Crimea and Iraq: A Lesson in Economic Sanctions

In an increasingly globalised world, nations are often called upon to intervene in situations thousands of miles from their own borders. This may be in the response to atrocities such as genocide, as happened in Rwanda in 1994. Or, it may be needed to prevent a hostile escalation, such as the one which occurred when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. It is often the case that the oppressed group is far smaller than its attacker and therefore needs outside assistance. As a result, often through public pressure, countries are forced into action.

In response to such events, the powers-that-be have several tools at their disposal. A more mellow approach could come in the form of a political warning such as a leader’s speech, in the hope that actual, costly action would not be required. The other extreme is military intervention. This, however, has obvious drawbacks such as huge financial costs, loss of life and the risk of civilian casualties. A commonly argued alternative comes in the form of economic sanctions, often seen as an effective, peaceful form of coercion with a lesser risk to human life. However, these beliefs are often unfounded, and evidence would suggest its utility as a form of coercion is minimal.

The prevailing view is that economic sanctions provide the optimal middle-ground between a peaceful approach and military warfare. The former is often viewed as weak, ineffective and more often than not, pointless. Leaders who take this avenue are viewed to be doing so simply to please their audience, possibly responding to public calls for crisis response. Leaders’ statements often serve the purpose of audience appeasement, amid fear of a backlash to inaction. Of course, there are possible arguments in favour of this approach. A powerful country may be able to impose some authority merely through an ultimatum if their reputation precedes them. Furthermore, if successful, it provides a completely costless solution. The targeted country will concede with no cost to the demanding nation. The positives are there, it’s just a shame that words are rarely enough.

The next step is economic sanctions. These too are a varied tool and can range from action against individuals, such as business leaders, or the political elite, or broader blanket-sanctions on nations as a whole. The underlying logic is that the sanctions will over time cripple a country into submission, forcing them to concede to demands. Although this may cost the sanctioning nation in lost trade, it is usually far cheaper than troop mobilisation or air warfare. However, in the modern world, this is much easier said than done. Most countries are no longer dependant on a single commodity or links to a handful of trading partners. To have any significant impact, sanctions often need to be multilateral, often requiring the support of not just several countries, but from international bodies such as the United Nations.

This was one of the many stumbling blocks with the Crimean crisis. Sanctions primarily came from the United States and Europe. Although together they accounted for a substantial portion of Russia’s trade, they failed to gain the support of crucial Asian states, as a result failing to eradicate their trade links. Russia was able to ease any economic suffering by strengthening ties with China and North Korea. The costs to Russia needed to be severe enough that it would have little choice but to modify its behaviour. As Russia was able to partially circumvent the sanctions and relieve some of the damage, the chance of sanction success drastically decreased. Cooperation from North Korea and China would have resulted in much more severe economic damage, and therefore a higher chance of Russia modifying its behaviour and sanction success.

A second crucial factor when evaluating the probability of sanction success is the presence of domestic audience pressure. The leader in question, in this case Putin, needs to be accountable to his people, who should have the ability and motivation to remove him should the economy start to suffer. It is clear that a democratic audience has the opportunity, via elections, to remove a leader or force him into policy change. However, a common misconception is that this scenario only exists within a democracy. Work by Jessica Weeks demonstrates that this may also occur in dictatorships, albeit in a different fashion. In a country with a political make-up akin to Russia, a political elite may choose to overthrow a leader if they stand to benefit and have the capacity to do so. This may occur if the elite stand to gain more through a coup than maintaining the status quo, as may be the case during a sanctions-induced economic crisis. In Russia, this was not the case. No democratic audience exists, and Putin has established an elite whose fate is tied to his. So, Putin’s approval rating soared when the sanctions hit, creating an anti-western “rally around the flag” effect as the economic suffering was blamed on Europe and the United States.

Empirical studies have shown these two influences, multilateral sanctions, and audience pressure, to be the most important factors. But even then, the success rate is weak. The ground-breaking HSE study into sanction success found only a third of 120 cases to be a success. Even more damning is further work by Robert Pape which showed only 5 of these cases to be successful. In the Crimean case, the sanctions ultimately failed in their objective to remove Russia from Crimea, and given their generally appalling success rate it begs the question, why even bother?

A strong answer is that sanctions can be ‘smart’ and limit civilian suffering. A common objection to military action is that they often result in accidental civilian casualties, and if we instead use economic sanctions this will reduce the likelihood of such consequences. But again, this has not always gone to plan. As was the case with Iraq.

As a response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the United Nations enforced economic sanctions. The initial aim was to pressure Iraq into withdrawing from Kuwait, and a demand to give up any weapons of mass destruction was soon added. Although the sanctions may have been relatively effective, more noticeable was the alarming impact on child mortality. The economic impacts were severe which, whilst admittedly being the aim, had devastating effects on innocent civilians, particularly children. Some estimates place the number of deaths attributable to sanctions between half-a-million and a million, although there is much controversy surrounding these claims. Further surveys by UNICEF in 1999 concluded that in certain areas, children under five were dying at more than twice the rate they were ten years before, clean water and medical supplies were particular issues. This sheds some harsh reality on the potential cost to civilian life under economic sanctions, to a degree comparable with warfare.

The saving grace for world leaders is that they may simply have no other choice. Threats are often deemed empty and fall on deaf ears. To save face, action is required, yet military action is often opposed by the public. As a result, some form of economic sanction is required. However, with a success rate between 5% and 36%, this seems futile. The next question, then, is how do we respond to such events? It would be wrong to stand by as a spectator, yet no response seems suitable. Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, long-term solutions provide the best answer. Preventing such disasters from ever occurring is the desired outcome. But until then, a preferable alternative to economic sanctions must be sought.


Stephen McAndrew

Third year politics, philosophy and economics student at the University of Leeds, staying on to study an MSc in economics next year.

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