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Artillery Row

Sanctions don’t work

Why do we keep resorting to them?

Whenever a consensus starts to become established in British politics, it’s time to start getting worried — particularly when it comes to foreign policy. The motion supporting the invasion of Iraq passed with a parliamentary majority of 263. Only 17 MPs voted against war in Afghanistan, and even fewer voted against the disastrous intervention in Libya. All these decisions are now widely recognised as the terrible mistakes they are, but they were supported at the time by almost the entirety of the British establishment. Should we perhaps consider the possibility that the current genius idea — sanctions against Russia — isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, countries across the Western world rushed to implement economic sanctions against Moscow. This was the natural, inevitable, almost instinctive response. Had any of our leaders taken the time to think about why they were doing it or to clarify what their ultimate aims were? Sanctions have long been used as the “instrument of first resort” of US and Western foreign policy. Whilst their proponents often speak vaguely of “prompting democratic change” or “stifling resources”, it’s difficult to think of a single occasion when they have worked, under any criteria.

Sanctions can have the counterproductive effect of bolstering nationalist resolve

Take Iran as an example. Since the revolution of 1979, Tehran has been subject to asset freezes, trade embargos and financial isolation as part of an all-encompassing sanctions regime. For decades it was the most sanctioned country in the world, until Russia claimed the mantle last year. Yet for all that, Iran remains pretty much the same country it was in 1979 — an Islamist theocracy that represses its people and threatens its neighbours. The recent protests have offered some hope that change could finally be on the way, but trying to credit sanctions for this would be a stretch. In fact, sanctions can have the counterproductive effect of bolstering nationalist resolve and increasing support for authoritarian regimes in the face of perceived foreign onslaught.

The same is true of Venezuela. The British government says that the “sanctions regime is aimed at encouraging the government of Venezuela to respect democratic principles, to comply with international human rights law, and to respect human rights”. That’s gone well, hasn’t it? President Maduro remains in power, murdering his citizens and chucking hundreds of political opponents in prison. Meanwhile, sanctions against North Korea have clearly done a very good job of denuclearising the Korean peninsula and reducing the risks in East Asia. Pyongyang conducted a record 68 missile tests in 2022, with another nuclear test widely expected at some point soon. It’s tricky to see what purpose sanctions serve, apart from making the lives of those unfortunate enough to live in these grim places even worse.

Given all of this, why do our leaders appear to think that sanctions will work this time? If anything, economic measures are even less likely to succeed on this occasion. Russia, the world’s largest country and biggest oil exporter, is a very different beast to the relative minnows of Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. The numbers speak for themselves. For all the talk about how sanctions “undermine Russia’s war effort”, the fact of the matter is that Russia’s budget surplus quadrupled in 2022 thanks to the rise in energy prices.

It seems to me that the real point of sanctions is for politicians to “virtue signal” about how tough they are on Russia and to demonstrate that they are doing something — anything — to participate in the war effort, regardless of whether it’s actually effective. For the more vain amongst our politicians, sanctions also allow them to play-act as wartime leaders, but without any of the responsibility or risk to human life in their own countries. Think of the absurd spectacle of Johnson running round throwing grenades, or Macron dressing up in his Zelensky-esque “combat hoodie”.

Perhaps even more usefully, sanctions and the war in Ukraine have become a convenient excuse for the diabolical state of the national economy. Inflation can be blamed not on the £895 billion of funny money that was printed to prop up the economy during the pandemic, but on “Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine”.

This would all help to explain why sanctions against Russia are being applied so thoughtlessly. Vladimir Ashurkov, a close friend of Alexei Navalny and Russian dissident who now lives in London, believes that sanctions could have been more effective had they been used as a deterrent at an earlier stage, but he criticises the way in which they are currently being applied. He recently told me, “Sanctions have become a one-way ticket, which isn’t really effective … if you want to use sanctions as an instrument of coercion, and behaviour change, you need to be much more nuanced in how they apply.”

Is this all about politicians’ bravado, and nobody has thought beyond that?

He cited the case of Oleg Tinkov, a Russian businessman who built a large fintech company based in Moscow. Ashurkov said, “He was sanctioned by the UK last year and since then, he has sold all his Russian assets, made a very vivid anti-war statement denouncing the war and denouncing Putin, he got rid of his Russian citizenship — and he is still under UK sanctions. What more do you want people to do? The sanctions policy has to be much more nuanced, and people should think about it more.” Should this not happen, the result is bound to be that most Russians with resources — exactly the kind of people the West should be trying to get onside — are forced to associate closer with Putin.

Indeed, certain aspects of the West’s approach towards the sanctions on Russia are so obviously self-defeating that they must raise the questions as to what, precisely, we are trying to achieve. For example, debit and credit cards issued by Russian banks no longer work abroad. That would appear to be an illogical move for those wishing to encourage capital flight out of Russia and deplete the Russian state of funds.

Similarly, many Western countries have made it much harder for Russians to obtain visas. Wouldn’t it make more sense to help as many Russians as possible to get out of the country, thereby denying the military manpower and the government resources? Or is this all about politicians’ bravado, and nobody has really thought about it beyond that?

It’s very easy for politicians to go after the so-called “oligarchs”, a term that few have bothered to define, which has essentially come to mean “any Russian with a few quid”. Over a year after the invasion, more people should be questioning whether the current sanctions regime is capable of achieving Western governments’ purported aims. If not, why is the policy still being pursued, and what is Plan B?

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