As Russia invades Ukraine, the west turns to its preferred first line of defence.
The United States, the European Union, Australia, and other countries around the world are currently imposing sanctions on Russia as disciplinary action against their invasion of Ukraine.
Billions of dollars of punishment in the form of sanctions have been imposed, but will they really do anything to deter Putin’s actions or make others think twice?
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One of the biggest sanctions is Russia’s removal from SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, a global banking system that serves as an intermediary between banks worldwide, facilitating trillions of dollar’s worth of transactions.
Also, Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced that the Nord Stream 2 gas line would be halted.
What are sanctions?
The Australian government defines sanctions as ”measures not involving the use of armed force” imposed “in situations of international concern”.
Sanctions impose restrictions on activities that relate to particular countries, including economic, diplomatic, or cultural relations.
The aim of sanctions is ‘’to limit the adverse consequences of the situation of international concern”.
Now, to understand if sanctions work, let’s look at how they’ve been used in the past.
In 1958, the US set an embargo, which is an official ban on trade with a particular country, against Cuba when Fidel Castro took control during the Cuban Revolution.
Castro converted Cuba into a one-party, socialist state under communist rule and according to US President John F. Kennedy, the sanction was ordered to reduce the threat posed by the nation’s “alignment with communist powers”.
At first, this embargo applied to only arms sales, and then was extended to almost all trade.
This sanction is still enacted and is one of the longest-standing embargoes in history.
However, many have argued that it has done far more harm than good.
For 29 years, the United Nations has been calling on the US to end the Cuba embargo.
The sanction has caused serious human rights violations, making it difficult for the country to access food and medical equipment, including COVID-19 vaccines.
In 2014, US President Barack Obama called the embargo a failure, and asked the US Congress to lift it entirely, but he was unsuccessful.
It is also a way for the Castros to rally the population of Cuba to see the US as an enemy.
The US has a long history of sanctions not achieving their desired outcome.
Tough sanctions against Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro have not ended his rule.
Neither have they ended the Islamic mullahs’ rule in Iran, and it wasn’t sanctions that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq. These sanctions were labelled by some as a humanitarian disaster.
Restrictions on US imports were also placed on China’s Xinjiang region in order to stop the human rights abuses committed against Uighurs. In response, China simply denied any mistreatment of the Uighurs.
So sanctions don’t always work.
But sometimes, they do.
In 1987 during the Apartheid-era, when institutional racial segregation was rampant, the United Nations began an international oil embargo against South Africa.
By 1990, the South African president F.W. de Klerk recognised the economic burden the sanction placed on the country and in response released the nationalist leader Nelson Mandela from prison and lifted the ban on the African National Congress, his party.
This led to a democratic election which saw Mandela become president in 1994.
When asked about whether the economic sanctions helped bring an end to Apartheid, Mandela replied, “there is no doubt”.
Will the Russian sanctions work?
Russia has been subject to sanctions for years, dating back to 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.
The US, the EU, and a number of other countries imposed strict sanctions on Russia. These included sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals, as well as sector-wide sanctions in the energy and arms fields.
At the time those sanctions did have an impact, but eight years later the pain felt from these sanctions seem to be forgotten by Putin.
It did not deter him from invading Ukraine.
Now, in 2022, Putin has responded to the most recent sanctions by calling them illegal and putting his army on high combat alert, which includes getting their weapons ready to launch.
According to Dursun Peksen, a sanctions expert at the University of Memphis, economic sanctions result in meaningful behavioural change in the targeted country about 40 per cent of the time.
So if they fail to do that about 60 per cent of the time, is it worth trying?
Well, most people would agree taking a shot with sanctions is far better for human life than taking a shot with weapons, boots on ground, or resorting to the catastrophic option of going nuclear.
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