being severed from all trade and supplies, the ANC and PAC received not insubstantial outside support from foreign activists and, for example, Cuba, Tanzania, Zambia, and the Soviet Union. The ANC and other activists and rebel organizations fighting apartheid preexisted the sanctions, rather than arising in response to them, as some people seem to think will happen in Russia. And—pay attention since this is essential—the South African anti-apartheid activists themselves advocated sanctions. Not all activists, true, but a lot of them. The sanctions were not imposed by hostile foreign countries. And the sanctions the activists advocated were not, unlike the sanctions against Russia, meant to destroy their currency and impoverish their home. They were meant to target specific organizations and beneficiaries of the vile racist system.
Yes, sanctions and divestment may really have brought down apartheid, but South Africa is, again, an outlier.
“This is interesting. And depressing. But being a leftist, I also oppose the settler-colonial project of Israel. This is pretty tough tbh considering I’m not commanding an army. So I oppose it by endorsing the best tool we’ve got: BDS—‘Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.’ ‘Sanctions’ is right there in the name. If you too are a coherent leftist, WD, you must support BDS, since what else would you endorse, Hamas? It seems hypocritical, then, to be down on sanctioning an imperialist state like Russia. Or are you against BDS?”
First, accepting actions that one generally opposes is not hypocritical. Ordinarily, I am appalled at the idea of shooting people or blowing them up. I find the violent rhetoric common on both the left and right (behead them! shoot them! hang them all! you get the wall!) disgusting and concerning. But, when people are directly, immediately attacking your town, murdering your loved ones, cutting off essential supplies, destroying your homes, and trying to conquer you, then I believe shooting and blowing up the invaders, as heartbreaking as it may be, is a valid course of action.
Second, BDS does not advocate the kind of sanctions about which this ignoramus (me) has been bloviating. Part of what prompted me to write this post is a Twitter thread I happened to see posted by Sana Saeed of AJ+.
(I have found some people claiming Saeed is a Bashar al-Assad apologist. While I did not find clear evidence to back up the accusation, if it is true, then I would not trust Saeed. However, since it is her thread that gave me this idea, either way it would be inappropriate not to credit her, and in this case I believe her argument checks out.)
First, Saeed notes that BDS is requested and supported by “Palestinian civil society” rather than imposed from without with no warning. Second, BDS does not call for the freezing of bank assets or all international trade to crash the value of the shekel, “sending those who live within Palestine/Israel into severe destitution – because that would also most heavily hit the most marginalized: Palestinians.” Remember that BDS is inspired by the divestment and sanctions on South Africa, and these too were the request of South African activists and also did not aim at impoverishing everyone in South Africa. I cannot emphasize enough that the sanctions BDS advocates are not imposed from without but requested and advocated for by Palestinian activists themselves. Furthermore, as the official BDS platform states, the goal is to boycott, divest from, and sanction specifically organizations with Israeli settlements, that sustain Israeli apartheid, and/or are “engaged in violations of Palestinian rights.” BDS is not a call for blanket sanctions on every civilian company that pays taxes and certainly not a call to ruin the lives of every person in Israel and Palestine by freezing all bank assets, kicking them off every website and storefront, cutting off all trade, and executing collective punishment against the poor. Saeed also rightly argues that there is another essential difference between the US and its allies doing BDS to Israeli organizations and to Russian ones. This is that “US&EU [sic] support upholds [Israeli] apartheid” but does not “[prop up] the Russian invasion.” PayPal and Fiverr were in no way major sources of income for the Russian military, so far as I know, but they were major sources of income for countless bystanders who have now been so screwed over they can’t even beg for help on GoFundMe.
This is the thing. Divestment and sanctions should not be targeted against whole peoples.
“That is a pretty big difference. Though sometimes sacrifices must be made, WD. So you support some sanctions?”
