As sanctions devastate Russian people, little reason to believe they’ll work

Canceling Russian dressing until he capitulates The Presidential Press and Information Office

Sanctions fail most of the time

A version of this article was published in The Canada Files in August 2020. It has been updated to address the current sanctions in Russia.

Thursday, March 24 marks one month since Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, thousands have died, several Ukrainian cities have been destroyed, and the US, the EU, the UK, and Canada, among others, have imposed punishing sanctions on Russia and its people, making Russia the most sanctioned country in the world, surpassing even Iran. Even Switzerland, famous for maintaining ostensible neutrality during war, has imposed sanctions of their own. This economic warfare has caused the ruble to reach record lows, prevented Russia from importing food from Canada, Norway, Australia, Japan, the US, and the EU, and swiftly sent the country on a tailspin into a new financial crisis.

Although sanctions are often framed as a principled humanitarian effort to compel tyrannical governments to grant their citizens democratic freedoms, Yves Engler, a Canadian activist and author who has written extensively on foreign policy, said in a 2020 interview that Canadians are mistaken not to view the aims of sanctions more critically. “We should look at our foreign policy decision makers through the lens of, ‘they’re probably pursuing policy because it advances empire and corporate interests,’” he said. 

Sanctions are often justified as the only alternative to military intervention, but Engler said viewing those two instruments as the only tools available “tends to reinforce global power imbalances.” He says that there are many alternatives for ensuring that foreign policy is just. “Everything from, you know, simple votes at the UN, to withdrawing aid, to the more substantial, which is, stop contributing to the harm.” 

As a member of the United Nations, Canada is legally required to impose sanctions on any nation the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has sanctioned, and it may decide to enforce autonomous sanctions as a matter of foreign policy. Those sanctions can take different forms, depending on the sociopolitical circumstances the sanctioning bodies are attempting to modify. They range from prohibitions on arms and the technical services relating to them, to freezing the assets of certain individuals and entities and prohibiting financial transactions, to broad restrictions on imports and exports. Currently, Canada has economic sanctions against 21 countries, including Russia. Almost all of the sanctioned nations rank among the poorest countries in the world, and that poverty hits the poor and working class harder than it hits politicians like Putin.  

Although “collective penalties” for civilians are prohibited under Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions, poor, racialized, queer, and disabled people pay the highest price when the West chooses to impose sanctions. The Russian people, many of whom have been courageously demonstrating against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, were already struggling economically from the impact of sanctions imposed during the 2014 invasion of Crimea, but their ability to influence the foreign policy of their home country doesn’t increase with the amount of hardship the rest of the world imposes on them.

Economic sanctions are at the root of widespread hunger in other parts of the world. A 2017 report from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) said that sanctions – not socialism – have severely reduced the caloric intake of Venezuelans and contributed to an electricity crisis that has impacted the ability of that country’s hospitals to provide life-saving care. Mortality has increased by 31 per cent and those who are impacted the most are children, people who are pregnant or nursing, the poor, LGBTQ people, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities – groups that the Geneva Conventions single out as particularly vulnerable and in need of protection under the rules of war.

Engler made it clear that whether and how sanctions are imposed has less to do with what the sanctioned nation is doing, and more to do with whether or not Washington considers it to be an enemy. “What drives sanctions policy is not whether a government is moral or democratic or not violating human rights,” said Engler. “Countries that are in the crosshairs of Washington are countries that get sanctions.” This is how the US managed to evade sanctions for their illegal war of aggression in Iraq.

The hardships that sanctions create have implications for the rest of the world. They increase the number of people who need to flee their country of origin, and in the midst of the pandemic, the restrictions sanctions place on a country’s ability to provide medical care means uncontrolled spread.

One of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world is Iran, which has been in Washington’s crosshairs for more than four decades. Dr. Parham Habibzadeh, an Iranian physician and researcher in human genetics at the University of Shiraz, says that sanctions on Iran by both the UNSC and Canada through the Special Economic Measures Act have had broad implications for medical research and treatment, despite the fact that the sanctions do not directly target those sectors. “We still have some limited access to medical supplies and collaboration is becoming possible, but all in all, the sanctions have made everything really difficult.” 

Habibzadeh says those limitations became particularly acute as the country tried to respond to the coronavirus epidemic, which was first confirmed there in February 2020. “The virus itself is borderless,” Habibzadeh says. “But our response is based on the supplies we have […] it would have definitely been easier for us to cope with the virus if we had free access to the global manufacturers and healthcare supply providers.” 

Although sanctions are intended as a method of achieving geopolitical aims while causing less harm to civilian populations than outright war, many of the consequences that arise from them, like the limitations they have placed on Iranians’ ability to access medical treatment, violate the terms of the Geneva Conventions. Article 23 of the Conventions explicitly state that the public in a besieged state must be ensured food, medicine, and items of religious worship. “It should really be investigated from a humanitarian point of view,” says Habibzadeh. 

And despite their high human costs, sanctions rarely do what they’re intended to do.

Research on sanctions has consistently found that they’re strikingly ineffective in achieving their intended aims. One study found that they fail between 65 and 95 per cent of the time – and it’s unlikely that an autocrat like Putin is going to be swayed by the hardships sanctions imposed on the people of Russia. Instead, there will be widespread suffering, and few, if any, solutions.


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