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.