Instead of comprehensive sanctions summarily shutting thousands or millions of innocents off from modern conveniences, essentials, and communities, there are “smart sanctions” or “targeted sanctions.” These sanctions, in theory, target specific individuals and organizations. So rather than cut Russian banks from SWIFT, for example, specific Russian oligarchs’ assets would be frozen or seized.
In “Sanctions Sometimes Smart,” Drezner covers the history that led to countries foreswearing the untenable “kill them all” model of, say, the embargo on Cuba in favor of targeted sanctions. Comprehensive sanctions murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi people, causing policymakers “a great deal of consternation” (98) in the ’90s and early 2000s. So, Drezner writes, internationally and within the US, a consensus emerged favoring this more merciful model, and by 2010, “both the United Nations and the United States had internalized the idea of targeted sanctions” (101). I wonder, then, how Drezner would explain why the US refuses to lift comprehensive sanctions on its rivals, say. But anyway…
Freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs, blocking them from international travel, continuing the arms embargo, blocking the sale of various technologies to the Russian defense ministry, even blocking the sale of gas and oil (which should be done anyway because the world must immediately scale down fossil fuel use)—using boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against specific individuals and companies that are specifically, actively involved in perpetuating and fueling war crimes makes sense.
But I doubt even “smart sanctions” would stop the Kremlin. Surveying the research, Drezner concludes that there is no evidence targeted sanctions are any more effective at changing policies than comprehensive ones. If anything, he finds that targeted sanctions may be slightly less effective than attacking innocents, though only barely so.
More importantly, however, targeted sanctions are also more humane, causing substantially less harm to normal people. Call me old-fashioned, but I think if you kill one innocent person or ruin one innocent person’s life, that is one too many. I guess it comes down to our definitions of “innocent.” I know I am repeating myself, but there is never a time to watch normal people attacked with sanctions or any other weapon and decide it is good or just.
“You still haven’t said whether you support BDS. I absolutely do. But based on what you’ve said, WD, if no sanctions work, why would BDS?”
They might work. Similar to South Africa, Israel is an apartheid state. There is also active and armed resistance within Israel (or within Gaza). And Israel, being dependent on “Western” investment, represents a completely different situation than Russia (or Cuba, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela…). Maybe this case is also an outlier. And even Pape claims the HSE data indicate a 4% success rate, not 0%.
While no expert, truth is I am not confident that BDS will work. Rather, without other forms of pressure, I doubt it would, but other forms of pressure, I think, have been happening. If there is somewhere that BDS has advocated cutting off every Israeli freelancer from their income or attacking the savings of every last person in Israel, then I completely disagree with that notion. But so far as I know, BDS does not call for immiserating millions of people. I am not an activist on the ground, so if those who are doing serious work call for certain sanctions, boycotts, and divestments, then I am all for it.
“If I had a screwdriver that couldn’t screw any bolts, say because it was a hammer, I would throw it out. Why do you support a tool you doubt works?”
Targeted sanctions can “work” even if they do not work in the sense of forcing the target state to change policy. For Drezner, for example, targeted sanctions, like I’d tell you sanctions are in general, are also more a matter of domestic politics than international policy: “Because they do not impede significant trade flows, smart sanctions can be imposed indefinitely with minimal cost. They clearly solve the political problem of ‘doing something’ in the face of target state transgressions” (104).
Targeted sanctions can make sense for other reasons. If a sex pest works for a company, the company should fire the lout regardless of whether doing so will cause him to change his ways, for this still sends a clear message of what is and is not acceptable. Even if it did not topple apartheid, the arms embargo on South Africa was a good move in of itself. On a somewhat smaller scale, there has been talk recently about boycotting Harry Potter books, merchandise, or the iffy-looking new video game made by an “anti-SJW” YouTuber. The call to boycott comes because buying these products would, in some small way, endorse and fund JK Rowling’s anti-trans bigotry. This boycott against a specific bad actor is the smallest good deed someone could do, though nobody pretends it might change Rowling’s mind or cause her to lose her vast wealth.
