Sanctions have been a long-used tool in conflict and foreign policy. In one form or another, they are the first wrench in the tool chest used by states in order to produce a favorable outcome. In the recent past, however, their efficacy has been extremely questionable and they have been reduced to little more than political optics to show that something is being done without substantiating stated policy. The Russia-Ukraine war has made this most apparent, yet sanctions continue to be the first standard operating procedure due to reasons dating back to how the international system has been structured after World War II.
The use of force, in the way and conditions it could be used in, was essentially made taboo and illegal unless authorized by the United Nations (UN). This led to less wars but more conflicts as the terminology or the optics changed. Similarly, wars between state parties were fought but were recorded as internal struggles where the conflicting parties were merely proxies.
The system enshrined in the UN charter says that it is really only the UN Security Council (UNSC) that can mandate a legal use of armed force and that in all other cases, ‘measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures.’ This text from Article 41 UN charter provides other measures in the form of ‘interruption of economic relations’, essentially sanctions. From there on, sanctions became vogue and the first line of attack that has now lost its teeth and firepower.
This reduction to optics has happened over time and is clearly visible. The logic behind sanctions is that they will impose unfavorable economic outcomes for the targeted country to a point harsh enough that they are forced to succumb to the foreign policy objectives of the state or states imposing sanctions. Most often, the adverse effects of sanctions are felt by common citizens with one manifestation being in the form of food insecurity, exorbitant inflation, and other connected domino effects. These conditions in the economy are meant to intimidate and compel the affected country to give up its unfavorable action or take favorable action.
However, in the use of sanctions, the stated and intended end goals have hardly been met. The history of sanctions and their inefficacy is vast but for those in Pakistan, this was most apparent in US sanctions against the country to curb and limit its nuclear program. Two most notable ones include the Glenn/Symington amendment in 1979 and the Pressler amendment in the 1990s, consisting of economic and military sanctions seeking to punish and deter Pakistan from its nuclear program. These remained ineffective, and eventually Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 after India had officially nuclearized South Asia with its nuclear tests in May, 1998. There are many other cases, even of comprehensive sanctions with the entire global community standing together; an example is of Iraq where the fortress of sanctions was unsuccessful in making Saddam Hussein step back from Kuwait and military action had to be taken in the form of Operation Desert Storm. Iran is another example, having been at the forefront of a global sanctions regime against its nuclear program and alleged involvement in terrorism for years; however, it has stayed its course. There is also the case of North Korea. This list can go on but the outcome would be the same, that sanctions have lost and never actually possessed the efficacy they are marketed with.
The nail in the coffin to the use of sanctions has been the case of Russia in the 2010s and then since the Russia-Ukraine War. The most recent onslaught of sanctions against Russia for its conflict in Ukraine is comprehensive in its nature and scope; it has been levied by the ‘western bloc’ which essentially includes the US and its allies, with the intent to cripple the Russian economy so that it stops actions that are deemed undesirable by the bloc. The sanctions include a vast number of measures that begin with assets of key individuals, prohibitions on dual-use goods exports, banning Russian imports, and overall mitigating Russia’s engagement and involvement in the international financial system as it stands currently. Sanctions have gone so far as to ban or limit the import of essential energy supplies of oil and gas. Private entities have taken measures to the same effect on their own, in addition to the state led freezing of Russian Central Bank assets held in respective countries.
These are only a few highlights, but they show that the sanctions regime this time is very comprehensive and should have had the intended effects that are underscored in the logic of sanctions. However, that has not been the case. The rouble surged to one of its highest values in a long time and the increasing price of oil has actually helped Russia’s economy. Unfortunately, the reliance on such sources of energy is still prevalent and even efforts to phase it out in order to reduce this dependency from Russian sources at least requires a whole process that spans years, so the intended effect of sanctions is unlikely to be realized. Also, if a state has reduced participation in one system, it will either look for a new system or create a rudimentary one of its own, especially if it is a major power. Meaning that even any short-term losses for Russia would soon get replaced with some alternate means to keep its economy standing to pursue core state interests.
So, what is the point of sanctions? Policy and political experts can attest that even a barrage of comprehensive sanctions will not do what they want it to, not simply because they can construct the logic for themselves but because detailed research and studies have proven it to be the case. The study on sanctions efficacy by Hufbauer, Schott and Elliot, some of the biggest advocates of sanctions, showed that they were successful in 40 out of 115 cases, which is a less than 35% success rate. Its subsequent re-examination by Robert Ape with a more comprehensive and practical definition of what should constitute sanctions and what it means for them to have been successful, reduced the numbers of successful cases to 5 out of the 115 cases. This reduces the usefullness of sanctions to optics, so that state leaders or private entities can create the image of taking action without having to actually act in a substantive way in line with promises made, such as has been the case with Ukraine. The underlying reality is that despite alliances, defense agreements or any such arrangement, a state (in the case of Ukraine it is the US) will only do what is in its national interest and satisfies part of its grand strategic designs. Making political claims and demonizing Russia is useful for the western bloc and so is prolonging the Russia-Ukraine conflict without any consideration for the Ukrainian people. In this, sanctions are the perfect picture to show the world they care.