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Sanctions and the case of Russia

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«Why Aren’t Sanctions Stopping Putin?»

Op-Ed, The Daily Beast

May 13, 2014

Author: Meghan L. O’Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The Geopolitics of Energy Project

The West is threatening another round of sanctions against Russia in an effort to deter meddling in the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine.  The Obama administration and its allies are placing high hopes in the ability of sanctions to sway Russian actions and generally contest Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in the Ukraine. Yet, if lessons gleaned from other sanctions episodes are any indication, the sanctions in place today have little hope of reversing Russian aggressive or curbing Putin’s drive to re-establish Russian dominance of the country’s “near abroad.” Sanctions, if they are to stand any chance of meeting the challenges Putin has thrown to the international community, must be clarified, deepened, and integrated into a broader strategy that looks beyond Ukraine.

In the last decades, sanctions earned a reputation as a policy option that “almost never worked.” This was a gross oversimplification of a more complex reality. Collapsing decades of observing sanctions into a few key lessons, we do now have a good general sense of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to sanctions, where “working” is defined to mean achieving the objective set out by policymakers, be it containment, behavior change, or regime overthrow. A hard look at many cases suggests the following:

• Sanctions need to have clear goals attached to them and actors must be unified in the articulation of these objectives. This may seem like an obvious point, but in fact, it is a condition that is seldom met. Rarely does the international community or even all elements of the U.S. government agree on the reason why a country is subject to sanctions. While these entities may find common cause in the act of sanctioning, they often espouse different goals. Such lack of clarity can frustrate efforts to get a sanctioned government to moderate its behavior; if one advocate of sanctions sees the tools as a means for bringing about regime change, the targeted country has little incentive to alter elements of its behavior, even if others promise sanctions relief in return (think Iraq in the 1990s).

• Sanctions cannot, in themselves, constitute the entirety of a strategy. Sanctions are a tool, not a strategy. Like military force, diplomacy, and economic assistance, sanctions need to be coupled with other tools to form a cohesive strategy. Yet, perplexingly, in many cases, imposing sanctions is perceived to be sufficient to address a complex problem. For decades and until recently, sanctions were virtually the entirety of the American strategy toward Iran; the situation remains largely the same in relation to Cuba. Sanctions on their own may (or may not) be adequate if the policy objective is to punish a country, but more nuanced goals involving behavior changes require translating economic pain into political change. This “transmission” often requires sanctions to be complemented by other instruments; for instance, the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam involved a complex interplay of sanctions, incentives, and a diplomatic road map in order to secure the steps Washington desired from Hanoi to move the bilateral relationship forward…MORE


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