Sanction Sorrows


By Joseph Haberman

“We hope that our partners will be wise enough to see the recklessness of their attempts to blackmail Russia.” Last October, Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin delivered this chilly condemnation of the West’s policies towards his nation to the Serbian newspaper Politika. According to Putin, the current policies are belligerent and serve only to exacerbate international tensions.

Putin was referring to the financial sanctions that the United States and the European Union have enacted over the past year against the Russian Federation as a response to the country’s involvement in Ukraine. According to Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, “Russia has undertaken behavior in Ukraine…that Western leaders believe has violated the rules of the post-Cold War European order.” The Putin administration’s annexation of Crimea last March and its support, both rhetorical and material, for separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine constitute an infringement of the 1975 Helsinki accords’ articles on territorial sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. In this light, the sanctions regime implemented by the West is an attempt to assert international cooperation by coercing Russia to reverse its transgressions.

Sanctions are an important diplomatic tool with myriad strategic and tactical implications. Such policies work by restricting trade with a certain country, hurting its economy, and isolating it internationally. According to Graham, the damage sanctions impose is meant to “deter, undermine, and erode the position of an adversary.” Forced under economic duress, the country will hypothetically change its policies in accordance with the imposing governments’ standards. Popular sentiment is a necessary component of this, as the sanctions aim to disrupt the economic livelihood of the country’s citizens until enough people demand change. Harming the people indirectly by restricting their economic vitality on the world market is the means by which sanctions succeed.

Here: A 50,000 ruble banknote (courtesy Creative Commons). Above: Putin on the front page of Serbian newspaper Politika (courtesy

However, the efficacy of such a policy relies on the assumption that the state has a sufficiently developed civil society that allows citizens to influence policy decisions. An institutional framework needs to exist through which disillusioned civilians can demand that the administration’s foreign policy change in accordance with the sanctioning countries’ wishes. Liberal democracies have such apparatuses: open elections and free media facilitate open discourse in the public sphere.

In Russia, however, the Kremlin wields tremendous power over democratic structures and the political process. The central government controls news media extensively, particularly television. “Russia has so many internal problems with freedom of speech,” described Nadya Stryuk ’17, a native of the Russian city of Voronezh, adding that the government has passed many “ridiculous laws that restrict media that says anything different from the Kremlin’s point of view.” The Russian government owns, operates, or heavily influences almost all major news channels. The few remaining examples of independent journalism—TV Rain, for instance—are under pressure from the Kremlin. According to Stryuk, the state-controlled media has been successful in shaping public opinion. She pointed out that, “in Russia, a majority of people believe what the media says.”

The sanctions have been successful in at least one sense: the Russian economy is currently suffering its worst economic crisis since 1998. In the past year, the value of the ruble has fallen by over 50 percent, growth has contracted substantially, and capital outflow has reached $134 billion—all of which leave the Russian economy on the brink of collapse. “There is a downward spiral happening economically, and the sanctions have played a part in that,” said Marijeta Bozovic, the director of undergraduate studies for Yale’s Slavic department. Despite this, Bozovic added that gauging just how much of the turmoil has been caused by sanctions is a difficult task.

“They’re certainly hurting a lot of people in Russia,” says Constantine Muravnik, a senior Russian lector for Yale’s Slavic department. “Not only the oligarchs, but a lot of people who run small businesses and depend on imports they usually get from Europe.” The socio-economic crisis has had major effects on people’s decisions to stay or leave, as many members of the intelligentsia no longer find any reason to remain in the country. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have emigrated in response to dire economic and political prospects. “The trouble right now is that we are witnessing a brain drain,” said Bozovic. “I fear that the very types of people who could be legitimate political actors and could be doing something really interesting are fleeing the country.”

