The Real Reason for Sanctions? Stubborn Russia Won't Surrender Its Sovereignty

Regime change may not be the main aim of US sanctions against Russia—but it certainly fits the pattern

In the 20th century, the use of sanctions as punitive policy became more and more popular. Franklin Roosevelt tried sanctions on Japan in 1940. Dwight Eisenhower imposed them on Britain (Suez) in 1956. Jimmy Carter smacked them on the Soviet Union after its invasion (by invitation) of Afghanistan in 1980 with a wheat embargo and an Olympic boycott. Reagan used them to protest martial law in Poland. Congress also began to see the ease of using sanctions as a cheap way of expressing a hissy fit. In 1996, for example, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Vanuatu and Venezuela all were sanctioned to one or another degree by the US for their historic relations with whales and/or dolphins. All told, it is estimated that sanctions were used in less than 25 instances during the 20th century. Since then America has imposed more than 80 new sanctions on foreign independent, sovereign countries.

Sanctions make for headlines that show political “action”, they have a feel-good aura and allow politicians to feel they are being seen and headlined as doing something. Sanctions are less wimpy than word spanking an ambassador and less gory than sending in the marines. They afford immediate satisfaction of work in progress, despite the annoying details of collateral damage. The alleged Russian violations of international norms resulted in a sanctions regime progressively imposed upon Russia. However, various legal and political scholars regard sanction regimes as basic material coercion and therefore irreconcilable with international law.

Regime change may not be the main aim of sanctions, or the norm, although it seems to fit the pattern. The morality of punishing the citizens of a foreign sovereign nation is worth a thought. It seems a kinky way to win hearts and minds. No wonder that sanctions, especially unilaterally imposed ones like America's long standing on again – off again ban on trade with Cuba, Libya, Iran, or amped up sanctions against Russia might also understandably cause friction among one’s own allies.

Under current sanctions the export value from Russia to the United States for the first 5 months of 2017 amounted to $3.9 billion, while import value for the same period was $4.8 billion, a negative trade balance for Russia. The total volume of trade between Russia and the United States has been declining since 2014. In 2016, the total volume amounted to $19.9 billion, which is a drop from $29.1 billion in 2014. The 28-country EU during this same period recorded its greatest increase of trade with Russia, which overtook Switzerland as the third main source of imports for the EU. Despite western economic sanctions imposed after Crimea voted to integrate with the Russian Federation, EU exports to Russia grew 24.6 percent between January and May, driven by manufactured goods and machinery, while imports, composed principally of oil and gas, surged by 37.6 percent.

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This illustrates that change too is reality; perceptions and assessments move on and develop. Perceptions within the EU have certainly moved on from the emotional propaganda of 2014, to a more realistic view of what is happening in Ukraine today. It would be common sense if some thought were given right from the start to defining a clear mechanism for ending sanctions; they are easier to impose than to lift, and the sanctioned regime is unlikely to make even small concessions if these are not greeted with some quid pro quo. In any event, after years of ritual sanctioning for example the decade’s long ‘Jackson-Vannick’ cork. Eventually fatigue sets in and the sanctioned state of affairs becomes the new normal. It can even be ended, then re-branded, say to ‘Magnitsky’ yet the band plays on.

The fashion today is “smart” sanctions, which try to isolate and hurt the elites of a country and not the collateralized populations. This is most often viewed by their citizenry as an insult to their nation and tends to raise a consolidating grass roots patriotic response irrespective of their brand of democratic flavor.

It is troubling that those who support and impose sanctions offer only the vaguest explanations of how they expect the imposition of economic pain to result in political gain. If one recalls the 1990’s and Iraq when Western ambassadors declared that sanctions should aim to harm the Iraqi population thereby forcing Saddam Hussein to heel. At that time the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that 500,000 children’s deaths were ‘worth it’. Excepting for the fact that this humanitarian disaster due to sanctions and its collateral damage did not unseat the Iraqi regime as envisioned. The ensuing ‘smart’ war did.

By dreaming up and using “smart” or “targeted” sanctions as ways to affect those perceived as directly responsible for disagreeing with the current status-quo, or today’s flavor of what is ‘normal’ usually involve financial restrictions, travel bans and other inconveniences targeted at a few dozen to a few hundred individuals, companies or government entities. While it may sound like it could work, it is equally naïve. It assumes that target governments are driven entirely by the preferences of a small cabal of individuals, and that messing with their lifestyle perquisites will result in policy change. This is patently absurd, and in spite of MSM reports that may differ, even governments of an authoritarian lean are based on coalitions of social and political forces – which are often extremely broad, and shape what those governments can and cannot do.

High time a realistic assessment is made as to the quite limited capacities, not to mention legalities of engineering social and political outcomes in other sovereign governments. We need to fully appreciate the coalitions underpinning existing sovereign governments and those who are promoting alternatives to elected governments before embarking merrily on regime-change plots. It makes sense to consider how sanctions will affect these different groups and the conflicts/struggles between them. We need to be able definitively make the case of how imposing economic pain is likely to lead to changes we expect are being looked for, and whether in fact such changes are in anyone’s national, economic, cultural or humanitarian interests.

These very basic assessments unsurprisingly are not being made by any state or international organization currently deploying sanctions. Sanctions therefore are being imposed based on fuzzy wishful thinking and not on defined outcomes. Given the real and often severe damage inflicted on target societies, that is highly irresponsible, frequently counter-productive, not legally justifiable and, for a policy often justified by appealing to some brand of morality, is simply unethical.