Why Sanctions Don’t Work Against Dictatorships

From Putin’s invasion to Kim’s nuclear saber rattling, the West has punished the world’s worst regimes. But have sanctions missed their targets?

November 2022

By Agathe Demarais

Within hours of Vladimir Putin’s order to invade Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Western governments imposed far-reaching sanctions on Russia. The United States and the European Union embargoed hydrocarbon imports, froze part of the Kremlin’s foreign-exchange reserves, and disconnected dozens of Russian banks from the international financial system—a vise that continues to tighten to this day. But more than eight months later, Putin has not backed down despite devastating blows to Russia’s economy. Have sanctions missed their target?

Over the past two decades, Western democracies have made sanctions their go-to diplomatic weapon. The United States and European Union administer hundreds of sanctions programs, targeting thousands of individuals, companies, and economic sectors in nearly every single country. But there may be a catch when it comes to sanctioning an authoritarian power such as Russia: Sanctions seem to work best against democracies. Since the 1950s, nearly 90 percent of the U.S. penalties that have proved to be effective were imposed on states with multiparty electoral systems—most of which are democracies. In fact, sanctions against dictatorships rarely meet the three necessary criteria for sanctions to work.

What Works

First, effective sanctions typically have a narrowly defined objective. In 2018, the United States slapped sanctions on Turkey to protest the detention of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, who allegedly had links to groups that the Turkish government deems “terrorists.” (He denied those allegations.) Just two months later, Turkey bowed to this pressure and released him, prompting the United States to lift the related penalties. While Turkey isn’t a democracy, it isn’t a full-blown autocracy either.

By contrast, sanctions against dictatorships, such as those long imposed on Cuba and North Korea, often have broad objectives—namely, regime change. International penalties with the aim of toppling governments almost always fail: The leaders of Cuba and North Korea have no intention of caving to pressure because giving up power means signing their own arrest (or death) warrants.Moreover, international penalties against authoritarian regimes rarely hurt ruling elites. Despite a heap of UN and Western sanctions, members of North Korea’s elite still have access to luxury goods thanks to the smuggling networks the country has built to evade them. In fact, the United Nations estimates that Kim Jong Un’s luxury-goods expenses top $US600 million annually.

Media censorship—the hallmark of dictatorships—means that sanctioned countries can pretend that sanctions are the sole cause of economic hardship even when their own economic policies are at fault. Venezuela is a textbook example. Years of economic mismanagement have brought about a deep economic crisis, but the country’s rulers have found a perfect scapegoat in sanctions. As a result, 60 percent of Venezuelans oppose sanctions and blame those who have imposed them for their economic hardship. In fact, the recent rise in popularity of President Nicolás Maduro may have been due to his opponent Juan Guaidó’s support of sanctions.

Second, sanctions are usually more effective if the country imposing them has significant economic ties to the targeted state. The 2018 U.S. sanctions against Turkey worked partly for this reason: The two countries have significant economic links and are NATO allies. Sanctions were an extraordinary measure given these ties, and Turkey quickly accepted U.S. demands. Conversely, if Western states target a country with which they have few ties (as is the case with most dictatorships), then the targeted country will have little incentive to alter its behavior.

This explains why the most effective sanctions are multilateral ones. When many countries impose the same restrictions, targeted states are left with limited options to continue trading. Take the bevy of penalties that were imposed on Libya in the 1980s. At the time, the United States slapped sanctions on Libya for its support of several international terrorist attacks. These were not a problem for the regime of Muammar al-Qadhafi; he merely shifted Libya’s oil exports toward Europe. He backed down only after sanctions garnered global support and the UN Security Council passed a resolution imposing penalties on Libya. Similar UN sanctions against Russia are impossible: The country holds a veto on the Security Council and has the support of China and many developing countries.

Third, many sanctions are designed to impose hardship on the populations of targeted countries so that they pressure their governments to change course. These sorts of penalties don’t tend to work against authoritarian states: Citizens living under dictatorship have few means of persuading their rulers to change direction. Iran’s experience from 2012 to 2015 is instructive. Western countries, wanting to force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, imposed crippling sanctions—leading to the country’s economic collapse, a sinking currency, and record inflation. Iranians resented the impact of Western sanctions, especially as the country had previously enjoyed decent living conditions.

Crucially, Iranian citizens had a way to signal their displeasure to their rulers. Iran is a theocracy with a dismal human-rights record, but still holds elections. In 2013, Iranians elected reformist Hassan Rouhani as president, tasking him with getting sanctions lifted. He delivered in 2015, signing the nuclear deal, which imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. But in countries where decisionmaking is wholly centralized, public pressure can fail to bring even a shift in policy direction.

Beyond their limited effectiveness, sanctions against dictatorships may well backfire on the international stage. A growing number of autocrats are using sanctions to foment anti-Western sentiment globally. After the invasion of Ukraine led to disruptions in wheat production and exports, the Kremlin’s propagandists falsely blamed Western sanctions for rising global food insecurity. But the difficulties that Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s largest wheat producers, faced in exporting grain had nothing to do with sanctions; they were due to Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports and Ukraine’s (understandable) defensive mining of its waters. Yet this false narrative has gained traction, especially in poorer African and Middle Eastern countries.

Such antisanctions propaganda aims to foster resentment against Western states and democracy more broadly. To counter it, sanctioning countries must start mounting information campaigns explaining the rationale, mechanisms, and objectives of their penalties. If democracies fail to do so, both authoritarian regimes and extremist political parties at home will blame sanctions for the ills facing their societies. Europe is a case in point: Right-wing parties are claiming that international penalties on Russia are responsible for high inflation and the energy crisis—a message that the Kremlin has been all too happy to amplify. In fact, these problems are due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its weaponization of energy supplies.

The Best of the Worst

There is no shortage of evidence that sanctions against dictatorships are an imperfect tool at best. As such, sanctions against Russia are unlikely to persuade the Kremlin to change course in Ukraine. But that does not mean that Western governments should abandon them. In the absence of other viable options, sanctions still serve a purpose. They send a strong  message, filling the gap between empty diplomatic declarations and deadly military interventions. While they may not persuade dictators to change course, they still circumscribe autocrats’ abilities to achieve their goals or wage war against their neighbors.

Moreover, the debate over the effectiveness of sanctions often fails to recognize a crucial fact: The impact of sanctions is gradual and cumulative. This is especially the case for Western sanctions on Russia. Western penalties curb Russia’s access to the financing and technology it needs to keep its energy sector thriving into the long term. Existing Russian energy fields are fast depleting, and if energy companies lack the resources to develop new ones, the Russian economy will slowly grind to a halt. In addition, the United States could still impose secondary sanctions on Russian oil exports, preventing other countries from buying Russia’s crude. As such, sanctions signal to Putin that continuing to wage war against Ukraine will eventually result in the asphyxiation of the Russian economy.

Finally, no one knows what would have happened if sanctions had not been put into place. Perhaps things would be even worse in that alternative reality. Unconstrained, would Putin have chosen an even more ruthless strategy in Ukraine or decided to invade other East European countries? Only Putin knows. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, sanctions may be the worst form of diplomatic weapon, except for all the others that have been tried.

Agathe Demarais is global forecasting director of the Economist Intelligence Unit and the author of Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against U.S. Interests (Columbia University Press, 2022), on which this essay is based.


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