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Will sanctions force Putin to back down in Ukraine? History suggests it’s unlikely

Whether it will be enough to cause Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his troops from Ukraine, or even weaken his hold on power, however, is far less likely, according to experts on sanctions.

“There’s very little in the history of sanctions that show they can get the target country to change policy on something that is important to the country,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I see very little of Putin’s temperament that sanctions will even be in the ZIP Code of being decisive.”

Sanctions have a mixed track record, often falling short of causing a dramatic change in behavior, particularly in authoritarian countries like Russia, according to most analysts who study them. Sanctions on Iran were one of the factors analysts believed pushed it into a 2015 deal on its nuclear program and brought its leaders back to the negotiating table recently, but they didn’t dislodge the government or stop what the U.S. sees as its aggressive military behavior in the Middle East. Sanctions by the U.S., the U.N. and others have failed to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and European sanctions against Libya from the early 1980s for its activities sponsoring terror lasted roughly 20 years before Libya disclosed and scrapped its weapons program, and Moammar Gadhafi remained in power nearly another decade before being overthrown in a violent civil war. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein resisted more than a decade of U.N. sanctions before being removed by the U.S invasion, and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was stopped by military force after sanctions failed to deter his military aggression in the 1990s. Sixty years of a U.S. trade embargo on Cuba failed to dislodge that regime.

In some cases, the targeted regime has tightened its grip on power. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has not only weathered major U.S. and European sanctions but sent his political allies into hiding or exile.

When it comes to goals like regime change or reversing a military action against another country, sanctions work only about 5% of the time absent the threat or use of military force, says Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who reviewed decades of sanctions after World War II.

Russian officials have said sanctions won’t make them back down from the Ukraine offensive. “They probably think that by imposing sanctions, they can force us to change our position. It is obvious here that this is out of the question,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, told reporters this week.

For all their limits, sanctions are still widely viewed as better than doing nothing, which would likely encourage more-aggressive behavior by Russia and possibly other countries like China, many political scientists say. And the longer any Russian occupation of Ukraine drags on, the more sanctions raise the cost to Mr. Putin.

“Sanctions won’t work if you define success as stopping the siege of Kyiv, but sanctions could influence Russian decision-making down the road…and influence China’s outlook on the costs of taking Taiwan,” Mr. Haass said.

While sanctions by themselves are unlikely to reverse the invasion of Ukraine, they might hobble Russia’s future ability to project power regionally, said Chris Miller, assistant professor of international history at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “Sanctions can be an effective tool in a game of attrition against an adversary,” he said.

In many ways, the sanctions against Russia are putting the world in unfamiliar territory. The measures will likely have the biggest impact on the global economy of any such moves since 1945, because Russia is a far bigger economy than other recent targets like Iran, with an annual economic output roughly seven times that of Iran. Russia accounts for 10% of global oil supplies and, together with Ukraine, a quarter of global grains trade.

The stakes involved in sanctioning a nuclear power like Russia are also far higher and could spark a dangerous escalation. Mr. Pape said there are few examples from history of sanctioning a great power like Russia.

Biden administration officials have called the moves the most consequential sanctions in history, and believe these are different from past failed efforts. The U.S. and others had already imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and expanded those sanctions to include steps like barring credit to Russian oil companies and banks following Russia’s incursions into two separatist regions of Ukraine soon after.

But the current sanctions are far more sweeping. Among other moves, the sanctions prevent Russia’s central bank from accessing most of its foreign currency reserves held abroad, sharply limiting the bank’s ability to defend its local currency and prevent an inflationary spiral. Western companies are also leaving en masse.

U.S. and European officials point to unprecedented unity and coordination across Western allies, noting that even long-neutral Switzerland joined in. They say the collective action makes the sanctions more potent and gives Russia’s oligarchs, a key pillar of support for Mr. Putin, fewer places to hide their money.

“This could cause cracks within Putin’s regime and potentially even threaten his presidency in the longer term,” Teneo, a global risk consulting firm, said this week. However, if the Russian government can channel growing anger over the economy against the West instead of Mr. Putin, it added, the sanctions could backfire.

U.S. officials said it would take time to gauge the effect. “Let’s have a conversation in another month or so to see if they’re working,” Mr. Biden told reporters late last week.

Sanctions are essentially how modern democracies wage war by other means. After two world wars, sanctions became a popular alternative to the use of force as a more humane way to try to change the behavior of some nations, and deter others from similar behavior.

Sanctions are one of the few options Mr. Biden has to deter Mr. Putin. The U.S. president has said repeatedly that he won’t send U.S. troops to Ukraine and risk a military confrontation. While U.S. and European nations are now sending direct military aid to Ukraine, it may be too little, too late, said John Polga-Hecimovich, a professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The most notable success were sanctions against South Africa that helped push the country to end apartheid. But they often have less effect on autocratic regimes that can pass along the costs to the population and don’t have to answer for it at election time.

“The types of sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on Iran and now on Russia will have limited impact on undemocratic states,” said Bijan Khajehpour, an Iranian economist and managing partner at Vienna-based consulting firm Eurasian Nexus Partners.

Western sanctions against Iran included its oil and energy sector (so far not included in moves against Russia), key industries, shipping, banking and exclusion from Swift, the international payments mechanism. Like in Russia, the sanctions also prevented the central bank from accessing reserves abroad, causing the national currency to sink by more than 80% since 2018, depressing living standards.

Yet, Iran’s economy didn’t collapse. It has returned to slow growth, driven primarily by a boost in domestic manufacturing. Companies pivoted away from products that rely on imports and foreign technology. Sanctions also drove Iran to trade less with Europe and more with China. Chinese purchases of Iranian oil recently hit record levels.

Russia depends somewhat less on energy than Iran. And it will still be selling oil and gas to Europe and beyond, despite the departure of many Western oil companies due to reluctance by refiners to take Russian oil.

Sanctions can also have unexpected consequences, such as driving China and Russia closer. Three years after U.S. sanctions, Venezuela’s regime has drawn closer to U.S. adversaries like Russia.

In both Iran and Venezuela, elites close to power, including Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Venezuela’s military, benefited from sanctions by profiting from illegal operations like smuggling to get around trade restrictions, foreign diplomats and American officials say. The sanctions also made military and other elites targeted by sanctions to feel threatened and more determined to hold on to power, American and European diplomats say.


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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