Friday, July 29, 2022

Is it time we admitted sanctions against Russia are not working?

There, someone said it out loud (thank you, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian). 

The West's sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine are really not having the game-changing effect they were supposed to have. But they have become sacrosanct and an article of faith in Western political circles, to the extent that any criticism of sanctions are seen as tantamount to support for Putin and a callously abandonment of Ukraine.

But it seems clear that, although supply of Western armaments IS having some effect, sanctions are really not. Inflation, and particularly world energy prices, are soaring; shortages of gas, grain and fertilizer are hitting developed amd undeveloped countries alike, hard; but Putin seems signally unaffected by sanctions against his country. Granted, the Russian people ARE probably being affected, to an extent that is difficult to quantify, but Putin is the guy calling the shots in Russia, and he has not blinked once.

The fact is that sanctions invite retaliation, and when the country involved is as powerful as Russia, the retaliation can be just as effective as the original sanctions. So, Putin has slashed gas supplies to Western Europe, effectively strangled Ukraine's essential grain supplies to Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and greatly increased energy supplies to Asia, resulting in an unprecedented surplus on its balance of payments. The ruble has strengthened by 50% since January, and is now one of the world's strongest currencies And the war in Ukraine grinds on inexorably. 

(UPDATE: after a period in which it was among the wotld's best performing currencues, the ruble has taken a nose-dive in July. Evidence that the sanctions are working? Not necessarily, but maybe.)

So, how can we say that Western sanctions are working? In some ways, sanctions are an easy option, a way of showing concern, a way of doing something without doing something. Arguably, sanctions are little more than feel-good symbolism. But there is also a strong argument that sanctions have never been particularly effective - think Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar - and some academics have argued that sanctions over the last 50 years or so have had a minimal (and possibly even a counterproductive) impact. They typically cause countries to entrench and become more self-reliant (and, coincidentally, to crush freedoms at home, and to strengthen the powet of the elites).

The sanctions against Valdimir Putin are perhaps the strongest ever levied, but they still do not seem to be have the desired effect. Putin is not begging on his knees, and the war goes on, gradually bending in Russia's favour, despite the upbeat reporting of the Western press. I admit that I don't have an alternative to offer, but maybe it is time to admit that sanctions are not working.

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