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I understand that most sanctions against Russia are expected to cripple its economy. The war in Ukraine would then become prohibitively expensive, and Russia would have to withdraw. I also see how seizing or freezing the assets of oligarchs which could be used to finance the war might have a similar effect, though luxury assets like yachts and mansions are IMO of low liquidity.

What puzzles me is the expected effect of personal sanctions against Russian government officials. For instance, 386 members of the Russian Parliament (Duma) have been targeted for their support of the treaties that recognised the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. What are these sanctions expected to achieve?

  • Sanctions would make those people resign or change their minds. Unlikely. Now that they are denied entry in most of the nice-to-live countries, their only reasonable option is to stay in Russia, and disagreeing with Putin for them would mean not only political suicide, but also a risk of jail or assassination.

  • Sanctions would force them to overthrow Putin, or to convince him to stop the war. Also unlikely, they are not close enough to even meet Putin in person. And for the few who are close enough, there seem to be no guarantees that the sanctions are lifted once the war stops, so trying to actually stop it looks like taking a huge personal risk for little benefit.

  • Sanctions would prevent them from supporting the war financially. Again, most of those people are not rich enough to make any difference on the country level.

  • Sanctions are meant to be simply a punishment. Fair enough, though punishing them doesn't stop the war.

Am I missing a point here? So far the highest Russian official to resign as a protest against the war was Chubais who AFAIK is not under personal sanctions, and was a wedding general of sorts. It looks like sanctions are having the opposite effect, making the support of Putin the only viable course of action for the Russian officials.

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    At least some of the Duma members are rich (e.g en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grigory_Anikeyev). They're probably not far from the oligarchs in that respect.
    – PMF
    Apr 1 at 13:07
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    No idea if there's some real behavior change theory behind sanctioning those people, but they gave Putin carte blanche for the war/invasion. American justice is mostly retributive. Basically sets an example for others who'd do the same. I'm honestly not sure if individually sanctioned people were ever removed from some such lists. That might be a good question.
    – Fizz
    Apr 1 at 13:36
  • @PMF $70M is impressive, though it's just 0.13% of the Russia's yearly gas exports, which were worth $55BN in 2021. Apr 1 at 13:36
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    Maybe the goal is deterrance: deter officials in Russia and other countries from supporting similar moves in the future. Apr 2 at 21:29
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    I'm doubtful any of the sanctions were ever envisaged as literally making it impossible for Russia to continue the war. Russia already has most of the things it needs to wage this war! Remember when it spent weeks building up troops and equipment on the border before the invasion? Probably it needs to buy some stuff to support its military, which is now more expensive, sure, but it's not like a significant part of Russia's military is going to be incapacitated any time soon. The sanctions are aimed at increasing the net cost of the war, so that it doesn't look like such a good idea.
    – Ben
    Apr 2 at 22:11

4 Answers 4

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It's hard to argue with the points you've made, but I'd make two point on this:

First, I don't think it was fully clear that this would be the result when the sanctions were initially implemented. There certainly was a real hope that Putin might get pushback or realize that he overstepped, or that there was more popular anger and desire to resist the regime which might have pushed him to back off. That might have been a false hope which underestimated the degree or Russia's totalitarianism and Putin's personal isolation, but I think it was there.

Second, sanctions are meant to be a deterrent. So there is still a value for the future in showing the costs of this kind of imperialism. It's possible that it may make some future oligarchs less likely to accept the kind of corrupt bargain that led them to support Putin in Russia.

You can see some of this with in other countries that might be expected to support Russia. For example Kazakhstan is generally considered pro-Russian, and the government recently relied on Russian troops to suppress anti-government protests. However, they've recently stated that they will abide by the sanctions, and explicitly cited the goal of avoiding sanctions on their country:

Secondly, to demonstrate to our European partners that Kazakhstan will not be a tool to circumvent the sanctions on Russia by the US and the EU. We are going to abide by the sanctions. Even though we are part of the Economic Union with Russia, Belarus and other countries, we are also part of the international community. Therefore the last thing we want is secondary sanctions of the US and the EU to be applied to Kazakhstan.

Timur Suleimenov, the first deputy chief of staff to the president of Kazakhstan, speaking with Euractiv on March 29, 2022

It's a faint hope, but aside from arming Ukraine (which is being done) and going to war (which would likely mean the end of the world), sanctions are really the only tool available. In addition, at this point it's too late to take a different approach (if a different approach would have be more effective, which seems unlikely) since a withdraw of sanctions would be seen as a retreat and a victory for Putin.

