Why Sanctions Don’t Work, and Why They Mostly Hurt Ordinary People


by Ryan McMaken

The United States and its Western European allies have in recent days repeatedly increased economic sanctions against not only the Russian regime, but against millions of ordinary Russians.
It has done this by cutting much of Russian trade and Russian finance out of international markets. Moody’s and S&P Global have both downgraded Russia’s credit rating. The US has frozen Russian reserves and cut many Russian banks off from SWIFT, the international banking communications system. Europe is planning on big cuts to its purchases of natural gas from Russia. The US is mulling a stop on all purchases of Russian crude. The ruble has fallen to a record low against the dollar. Russia is at risk of defaulting on its foreign debts for the first time in more than a century. Many of the sanctions appear targeted at only certain wealthy Russians, but these moves greatly increase perceptions of geopolitical risk for anyone with Russian investments or investments connected to Russia. That means many investors and corporations will “voluntarily” cut back their activities in Russia to reduce risk and because they figure they might be targeted next. Ground-up pressure is mounting also: corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are being pressured to close their operations—and thus lay off all their workers—in Russia. This means a real decline in overall investment in Russia far beyond just some Russian banks and oligarchs.
The trickle-down effect to ordinary Russians will be immense. Purchasing power, incomes, and employment will be significantly impacted, and many Russians will suffer serious setbacks to their standards of living. The Russian ruling class will be affected too, but given they live much further from subsistence levels, they’ll fare much better overall.
And yet if history is any guide, the sanctions won’t work to get the Russian military out of Ukraine or to achieve regime change in Russia.
The Political Logic of Sanctions
The idea behind sanctions has long been to make the population suffer so that “the people” will revolt against the ruling regime and force it to cease the policies that the sanction-imposing regimes find objectionable. In many cases, the stated goal is regime change. It’s essentially the same philosophy behind Allied efforts to bomb German civilians during World War II: it was assumed the bombing would ruin civilians’ morale and lead to domestic demands that Berlin surrender.
Economic sanctions are less despicable than bombers targeting civilians, of course, but they are also likely less effective. Instead of convincing the domestic population to abandon their own regime, foreign attacks on civilians—whether military or economic—often cause the domestic population to double down on their opposition to foreign powers.
Nationalism Trumps Economic Interests
When it comes to economic sanctions, there are several reasons that sanctions fail to achieve stated ends.
First of all, sanctions will fail unless there is near universal cooperation from other states. In the case of the American embargo of Cuba, for instance, few other states cooperated, which meant the Cuban state and the Cuban population could obtain resources from many sources other than the United States. US-led sanctions against Iran, on the other hand, have been more successful because a large number of key trading states have cooperated with the sanctions.
The situation with Russia sanctions are likely to be somewhere between Cuba and Iran. While several key Western states like the US and the UK have taken a hard line against Russia, many other sizable states have been reluctant to impose similar sanctions.
Germany, for example, has refused to impose sanctions in the near term, noting that Germany—as well as much of Europe—cannot meet its energy needs without first making time-consuming changes in energy policy and industrial output. Several key medium-sized states have shied away from a hard line on sanctions as well. India, for instance, has refused to void a weapons agreement with Russia. Mexico has stated it will not impose sanctions, and Brazil states it is seeking out a neutral position.
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Most importantly, China has not cooperated with US-led sanction efforts, and China stands to benefit from sanctions imposed by other states. While China has not yet signaled outright support for Moscow, it nonetheless abstained in the UN vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is likely less than what Moscow hoped for, but Russia can likely count on China as a willing buyer of Russian oil and other resources. After all, China has been uncooperative with US-led sanctions in Iran, and has been a significant buyer of Iranian oil. China is likely to strike similar deals with Russia. Moreover, if Russia faces a restricted number of buyers for oil, this gives Beijing more leverage in obtaining Russian resources at a discount.
So long as Russia can continue to trade with sizable states like China, Mexico, Brazil, and possibly India, Russia will not face the sort of isolation the US hopes to impose.
A second reason that sanctions fail is that nationalism—a potent force among most populations—tends to impel sanctioned populations to support the regime when they are threatened.
As Robert Keohane has noted, even in noncrisis situations, nationalism can be a general source of strength for a state, since nationalism can unify populations behind the regime. Moreover, as John Mearsheimer shows in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities: “Nationalism is an enormously powerful political ideology…. There is no question that liberalism and nationalism can coexist, but when they clash, nationalism almost always wins.”
That is, in crisis situations, we can often expect even disgruntled liberal reformers to defer to nationalistic impulses over liberal ones, further strengthening national opposition to sanctions imposed from the outside.
To see the plausibility of our claims, we need look no further than the United States, which has long been remarkably safe from any realistic threat of foreign conquest. Yet even in the United States, it doesn’t take much in terms of foreign aggression to convince the population to unite in support of the regime. Certainly, the regime has rarely enjoyed more support than in the wake of Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Were some foreign power—say, China—to attempt to coerce Americans to commit to regime change through economic sanctions, it’s hard to imagine this would produce much support for the foreign power in the US.
Similarly, US sanctions have not exactly invigorated pro-American or antiregime efforts in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, or any other state where the US sought to bring about domestic political change through sanctions.
There are few cases where sanctions might have worked; however, the two go-to examples of this—i.e., Iraq and Serbia—are cases where where economic sanctions were accompanied by overwhelming military force or plausible threats of it. Needless to say, that’s a very specific type of sanction, and has little to do with a conflict involving a nuclear power like Russia.

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Other policies, such as keeping the US strong and resolute, maintaining energy independence and unwavering support for our friends and allies would make imposing sanctions largely unnecessary. Trump proved it worked, idiot Biden’s failures confirms that and shows how important it is.