The Price of Sanctions

by Emily Young

In the last few months we have watched violence engulf Gaza, Russia trample Eastern Ukraine, and the ravages of civil war and ISIS decimate Syria and Iraq. These events pose a greater and more frightening threat every day to all nations.

In times like these, sanctions appear as though they are the diplomatic answer. Punishing a leader by weakening his or her financial strength seems like a non-violent yet impactful way of getting displeasure across and encouraging better behavior. After all, isn’t it the economy that motivates us, provokes us, and at the end of the day, drives our decisions?

So why is it then that sanctions seldom result in their desired outcomes? If we measure the success of sanctions by reform in behavior of countries or their leaders, history has shown us that they are rarely successful. Iran’s nuclear program remained undeterred, the Assad regime remains strong in Syria, and China has had sanctions in place for 25 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Sure, these countries took a financial hit and their economies and industries may have suffered, but they continue to function in the same pattern that sparked their sanctions in the first place.

Most recently, the EU, followed by the US, imposed a series of strict sanctions on Russia in response to Vladimir Putin’s infiltration of Ukraine and continuous support of pro-Russian separatists in the region. How effective these sanctions will be at improving the situation is of concern, but the bigger problem with this round will be in the retaliation.

EU Member States, particularly those to the East, rely heavily on Russia for their energy supply and exports. By sanctioning their neighbor, these Eastern countries are actually hurting themselves.  Putin has already answered by imposing an embargo on European food products, but many speculate that this is just the beginning.

East European Member States are facing a tough battle, balancing the want to firmly declare an end to Russia’s grip on their livelihood and yet understanding the reality of their financial dependence. This has led many of these countries to question why they are bothering with sanctions in the first place. Sanctions’ lack of proven effectiveness coupled with the threat to Members’ own economies seem like a potential recipe for financial disaster.

At the end of the day, however, Russia’s behavior cannot be tolerated. If nothing else, sanctions serve as a verbal commitment to the international community that the morals of a country and their government do in fact rank higher than economic prosperity. Hopefully, this sentiment is sustainable.

Emily Young is a staff writer for Charged Affairs.