Kendall Coffey is a former U.S. Attorney who has authored several books and more than thirty articles on legal subjects. He also appears as a guest legal analyst on national television networks.
While the Cuban embargo seems profoundly distant from punitive measures imposed against Russia, there are parallels. The topic “Russia’s Pivot to Asia”, during the American Bar Association’s recent conference in Moscow, suggested that, at least in the short term, sanctions are more likely to produce a change in partners rather than a change in policies. It seems evident that, just as the Castro brothers never left Cuba, Russia is not withdrawing from Crimea. With the election of Donald Trump as the next President and perhaps a new perspective toward Russia, it’s time to examine not only the success of sanctions in securing their intended effect, but also some of the unintended consequences.
The chronic futility of economic sanctions is not a modern phenomenon. While ancient Athens may have invented failed embargos some 2,400 years ago, the first U.S. sanctions, the Embargo of 1807, also backfired. Trying to steer a middle course between war and subservience, President Thomas Jefferson’s sanctions policy had a disastrous impact on American exports to Europe instead of preventing British naval harassment. In the 1980’s, the treatise, “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered,” found a thirty-three percent success rate while the Peterson Institute of International Economics estimated sanctions succeed in seventeen percent of cases.
Just as the 1935 League of Nations’ sanctions failed to deter Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, the United Nations’ economic measures decades later against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were also largely ignored. Today, North Korea’s Kim Jon II is still intransigent and menacing after all these years.
Even when effective, sanctions are not overnight successes. It took almost twenty years for Myranmar to improve human rights enough to secure the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the jury is still out on whether recent accords with Iran proved the value of decades of trade restrictions.
Cuba proves that even decades of embargos may not succeed. Russian sanctions – leveled against major banks, energy companies and President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in 2014 and later against companies building a multi-billion dollar bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea – have changed nothing and in some ways seem more ineffectual each year.
One thing is for certain: failed sanctions often have unintended consequences. The Cuba Embargo directed the rogue nation’s tourist industry to focus on Europe, from where many come to enjoy the legendary beauty of Cuba’s beaches. Russia, with its immense size and resources, is even more difficult to isolate effectively. China is fast becoming Russia’s main trading partner, as illustrated by a recent four hundred billion dollar gas deal that will flow through a Siberian pipeline. Russia is also working with India to construct up to a dozen power plants in that country. Russia may even cede two small disputed islands to Japan to secure billions of dollars for energy projects in Russia’s far east.
While expanding ties to Asia, Russia has responded to the West by banning most commodities from the U.S. and European Union and suspending a treaty with the United States for cleaning up weapons grade plutonium. The upshot appears to be that Russia will continue to find trading partners for its oil, gas and other commodities and buyers like China and India may get better deals for energy and gain competitive advantages as a result.
The uneven economic results are not the only side effect of sanctions. For decades, Cuba’s Castro has railed against the U.S. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed in 2014, “…the embargo is Castro’s best friend” giving him “an excuse for everything.” As with Castro, sanctions could provide Russian elected officials with a domestic rationale for economic adversities. Whenever it is convenient, they might seek to blame American and European sanctions rather than the huge drop in the price of oil, a commodity which accounts for fifty percent of the government’s income. And it may work, judging from Putin’s sky high approval ratings.
While sanctions have historically produced few success stories and varying side effects, they serve a broader purpose by providing an alternative to armed conflict. However ineffectual and expensive economic sanctions may often be, they are infinitely less costly than war. But they nonetheless have significant costs. There will be fascinating moments when Presidents Trump and Putin meet next year and the intended goals of sanctions as well as their unintended consequences will almost assuredly be on that agenda.