“Your ideas might be intriguing, but you and I are only spectators. What do dissidents within Russia want? Somehow I bet they’re the authority on this subject.”
Not speaking or reading Russian, I can do only so much research into this subject. Navalny famously demanded extensive sanctions against thirty-five Russian billionaires and officials, the “Navalny 35.” Most especially, Navalny has advocated for foreign governments to seize the billions that these plutocrats—who, to paraphrase this daring man, have no motherland except their Swiss bank accounts—stow in tax havens outside Russia. “We’re all tired of rolling our eyes, watching the US impose sanctions on some colonels and generals, who don’t even have any money abroad,” he told TIME contributor Simon Shuster earlier this year (before the current sanctions).
I am glad that, so far as I can tell, at least some of the targeted sanctions Navalny has called for are being implemented. May the UK’s new “kleptocracy unit” track down and freeze Putin’s assets! Even Switzerland has sanctioned Russia, so maybe someone will go after those bank accounts Navalny mentioned. The problem is that Russian oligarchs use the same tricks to hide their wealth and avoid taxes as the crooks in other countries. Officially, Putin is not that wealthy, but in terms of what he owns through numerous shell companies, he may be as rich as Elon Musk. As noted in the Bloomberg article “Seizing Superyachts of Russia’s Elite Is Harder Than It Sounds,” robust laws protecting private property and asset shuffling, trust funds, and offshore accounts mean that, despite all the tough talk from politicians, seizing Russian oligarchs’ property is not so easy and will take a while. Jets and yachts are eye-grabbing, but they are just part of it. I suppose attacking Russian sex workers is much faster and easier.
Yes, for all I know, Russia of the Future might completely support the devaluing of the ruble. I believe they and other dissidents have released some commentary on the current sanctions. Because this information is all in Russian, I am unfortunately unsure what specifically they have to say about the matter.
Sanctioning leaders of oppressive and imperialist states is very good. As for these Russian oligarchs—I’m always up to see billionaires lose some plunder, though I am not optimistic this will happen soon.
For I am not against sanctions per se. Even Russians losing access to EA or Spotify, while unpleasant and unnecessary, does not strike me as that big a deal. The way copyright works, it is already common for some media to not be available in some territories, after all. The issue is—and I keep repeating this, but it is serious—states and corporations freezing Russian bank assets and going out of their way to torment as many Russian people as possible. People, whatever the ruthlessness of their government, must be allowed to have international transactions and not have their incomes cut off or devalued—or have their loved ones die when they can’t get them anticonvulsants or mood stabilizers or insulin. Anyone imposing sanctions that plunge innocents into nightmares is no better than a murderer.
“Harsh. So then you think targeted sanctions will work against Putin?”
If you ask me, short of the end of the world or Ukraine successfully jettisoning their vicious invaders, nobody outside of Russia can stop Putin. An anonymous “Kremlin insider” told Shuster these sanctions would never work. “Can you even imagine such a conversation? ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, maybe we should ease up. We’ve got a lot of money on the line.’ Nobody would come to him with something like that. You’d have to be an idiot.” Navalny maintains the point is to get the oligarchs to turn against Putin. Many international observers (and jerks on social media) take a similar perspective. Maybe it will work. But—I cannot repeat this enough—severing the livelihoods of Russian employees of international companies and Russian freelancers and Russian artists and Russian sex workers and destroying people’s savings and materially isolating them from the outside world will not affect Putin or anybody who has his ear. It will only hurt innocents.
The horrible truth is that nuclear weapons exist. The US and NATO cannot, under any circumstances, go to war with Russia. Since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, still among the worst atrocities in human history (may there be nothing so bad it knocks them off the list), nuclear weapons have been understood as a deterrent to conflict. But now they prevent military responses to those states that own them. If Ukraine had nukes, Russia would never have invaded. If Iraq had nukes, the US would never have invaded. This grim precedent is why states like North Korea have been so keen on developing their own nuclear arsenals—it is the only way, it seems, to prevent an invasion. Yet it also must be stopped if the human species is to have a chance.
