The sanctions puzzle

VISA and Mastercard announced on Boxing Day that they will no longer provide services in Crimea, on the grounds that to do so would be in violation of the latest sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies in Canada and Europe. These include a prohibition on the importation of goods from Crimea, a ban on companies providing tourism services in Crimea, and the outlawing of investment in Crimea. Is this sanctions policy rational?

In January I will start teaching a course on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’. ‘Irrationality’ is somewhat hard to define, but one way of looking at it is in terms of ends and means. Actors who choose means which will help them achieve their intended ends may be considered rational. Actors who choose means which they know will not achieve those ends are irrational. So, what are Western nations’ objectives in imposing sanctions on Crimea and will the sanctions actually help them reach those objectives?

It could be that the aim of the sanctions is to coerce Russia into giving Crimea back to Ukraine. The problem with this objective is that it cannot be achieved. Russia will not surrender Crimea. If Western states believe otherwise, they are deluded. If they understand that they cannot force Russia to hand over Crimea, but are pursuing this objective anyway, then they are acting irrationally.

In any case, if the aim is to put pressure on Moscow, it seems strange to sanction Crimea. The effect of the sanctions will be to make life difficult for the inhabitants of the peninsula, but they won’t directly harm those in Moscow who make the political decisions. The means chosen do not match the apparent end.

A rational person might, therefore, conclude that pressuring or punishing Moscow is not the aim after all. Perhaps the objective is instead to punish the people of Crimea. But that makes little sense. In the first place, the sanctioning states do not gain any benefit from such punishment. Second, Western states have never blamed the people of Crimea for the annexation of the peninsula, and so punishing them would be odd.

Perhaps, then, the sanctions are not really meant to achieve anything as far as Russia is concerned. Rather their purpose is to satisfy domestic public opinion. The problem with that explanation is that the public in most Western states doesn’t seem very interested in Crimea. Outside of Canada there isn’t much of a Ukrainian lobby pushing for a harder line against Russia. It’s not obvious that there are domestic political interests which need to be appeased, and thus it does not appear that there is any political benefit in sanctioning Crimea.

Another possibility would be that the policy is a product of bureaucratic inertia. Following the annexation of Crimea, committees were formed, papers written, and processes started. Now they are ploughing their way forward regardless of whether what they are doing serves a meaningful purpose. And yet another possibility would be that Western political leaders don’t actually know what their objectives are, but are flailing around blindly in order to satisfy their own personal sense of moral outrage. The rationality in this case would be personal and emotional. If so, it is impossible to verify.

All in all, it’s hard to explain what is happening using a rational actor model of policy making. One has to look elsewhere for an explanation.

8 thoughts on “The sanctions puzzle”

  1. Dear Paul,

    I should think that the way in which the US has applied sanctions to Iraq in the past and is applying sanctions to Iran now, suggests that the objective is to weaken the civilian population in the sanctioned country to the extent that when the US and its allies eventually invade, either directly or through a proxy army (like ISIS in Syria for example), the weakened and impoverished civilians cannot offer very much resistance and will either capitulate completely to the invaders or flee and become refugees in other countries.

    Sanctions can be seen as a variation of the austerity programs currently being carried out in the EU and elsewhere, and the results can be the same: reduced investment by governments of the affected countries in infrastructure, education, social services and healthcare, industry and all the other foundations for a functioning 21st-century society, leading to mass unemployment, poverty and eventual depopulation. People’s properties are seized by banks which might then sell them at a pittance to companies wanting to frack the land beneath or use it for other purposes.

    Seen in this way, sanctions in Crimea would have the objective of forcing the Crimeans into poverty and leaving the peninsula. What would be the point then of Russia defending an empty region? Suppose the world went to war over Ukraine and Crimea, and the US and its allies were to win, then Crimea becomes a clean slate, free of any people, to be exploited by energy corporations.

    Just my two cents’ worth but I think this view is as close to being a “rational” explanation of the use of sanctions.


