Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made a lot of people mad at President Vladimir Putin, and rightly so. Whatever one thinks of the sources of Putin’s grievance, he engaged in a war of choice, attacking Ukraine primarily because the country exists and has acquired a European identity rather than a Slavic one.
That anger and outrage is splashed all across social media. It is reflected in headlines like “The West finally throws a punch in its face-off with Russia” or “Unprecedented Western sanctions strangling Russian economy.” It runs deeper than that, however. I have heard longtime Russia hands talk about “sanctioning Russia back into the Stone Age” in response to its invasion of Ukraine.
As someone who has researched economic sanctions for more than half my life, let me be blunt: These sentiments worry me. There are a lot of very good reasons to sanction Russia right now, but I am not entirely convinced that those reasons are informing the actual economic statecraft being announced.
Let’s start with the valid reasons. The most obvious is that the United States and its allies said they would. Before the invasion of Ukraine, President Biden repeatedly and consistently threatened sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine. Reputations matter in world politics. Even if the sanctions deterrent failed this time, imposing sanctions now reinforces the credibility of the foreign policy leaders who issued the threats.
There are other compelling reasons to impose sanctions. Punishing Russian violations of territorial sovereignty sends a message to other countries contemplating future such actions that violating international norms comes with serious costs. Watching countries and actors that ordinarily never sanction countries decide to sanction Russia also puts the lie to Putin’s claim that the world is rejecting U.S. leadership.
Sanctioning Russia now also weakens Putin’s ability to engage in further military action in the future. Whether one takes Putin’s statements literally or figuratively, his intent to reconstitute Russia’s long-standing imperial ambitions means that sanctions are designed to weaken its material capabilities.
The thing is, I don’t think any of these reasons are behind the sanctions being rolled out. The real reason, the one most consistent with all that anger and outrage, is that foreign policy leaders want to punish Russia for what it has done. As the joint statement issued on Saturday stated, “As Russian forces unleash their assault on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, we are resolved to continue imposing costs on Russia that will further isolate Russia from the international financial system and our economies.”
The sanctions that have been announced, including blocking sanctions on Russia’s central bank and knocking key Russian banks off SWIFT, are quite significant. If the priority is imposing costs, they are not the full smash but they’re close. Any time a central bank has to raise its discount rate more than a thousand basis points in one day is a sign that an economy is in distress. These sanctions will segment Russia from the global economy and punish Russian elites. As one senior Biden administration official told Politico’s Nahal Toosi, “We’ll go after their yachts, their luxury apartments, their money, and their ability to send their kids to fancy colleges in the West.”
The thing is, as satisfying as it might feel in the moment, “imposing costs” cannot be an end in itself. Sanctions should be a means to achieving a larger end. Maybe the goal is to nudge Putin’s elite coalition — you know, the guys sitting at the other end of the long table — into forcing him out. Maybe it is to delegitimize Putin in the eyes of a country that remembers the pre-Putin 1990s as a time of humiliation.
If the goal is to compel, then the sanctioners need to be explicit about what Russia can do to get the sanctions lifted. I saw nothing in the joint statement that suggested any demands that could cause these sanctions to be lifted. That lack of clarity undermines coercive bargaining, because the targeted actor believes that sanctions will stay in place no matter what they do.
An exception to this rule is if the goal is not to coerce but to contain. If the aim is to weaken Russia’s long-term power projection capabilities, then no demand needs to be announced. If that is the case, however, then some thought needs to be given to how ordinary Russians beyond Putin’s elite circle will cope under this new normal. They are already paying a high price, and things are likely to get worse as the sanctions bite harder.
It is possible that ordinary Russians, who were not keen on invading Ukraine, will blame Putin for the economic collapse. But it is also possible that the Russian government, like most target governments, will successfully shift the blame onto the sanctioning countries. Indeed, the sanctions give Putin a perfect excuse to deflect blame for any future bad economic news.
I want to be very clear about what I am saying. Russia has engaged in egregious actions that warrant economic coercion. There are multiple reasons why sanctions are the appropriate policy choice. But whether the goal is to compel Russia into concessions or contain Russia’s capabilities, some thought needs to be given about how the sanctions are supposed to work and the conditions under which they can be lifted. Those thoughts need to be codified and articulated to Russia and the rest of the world.
To sound social science-y about it, the sanctioners need to have a theory of the case. Otherwise, all this behavior is just an exercise in maximizing the economic pain of ordinary Russians without any conception of what that will achieve. One thing it could achieve is a Russian populace that embraces the demented imperial ambitions that Putin embodies. Another is to capsize a tottering global economy.