The US weakened the “international rules-based order” through its own imperialism. Now that another country has violated the same rules, Americans should not be so shocked. As regards the war in Ukraine, instead of attacking so many innocents, no matter the atrocities Americans see the Russian military carry out in Ukraine, atrocities incidentally so often similar to what US (and even more so Russian!!) troops have done in the Middle East, sometimes, as Pape wrote, the tragic truth is that US may have to accept that it simply cannot impose its will at an acceptable cost.
“Usually, it is good when the US empire can’t impose its will. This is the first time I can remember the US wasn’t on the wrong side of something. Feels surreal tbh. Yet still I want to cry. So will the twenty-first century consist of nuclear-armed states carving up the rest of the world into satrapies in a series of endless, bloody proxy wars over resources dwindling due to climate change, inveterately concluding in a nuclear war once someone accidentally fires over some border, and there is nothing anyone can do to save humanity short of a unified international socialist revolution in all the nuclear states that permanently destroys every nuclear arsenal and abolishes class antagonisms?”
…Okay, let’s wrap this up…
“We can agree that this has been a melodramatic Q&A, WD. But before I need to leave for my shift, I have a final question. There have been far-reaching sanctions against other countries for years now, WD—for your whole life. Earlier you touched on Iraq, Cuba, Iran… If you care so much about people, why didn’t you talk about this sanction stuff until now?”
You don’t know I haven’t. There is more to my life than what I post online. But the only politics for which I have publicly advocated and marched “irl” are entirely domestic—so yes, fair. I have previously kept my opinions on sanctions to myself.
Considering the countries (up until the last month or so) subject to the harshest sanctions—Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan—an element of unconscious racial bias might be at play. But I do not believe this is the keystone. Rather, it is that I have had a degree of personal interactions with Russian people I have never happened to have with people from these other places. These relationships have been limited. All save one I would characterize as professional rather than personal. But they have nonetheless been relationships. And I have taken classes about Russian art and history. Petty though those these intercultural interactions may be, I have loved Russian literature, Russian films, Russian video games, and the odd bit of Russian food here and there (salad Olivier is very yummy). That sanctions are terrorism I have long believed. But, previously, the victims had seemed abstract. What was a Cuban person really like? This is the first time I have ever put a face to those on whom this evil is inflicted, so to speak. And that empathetic connection alone is what has made me so genuinely upset by the recent sanctions and the attitudes toward them (and toward Russians broadly) I have observed online. It breaks my heart. It truly breaks my heart.
“I can imagine what that’s like. I knew some Iranian people at university. Even so, Russia is an imperialist state, WD. Maybe you have let emotion cloud your judgment.”
But we are emotional! That we have emotions is why cruelty is wrong!
Still, maybe I am wrong. Maybe this will all be over next week, and these two posts will seem laughably overblown or a historical curiosity. Maybe the current sanctions regime is, in fact, the most effective and merciful option. Maybe every person in Russia deserves depression, both economic and emotional, for having lived more or less contentedly and never rising up against their ruling regime’s imperialist inclinations—and even those who did voice dissent and dared protest despite the risks deserve, for failing to move the needle, the same punishment as those who have done nothing and those who think Putin is the best. Maybe Russian dissidents themselves would deem me too softhearted. Maybe they would say, well, sometimes you have to break a few eggs.