But the West’s larger goal of influencing Russian policy has been less successful. “You can create the anger, but you can’t necessarily direct it,” said Muravnik. People are upset about their economic circumstance, but they have not channeled that emotion towards demanding change. “There is nothing to demonstrate that support for Putin has weakened, and, in fact quite the contrary,” Graham said. Putin’s approval rating is estimated to be around 80 percent, and “there’s no evidence that the sanctions have led the Russian population to rethink their position on Putin.” The Russian government has not altered its policies in Eastern Ukraine, where separatist forces continue to resist the Ukrainian government with Moscow’s support. The crippling impacts of Russia’s current economic crisis have not shifted Putin’s position, as Western leaders may have hoped.

Putin has managed to co-opt potential popular unrest for his own political purposes. The sanctions fall right into the geopolitical narrative the Kremlin has constructed. The government has been able to galvanize support among the masses by depicting current international tensions as an example of Western oppression. “It does provide Putin an easy explanation for some of the economic difficulties,” explained Graham. Putin has been able to shield himself from blame by presenting his country’s economic turmoil as the pernicious consequence of a Western enemy trying to undermine Russian interests. The truth of this narrative can be debated, but its utility for the Putin administration is evident.

Graphic by Chareeni Kurukulasuriya (content courtesy Flickr users MCADLibrary, CSISPoni, and Roberto Rizzato).

The conditions that have led the Russian economy to the brink of collapse have been caused by numerous factors aside from sanctions, many of which lie beyond the direct control of the West. The precipitous drop in oil prices in 2014 is among the most prominent of these. The Russian economy is structurally dependent on the export of crude resources, so the fall in oil prices, influenced by global shifts in supply and demand, has sent damaging shockwaves throughout the country. But even if Western sanctions are not the direct cause of Russia’s economic despair, the sanctions have led the West to appear as though it were inciting more damage than it actually is, providing fodder for the Putin administration. “The Russian economy is undergoing a perfect storm, and yes, this is a perfect scapegoat,” said Bozovic. The nuances of global markets become superfluous in the midst of the easy narrative the Kremlin has been able to construct by pitting America as the harbinger of harm.

Whether or not the sanctions have been effective, we must ask ourselves if the ends justify the means. More explicitly, is adherence to international law worth the harm imposed on innocent civilians? “As it usually happens, I think the poor will be hit the worst,” said Bozovic. “It’s one thing to imagine this elite class and how the sanctions will affect them, but what about the poor, or the destroyed intelligentsia?”

Muravnik stressed the malicious logic of this diplomatic tool by drawing connections to the Bolsheviks. “How is this different from when the Social Democrats of Lenin in early 20th century Russia, during the famine, sabotaged the delivery of supplies to famine areas so that more people would die and become angry at the policies of Nicholas II?” he asked. “The people become pawns in a political game, pushed to extremity in the hope that their visceral reaction will be [politically] beneficial.”

Sanctions are in many ways the path of least resistance when coercing a rival power. The harm they cause does not compare to the physical destruction generated by military engagement, and they can hypothetically be reversed once the country reintegrates into the global economy. But the fact that sanctions may be more humane than military force is not a sufficient justification for their use. The antagonistic mentality towards Russia, the assumption that the country is a rival to be contained, makes the use of sanctions appear necessary. Yet, sanctions are not only failing to accomplish Western goals to coerce Russian policy; they are actively exacerbating the international antagonism that they hoped to ameliorate. “I find the Cold War rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ terrifying and a mistake on both sides,” said Bozovic.

The international animosity perpetuated by the sanctions risks forcing political leaders to enact extreme measures, heightening nationalism, and disrupting prospects for cooperation. “Our partners must clearly realize that attempts to put pressure on Russia by illegitimate unilateral restrictive steps do not bring a settlement,” Putin told Politika, adding that the harmful policies “only complicate dialogue.” The only hope for making real progress in reducing tensions between Russia and the West is to reverse the sanctions regime against the Kremlin, and the mentality of hostility that supports it.

Joseph Haberman ’17 is a Russian & East European Studies major in Morse College. Contact him at