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  • Good points, thanks! And what do you think about this answer which says: "Sanctions are meant to provide the leadership with something to say when they are asked why they don't do something about the invasion." Apr 1 at 15:11
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    @DmitryGrigoryev I don't think I'd go quite that far. Sanctions aren't just for show – they're a powerful weapon with significant effects that has been successful in the past (though far from every time). But, as I mention, there are only so many tools that a country can use to pressure another, short of declaring war. There's a huge pressure to act, and it's hard to think of another action that could replace sanctions
    – divibisan
    Apr 1 at 15:41
  • Are sanctions really that powerful? They've been used on countries such as North Korea and Iran - arguably countries with some of the weaker economies - and have not meaningfully changed their course or direction. North Korea still tries to make nukes. If North Korea can withstand sanctions, then I doubt they'll have the impact people think it will on a much larger economy. The EU is still trading for gas with Russia. Apr 2 at 15:44
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    @SEDoesNotLikeDissent Very few people would like to live in North Korea, though not all of their problems are due to sanctions. Iran, on the other hand, has been genuinely negotiating its nuclear ambitions in order to get the sanctions lifted.
    – jpa
    Apr 3 at 6:31
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    @SEDoesNotLikeDissent They’re definitely powerful - just look at the effects on the countries they’ve been used against. If they’re effective is a harder question. They often aren’t, but they’re are some clear successes. The Lybian and Iranian nuclear programs - until we pulled out of the deal - and South Africa apartheid spring to mind but I’m sure there are plenty of others, not to mention countries that changed behavior to avoid sanctions. The list of places where they failed or were counterproductive is at least as long, though, so they’re very far from a perfect weapon
    – divibisan
    Apr 3 at 15:09
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It's a mistake to see all political actions as designed to have an immediate and concrete effect. Many changes come about because the general disposition of society has shifted. In the West, atitudes to women's rights, the disabled, ethnic and religious minorities etc. have changed over the years often because of cultural changes in society and that has lead to legislative developments, rather than the other way around.

I don't think personal sanctions alone are designed to directly achieve any of the four goals you list. The point of all the sanctions is to create an increasingly uncomfortable political, social and economic environment in Russia, particularly for those who can influence the direction of government policy. Personal sanctions create a sense of uncertainty and dissatisfaction, as do the general financial and cultural sanctions. The hope is that this may tip the balance to find a way out of the current situation at some point; to create a more favourable context when options are put forward to end the war.

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    If it is too slow in effect, then the war will be over before the sanctions have an impact, which I think reinforces the original question's view. I'm not sure the answer of 'it'll work out in the future' addresses the question asking how it is supposed to work on the war right now. Apr 2 at 15:41
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They work by denying them access to their money, property and other assets that are in locations outside of the country. This will cause a pressure on them to take action so they don't lose a lot of money and assets because of the seizures. In the end it is designed to encourage them to take action by route of a punishment as there is no other way to encourage/force them to take action.

https://fortune.com/2022/03/10/what-happens-to-russian-oligarchs-seized-yachts-private-jets-and-mansions/

The U.S., U.K., and Europe have announced that the elites who aided Putin's invasion of Ukraine and gained riches at the expense of the Russian people will have their properties blocked from use and their assets frozen.

https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2022-03-24/swiss-freeze-more-than-6-billion-worth-of-sanctioned-russian-assets

ZURICH (Reuters) -Switzerland has frozen around 5.75 billion Swiss francs ($6.17 billion) worth of Russian assets covered by sanctions, and that amount is likely to rise, a government official said on Thursday.

"Today, for the first time, I can give you an indication of the amount of frozen funds. To date, SECO has been notified of funds and assets totalling around 5.750 billion Swiss francs," said Erwin Bollinger, a senior official at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) agency overseeing sanctions.

That included a number of properties in cantons which served as tourism resorts, he told a news conference in Bern.

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    I think the key is this "take action" part. If action="taking a stand against the war" I doubt that publicly claiming they are against the war (and quitting their chair in Duma) will unfreeze their assets now. And if action="overthrow Putin", they have to really love money to risk their own freedom and life for it. Apr 1 at 13:19
  • @DmitryGrigoryev Sure it might not get them to take action or do anything about it as they might look at the entire picture and decide it is in their best actions to do nothing. They might even decide to publicly speak out against the war while privately supporting it. And of course there is the possibility that they will work to end the conflict. In the end it is unknown if the sanctions will have any impact but it is other governments trying to take action in a way that would encourage others to do something to prevent harm to themselves.
    – Joe W
    Apr 1 at 13:28
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    IMO "to publicly speak out against the war while privately supporting it" is the worst they can do now: I find it very unlikely that sanctions could be lifted just for speaking out, while showing disloyalty to Putin sounds pretty dangerous. Apr 1 at 13:35
  • @DmitryGrigoryev Just saying that is one of the options they have to try and get their assets back while supporting Putin.
    – Joe W
    Apr 1 at 13:52
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    @DmitryGrigoryev perhaps privately sabotaging the war while publicly supporting it is better
    – user253751
    Apr 5 at 9:15
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Along with what others have said and to the points you listed in the description of your question, sanctions also serve another, simpler purpose regardless of whether or not they achieve their intended aims: punishment.

Punishment is another purpose of sanctions. Regardless of whether or not the sanctions work to remove the current regime from power or achieve other aims, the US and other sanctioning powers will want to place punitive measures on Russia so that that a large cost is inflicted upon them beyond the costs of financing an invasion. They want Russia and other countries potentially interested in invading peaceful nations to know that there might be costs beyond just those of waging war.

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  • Collective punishment is a lousy idea: on one hand, it absolves people who are guilty of actual war crimes by punishing them insufficiently, and on the other hand it makes innocent people who get punished angry because they feel they have not been treated fairly. Apr 15 at 12:35

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