Maybe the reason I respond the way I do is because I know that the country where I was born and still live, the United States, has carried out equally atrocious and unjustifiable imperialist aggression Iraq and Afghanistan and funded much the same in Israel. Maybe I respond the way I do because the US has continued murdering civilians through bombings and infrastructure destruction and political destabilization for as long as I have been conscious of what a “bombing” is. Maybe I respond the way I do because in the terroristic “War on Terror” and its aftermath the Watson Institute estimates that over 387,00 civilians have been killed, thirty-eight million displaced, and several times as many killed due to the infrastructural and political destruction these wars have wrought—and please recall the nightmare famine unfolding in Afghanistan I have already mentioned and the millions of lives, loves, and possibilities it is crushing. Maybe I respond the way I do because I know that the country I live in was built on land stolen from people the system still wants to exterminate, some of whom, such as Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., and members of the Yakama Tribal Council, have likened Russian savagery Ukraine to what European invaders did to them. Maybe, if the economic terror the Russian people are now facing is justified, the same is justified against me and almost every person I have ever met—more justified against us, in fact, for despite the severe limitations of an American “democracy” in which some demographics’ votes are worth more than others and in which ordinary people have zero influence over policy, we nonetheless, gerrymandering and ID laws and tear gas be damned, enjoy more freedom to protest and organize and more influence over the state than we would under a genuine dictator. Maybe all my darkest and most suicidal thoughts are correct, my therapists have been wrong, and, because of the place where I live, I really don’t deserve to live. Maybe I do deserve hell because I know I have not done enough—that I can never do enough.
Maybe this essay is not empathetic at all. Maybe it is kneejerk self-defense of my comfy lifestyle. Maybe we all need to rapidly lose much of what brings us stability and comfort, like shock therapy. I accept that, sometimes, terrorism may be necessary: while I know I would be repulsed to witness what they did, I do not condemn John Brown, Sofia Perovskaya, or Dedan Kimathi. But even so, I can never accept indiscriminate terrorism. Maybe that, too, is wrong of me.
If, however, sometimes one simply must chuck millions of innocent lives into the crossfire, I would encourage any American reader or any reader who can recall the state that controls the land you live on carrying out aggression and atrocities to ask yourself a few questions. Ask yourself whether, for these crimes, you and your friends and family too deserve to lose your freedom to buy products from other countries, your accounts on even innocuous freelancing websites, your job at an international company, all your income if you depend on international payment, much of your income and savings because of rapid inflation, your credit cards, your financial stability, your savings, your freedom to travel, your ability to pay for Netflix or Spotify or your preferred streamers or celebrities or other subscriptions—your sense of acceptance, hope, interconnectivity to the world—the entire life, perhaps, that you have built for yourself—to punish you for something someone else, perhaps someone you hate anyway, to punish you for what this other did. In response to losing so much, would you decide, yes, you will go to jail possibly indefinitely to attempt to overthrow your government? Would you be prepared to face police torture? To face, perhaps, execution? To lose your employment prospects because of an arrest record? Would you throw away the life you have built so far to form a revolutionary organization and become a guerrilla soldier to overthrow your imperialist ruler? Is it your government you would blame? Would you have the wherewithal not to accept your state’s propaganda, which is all around you and which is perhaps what you have been raised on, when it tells you that this terror and anxiety forced upon you by these foreign states for something you did not do is proof that they really are your enemies and truly hate you and that your government really is, whatever its flaws, the only force in the world on your side? Would you be able to keep yourself motivated in these circumstances, witnessing those around you whom you thought you could trust decide, from the coercion of an dwindling media bubble and the narratives that come easiest, to accept this very propaganda that you, of course, are too wise to believe? Would you shrug and accept that your mother or your brother or your kid or you yourself just had to die because none of the medicine you require was available? Or would you give up? Would you quit getting out of bed? Would you feel the dread of apocalyptic anxiety squeeze your heart and rattle your thoughts and leave you to cry and scream from the absolute impotence you feel in a world where all horizons are vanishing? Did every American who has argued Russians must accept all this and become protesters—no, members of a rebel uprising—do the same in their homeland after the Bush administration invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Would you deserve it? Would your kids?
Maybe I am wrong. But I know my answers to these questions.