Do sanctions work?

BANKS against tanks - that seems to be the West's preferred response to Russia's military incursion into Ukraine.

Governments in Europe and North America are planning to impose financial sanctions on Russia as early as today. And, although these are targeted at just a handful of top Russian officials and rich oligarchs, Western leaders are threatening to widen the net to entire sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow proceeds to annex Ukrainian territory.

Things "could get ugly fast", warned US Secretary of State John Kerry. Russia is risking "massive" economic damage, added German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But this is just bluster, for all governments know that, although sanctions may give the appearance of action and occasionally do inflict damage, there is no evidence to suggest that sanctions ever produced the effects for which they were designed. Indeed, there are plenty of examples to indicate that sanctions make crises more intractable, and that may also prove to be the case in Ukraine.

The concept of sanctions is more than just about economics; it includes the whole gamut of measures indicating displeasure, such as reductions in aid assistance, the suspension of transport links, negative votes in international institutions, visa denials, arms embargoes and a break-up of diplomatic relations.

Sanctions are well-established in international law. The Charter of the United Nations devotes no fewer than two articles - 41 and 42 - to the "complete or partial interruption of economic relations" which can be imposed "through action by air, sea or land forces".

Yet although there have been innumerable examples of individual nations slapping sanctions on each other, the UN has traditionally been reticent about doing so at the international level. During the first half-century of the organisation's existence, sanctions were imposed on only two countries: Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called) in 1966 and South Africa in 1977.

Over the past two decades, however, UN-authorised sanctions have multiplied exponentially: a total of 16 African countries were subjected to them, as well as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Meanwhile, the European Union has transformed itself into a sanctions machine: not one meeting of EU foreign ministers is now complete without some punitive measures imposed against a supposedly brutal regime or the tweaking of hit-lists of hundreds of foreigners banned from either entering Europe, or from exiting the continent with their cash.

It's easy to see why sanctions are so popular. For, short of war, they very often are the only response available. Sanctions can also be tailored proportionately to a crisis: they can be intensified or downgraded as required, an attractive feature for diplomats.

They can also be cheap: cancelling a visa-free arrangement, for instance, inflicts little cost. And, in the age of round-the-clock media reporting, small crises in faraway places can suddenly galvanise public opinion; sanctions are perfect for addressing the "something must be done" demands which Western governments face in such situations.

Ukraine crisis

Do sanctions work?

BUT while sanctions may soothe consciences, there is precious little evidence to show that they change a target's behaviour. The racist governments of Rhodesia and South Africa were consigned to history's dustbin not because of the sanctions they faced, but due to their broader international isolation, the rising tide of the guerilla revolts they confronted and the ultimate realisation that demographic trends were permanently against white-dominated apartheid regimes.

More than a decade of draconian sanctions against Iraq did not dislodge Saddam Hussein from power; that required an invasion. Nor did sanctions persuade Muammar Gaddafi either to relinquish his control over Libya or rule his country better; only a military intervention resolved that matter.

Myanmar's military leaders changed course not because they were suffering from sanctions but, rather, because they grew worried about China's looming influence, and ASEAN offered Myanmar an honourable way out; the carrots were, therefore, more important than the sticks. And while it's possible to argue that watertight sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, there is still no evidence that sanctions have persuaded Iranian leaders to give up their nuclear quest.

Unintended consequences

BUT, if sanctions don't work as intended, they do produce a great deal of unintended consequences. The people who end up suffering most are ordinary citizens, not their leaders: that was the case with the hundreds of thousands of children who either died in infancy or remained stunted as a result of the sanctions on Iraq, and is also the case with the wretched people of North Korea.

Military sanctions can also have perverse effects: an embargo on the sale of weapons to the fighting parties in the 1990s civil wars of the Balkans only meant that Muslim Bosnians could be butchered at will by Serbs who had weapons. A similar ban on Pakistan meant that the country's military ended up relying even more on nuclear weapons, precisely what the US, which imposed the sanctions, wished to avoid.

Sanctions also inevitably breed corruption. The oil-for-food programme during the sanctions on Iraq ended up infecting even some senior UN officials with the scourge of corruption. And the sanctions on Iran are doing the same by exporting corrupt practices to neighbouring Turkey. So, far from cauterising one problem to one country, sanctions may end up spreading it to others.

Far from being the flexible tools diplomats are supposed to cherish, sanctions can be clunky structures which, once imposed, are almost impossible to lift.

An EU arms embargo imposed on China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square shootings in 1989 continues to be valid to this day, not because anyone believes it serves any purpose, but because nobody knows what to replace it with.

And economic sanctions imposed by the US on the Soviet Union during the 1970s in protest against the Soviets' refusal to allow their Jews to immigrate have continued for two full decades after even the Soviet Union ceased to exist, because members of the US Congress simply couldn't be bothered to discuss their abolition. Ultimately, the biggest problem with sanctions is that they are used for a variety of contradictory reasons at the same time, and usually fail to provide a coherent message. Some sanctions - like those currently contemplated against Russia - are meant to punish a country.

Other sanctions - like those operating against Iran - are supposed to persuade a country to change its behaviour. And then, there are the sanctions which are intended to create new norms of international behaviour, such as those against the proliferation of chemical weapons. Each objective requires a different set of sanctions. But invariably, governments use the same tools in every case.

Ukraine crisis

New idea: smart sanctions

THE recent idea of "smart sanctions", now all the rage in Western capitals, is supposed to get around all these pitfalls. Supposedly, measures will be taken only against "targeted individuals". Sanctions will be nimble, precise and harm-free to the rest of the population. It is this concept of smart sanctions which will be applied to Russia now.

Yet all that smart sanctions have done is to spawn new myths. The EU and the US spearheaded a ban on the sale of luxury goods to North Korea: the idea was that the ruling Kim family used these luxury goods to buy the loyalty of their officials and that, by depriving them of the ability to import gold watches or bottles of whisky, the country's rulers will suffer.

It was, of course, pure nonsense, partly because North Korea's rulers have many other instruments to cement their control, and plenty of opportunities to buy luxury goods through proxies. But the same nonsense is now being peddled in the case of Russia where, supposedly, the black-listing of some oligarchs may undermine the regime of President Vladimir Putin. That's unlikely to happen if only because a country which generates a great deal of ready cash in the form of oil, gas, gold and diamond exports is largely unaffected by such sanctions.

Besides, it's highly unlikely countries like Britain and France, already home to countless oligarchs who own local football clubs, retail chains and even newspapers, will suddenly turn against them.

In the absence of any other viable options, imposing sanctions on Russia is probably the only alternative the EU and US currently have. And it's not necessarily a bad option: as British prime minister Winston Churchill once rightly remarked, "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war".

But let nobody pretend that sanctions against Russia will liberate Crimea from Russian control, or enhance security in Europe.

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Ukraine crisis