The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can economic sanctions end a war?

For sanctions to be effective, countries must work together and pull no punches

Signs in support of Ukraine outside U.N. headquarters on Monday in New York. (Jason Decrow/AP)
7 min

In reaction to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a flagrant violation of the independent nation’s sovereignty, President Biden announced harsh economic sanctions against Russia in concert with our allies that target Russian banks and even Putin’s own assets. While at first it appeared that Western allies would be reluctant to inflict the most painful economic tool in their arsenal — specifically, excluding Russia’s financial institutions from the SWIFT international payments system — on Saturday, the United States and European nations made the decision to remove some Russian banks from SWIFT. They also imposed new restrictions on Russia’s Central Bank, thus cutting off Putin’s ability to use his country’s substantial international financial reserves.

As of Monday, however, the U.S. Treasury Department was still exempting transactions relating to energy exports from sanctions. Europeans nations have balked thus far at halting Russian oil and gas exports given the E.U.’s heavy reliance on Russian natural gas.

Still, these actions against Russia are unprecedented. The United States and European nations imposed them with reluctance, fearing that hard-hitting sanctions would further damage their own economies when they are still reeling from covid-related disruptions. They also worry about the possibility of escalation if Putin responds with retaliatory measures; in a show of force, he put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert this weekend. Since the early 20th century, similar fears have frequently led countries to pull their punches when it comes to economic sanctions. The result? Sanctions have often lacked the necessary force and can be impossible to enforce. Without a united international response, authoritarian leaders consider themselves untouchable.

Peace negotiations in Paris in the wake of World War I led to the creation of the League of Nations in 1920 as an international forum for resolving disputes among nations and preventing future wars. Its task became increasingly difficult in the 1930s, as the world’s representative democracies watched with alarm the rise of aggressive and expansionist dictatorships in both Europe and East Asia.

In September 1931, the Japanese army engineered an incident to justify the invasion and occupation of Manchuria, hoping its rich natural resources would help the country cope with the effects of the Great Depression. The League of Nations responded by sending a commission under the direction of Victor Bulwer-Lytton, Earl of Lytton, a British politician and former colonial administrator, to investigate.

The Lytton Report maintained a careful impartiality in assessing the claims of both China and Japan, and suggested ways to minimize tensions between the two countries. But the facts of the report indicated that Japan was the aggressor. The Council of the League of Nations voted to accept the report and its assessment of Japanese guilt, but never seriously considered forcing the Japanese to leave Manchuria, even by imposing economic sanctions.

Concerned about conditions closer to home, including the Depression and Hitler’s recent rise to power, European powers did not want to be drawn into conflict with Japan. When Japan chose to withdraw from the League of Nations and to keep Manchuria — now renamed Manchukuo — under its control, the League took no further action in response.

Japanese actions in Manchuria exposed the fundamental weakness of the League of Nations. Western nations were focused on their own economic woes and geopolitical concerns in Europe rather than on stopping a bellicose nation on the other side of the world. As a result, the lack of coordinated response emboldened other dictators.

In 1935, Benito Mussolini, the fascist ruler of Italy, further tested the resolve of the League of Nations. Italy held colonial possessions bordering on Ethiopia (or Abyssinia), including Italian Eritrea and Somalia, but coveted Ethiopia itself as part of a greater Italian Empire. Nationalist Italians were still bitter over their defeat at the hands of Ethiopian troops at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. To fulfill Mussolini’s imperial vision, Italian forces began encroaching on Ethiopian territory in the early 1930s, creating conflict along the border. This became the excuse to launch an invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935.

Meanwhile, the French and British, who dominated the League of Nations, were worried about alienating Mussolini and more focused on Nazi Germany. Hitler’s military buildup in the heart of Europe was a greater threat to them than Mussolini’s colonial aspirations. Rather than imposing strong sanctions, they instead tried to cajole Mussolini with the promise of substantial control of Ethiopian territory as long as he eschewed formal occupation.

However, Mussolini assumed that Britain and France’s desire to maintain the Stresa Front to blunt Hitler’s violations of the Versailles Treaty meant they would condone his actions in Ethiopia. His invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935 in flagrant disregard of League of Nations arbitration efforts outraged politicians and onlookers across Western Europe, forcing political leaders to take action. For the first time, the League of Nations not only condemned an aggressive act, but also voted to impose limited economic sanctions.

However, Western nations did not impose sanctions that might actually have prevented Italy’s victory in Ethiopia. They refused to embargo oil sales to Italy, and the British fleet did not prevent Italian military troops from moving through the Suez Canal. Moreover, not all nations observed the sanctions. The United States, which was not a member of the League of Nations, actually increased its exports to Italy.

Like Putin in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Mussolini occasionally played along with the diplomatic initiatives of the French and British, for example, pretending to consider the Hoare-Laval Pact proposed in early December 1935, which would have conceded significant chunks of Ethiopia to Italy in exchange for halting the war. Mussolini strung the Western powers along, asking for changes to the pact as a way of stalling to allow the Italian army the time necessary to conquer Ethiopia. After an exceptionally brutal war, Mussolini was able to claim victory in Ethiopia in 1936. Like Japan, Italy left the League of Nations in response to its condemnation.

The irresolute diplomatic efforts of the League of Nations were a disaster. Mussolini was not appreciative that the West chose “moderate” economic sanctions, even though they were ultimately ineffective. In fact, he became more inclined to look to Hitler as an ally after 1935. In addition, Hitler was emboldened by the League’s failure to impose serious consequences in the face of Italy’s brazen defiance and by the breakdown of the Stresa Front. Historians agree that he felt more secure in his decision to move his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936 in violation of the Treaty of Versailles and 1925’s Locarno agreements, confident that the French and British would not retaliate. In 1937, the Japanese would join with the two European dictators in the Anti-Comintern Pact before its invasion of China. Western Europe was on the road to appeasement at Munich.

As Russia fights to take control of Kyiv and impose a puppet government there, Western nations are showing impressive unity and imposing crippling economic sanctions. Their success will require a willingness on the part of the citizens of representative democracies throughout the world to endure the economic pain sanctions will cause them.

Such a strategy may pay off, especially if enough nations uphold harsh sanctions and step up assistance to the Ukraine resistance. We may not know for months. Russians have already taken to the streets of cities throughout the country to protest this war, which has led to the crash of the ruble and a doubling of interest rates there. Indeed, many historians say strong and concerted early action against the international violations of fascist dictators in the 1930s might have prevented later horrors; appeasement did not turn out to be a wise choice. By the time Hitler invaded Poland, it was too late to prevent a world war. The willingness of Western nations to impose sanctions that seemed unthinkable just a week ago suggests that world leaders may have learned that important lesson as they try to prevent the next one.