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Sanctions are an Economic Weapon. Targeting Matters

On 24 February the US government and European leaders announced a large and coordinated package of economic sanctions against Russia. Over the previous months, the Biden administration had threatened to impose “significant and severe” sanctions on Moscow should Vladimir Putin attack Ukraine. As Russia launched its invasion, it became necessary to make good on these warnings.  

Putin’s invasion has dramatically changed the role of sanctions. As a means of dissuading him from embarking on war, they have not worked. Economic pressure has now entered a new phase in its long history as a weapon of war. In his press conference announcing the sanctions, Biden argued that, “some of the most powerful impacts of our actions will come over time”. Disavowing his earlier use of sanctions as a threat, he claimed that, “No one expected the sanctions to prevent anything from happening… this is going to take time.”

This new US narrative about the point of sanctions marks an important change: from a deterrent to a weapon with which to sap Russian strength. But as the Russia-Ukraine war rages, it is necessary to assess what sanctions can and cannot achieve when used as part of a strategy of exhaustion. Can sanctions alone slow down the advance of Russian forces fast enough to save Ukraine’s independence? 

There are historical reasons to worry about whether they can. Many observers have compared Putin’s aggression to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, which prepared the Nazi conquest of Europe during the Second World War. But a more instructive comparison for assessing sanctions’ effectiveness in stopping war is fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s land grab during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36.  

The war of conquest launched against Ethiopia was the first time in modern history that the threat of economic failed to deter an aggressor. Sanctions had developed in the aftermath of the First World War, when Allied policymakers adapted wartime blockade techniques for peacetime use in the League of Nations. The economic weapon had worked twice before as a deterrent. In 1921 the League warded off a Yugoslav incursion into northern Albania by threatening to impose a blockade. And in 1925 a similar warning against Greece sufficed to stop an escalating border war with Bulgaria. But a powerful imperial nation-state such as fascist Italy was a different matter. The threat of sanctions did not intimidate Mussolini. His invasion of Ethiopia led to the first effort by an international coalition of League states to actually deploy economic sanctions to stop a war of aggression.  

The similarities between the Italo-Ethiopian War and what is happening in Ukraine are striking. The aggressor’s military build-up had been evident for a long time, but Western capitals disagreed about how tough to make the sanctions. The invaders had also prepared for sanctions, and those international sanctions that were imposed were plagued by loopholes, especially on energy. And, finally, the international community did not provide the most effective form of support to the victims of aggression: economic, financial and defensive aid. 

Read entire article at New Statesman