Do Sanctions Work?

Published March 8, 2022

The United States and Europe imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.  I will let others debate the sufficiency of this response and consider the economics and effectiveness of sanctions.

          Economists have analyzed sanctions both theoretically and empirically.  Theory helps us identify differences between observed outcomes and the unobserved alternative without sanctions.  One immediate implication: a proper evaluation must include cases where the threat changed policy.  In any model of negotiations and conflict – including wars, labor strikes, and sanctions – the costs of conflict push the parties to negotiate.

          Indeed, wars and strikes should not occur with perfect information.  If Ukraine and Russia both knew the outcome of the invasion, they could negotiate a settlement based on the outcome and avoiding the death and destruction.  Sanctions tend to be imposed when things break down.

          Sanctions temporarily block trade between parties.  If we currently trade very little with a nation, a halt is not very impactful.  And the potential for political or military conflict makes businesses less likely to establish trading relations.  Choosing a supplier in a country likely to be sanctioned will only produce supply chain disruption.

          This produces a paradox.  Sanctions would be most effective against allies yet are imposed against enemies.  Although this is sensible, sanctions get employed when least likely to be effective.

          Sanctions can take a long time to work.  South Africa’s racist Apartheid regime faced sanctions for 30 years before collapsing.  If sanctions take years or decades to work, is this success?

          South Africa faced diplomatic, travel, and cultural sanctions in addition to economic sanctions.  Separating the impact of economic and other sanctions is extremely difficult.  Yet we need to assess the benefits of economic measures.

          Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott and Kimberley Elliott have compiled the most extensive sanctions database through three editions of Economic Sanctions Revisited.  For each case they estimate effectiveness in achieving political goals (on a 16-point scale), the cost imposed on the target country’s economy, and cost to the initiating country.  “Success” to varying degrees in occurs about one-third of cases.  Sometimes sanctions have been notoriously ineffective, like the League of Nations sanctioning of Italy for invading Ethiopia in 1935.

          The researchers define success relative to political goals.  Alternatively, we might ask whether sanctions imposed significant costs on the offending nation.  Will sanctions make Putin pay for invading Ukraine? 

Perhaps.  Sanctions reduced the GDP of white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by over 10 percent in the 1970s and Iraq’s GDP by nearly 50 percent after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.  International cooperation is crucial for effectiveness because most trade must be shut off for the greatest possible impact.

Sanctions have been called the economic equivalent of carpet-bombing cities.  They inflict pain on “noncombatants.”  The Apartheid sanctions hurt oppressed black South Africans; incidental harm must factor into our evaluation.

Many people see nations through a collectivist lens, justifying harm to any Russians since Russia invaded Ukraine.  As a proponent of personal freedom, I reject all forms of collectivism.  Thousands of Russians have reportedly been arrested for protesting the invasion.  Again, incidental harm must be taken very seriously.

Fortunately, sanctions are increasingly targeted.  The Obama administration began targeting banks doing business with rogue regimes and selected Russian banks have been banned from the SWIFT international payments system.  Improved surveillance reduces the ability of banks to violate sanctions without penalty.

I have focused on economics, but sanctions also have a moral dimension.  Halting trade offers a way to denounce the invasion: we will not trade with barbarians.  And Russian oil seems irredeemably stained with Ukraine’s blood.

Sanctions and halting energy imports could impose nontrivial costs on Russia.  Unfortunately, invasions are rarely launched on strict cost-benefit grounds, limiting their impact.  Yet this should not diminish the economic and moral significance of sanctions.


Photo by Just Click’s With A Camera, Public Domain Mark 1.0.