  2. Without any snark I’m wondering how sheer incompetence might be incorporated in the analysis of Ukraine policy circa 2013-14. It doesn’t take much work to reveal both that a) the notion of Ukraine joining the EU or even getting on track to do so was a non-starter given the importance of the Russian market to the country b) that politically speaking, dragging the country in that direction would tear it apart. This actually suggests more sinister, destructive, and cynical policy objectives on the part of – particularly – American actors in this macabre drama. In contrast, the Europeans appear as simply self-important and ill-informed. I’m thinking particularly of Der Spiegel’s 7k word expose of the Riga disaster:

    My favourite moment is when Yanukovich, faced with analysis suggesting signing the EU association agreement will require massively more support / funding / investment than the EU thought, calls his counterpart in the EU negotiations and asks for help and the EUcrat says, “what do you think we are, the IMF?”

    Ha. Priceless.

    There is no room in a competitive world for a very senior bureaucrat to be that f’ing obtuse. Europe is well and truly fucked.


  3. May I pen a few thoughts on this action?

    It may well be the Do Something brigade that has been going since the early 1990s, regardless of the Something being useful, useless, disastrous or other. Doing nothing would be the worst option as it would underline the essential weakness and handling (i.e. incompetence) of US instruments and those who take the decisions.

    In Crimea’s case, yes these sanctions look tough, but comparatively if we take the whole of Russia in to account, they are symbolic. If we look at what the West could do but didn’t (a bit like lies of omission), then we see the gaping hole between public western rhetoric and reality which is that as a result of Globalization – a western driven policy – Russia has only become more integrated with European and other economies. In the ‘good old days’ you could sanction whole countries and almost cut them off from the rest of the world. There are simply to many links and ties to do this now without causing all sorts of complications and blow backs.

    Recall how we were told in the Pork Pie News Networks that the US could easily impose sanctions on Russia with the minimum of damage to the US because US trade was so low comparatively to other countries? It turns out to be a bit more complicated, so if you drill in to the detail you discover for example that the US launches its own spy satellites using Russian rocket engines. To save cost as US tech is significantly more expensive… That is just one example.

    Another is that aircraft manufacturers like Boeing & Airbus source most of their titanium from Russia, essential for high strength parts. Even a small disruption in that chain would have important knock on effects leading to late deliveries and disrupting production on these high value products.

    Finally (amongst a few others), there is serious money to be made in oil and gas exploration in places like Russia, Brazil/LatAm, Asia etc. This is where the US & the EU have done themselves some serious damage as Russia is actually a growing market and close to Europe which is already saturated. This means everything from specialized rig transport helicopters to gas turbines, the latter of which the gigantic General Electric has set up servicing centres in Russia’s far east. If General Electric think it is worth it….

    Winding back to the question of ‘why these sanctions?’, regardless of the quality of the officials at the US Department of State – and we have to ask if there is much depth of quality considering appointments made over the years – the whole State Department costs serious money.

    Do nothing and people start to ask what is the money for.

    Would it be too simple to say ‘If you don’t use it, you loose it?’


    1. Good points. The desire to ‘do something’ is clearly important, though I do wonder why this something as opposed to something else. Similarly, as Oddlots suggests, incompetence is part of the equation too. I tend to the view that Western policy mistakes derive more from poor judgement than deliberate malice – the ‘cock-up’ theory of history is generally more accurate than the conspiracy one.


      1. If such essential policies are personality run, then maybe we should be afraid. Where are the career diplomats and experts in this equation? Does their expertise simply not matter enough?


      2. FWIW I am not suggesting conspiracies but simply that Americans can afford to be reckless if others – Ukrainians and Europeans – pay the price. I think it’s obvious that the US has been egging on the war party in Kiev from the get-go. If you take it as axiomatic – as I do – that there is no military solution to a crisis of political legitimacy then taking such a position should appear entirely sinister.


  4. I don’t know about other countries, et Al, but here in Canada the career diplomats complain of being ignored. The Conservative government is said to regard the foreign service as a bastion of Liberalism, and so is not interested in what it has to say.


    1. To put et Al’s point into a simple question: where did all the adults go?

      This is underlined by the amazing pile up of retired politicians such as ex-German chancellors expressing dismay over NATO and EU policy. Or the 60 or so elite Germans who signed the “Not in Our Name” protest statement.


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