Can sanctions turn back Russian tanks?

AFP , Tuesday 12 Apr 2022

Economic sanctions have been increasingly used as punitive measures against countries or regimes since the 1950s but their efficacy is still open to debate.

Russian troops
File photo: The Russian troop build-up happened openly. AP

The West is training its guns on Russia with five rounds of sanctions since Moscow's February 24 invasion of Ukraine, but experts warn that they may not immediately help stop the war.

Sanctions have been used on an average of 30 times annually between 1950 and 1990 in over 1,101 conflicts, according to the Global Sanctions Data Base (GSDB), which keeps a detailed record.

They have been used against apartheid-era South Africa, former Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi and during the Cuban missile crisis.

The sanctions against Russia include asset freezes, the exclusion of several banks from the SWIFT messaging system, a coal embargo and new restrictions on investments.

European ports have closed to Russian ships, there is a 10-billion-euro ($10.9 billion) ban on exports to Russia, including high-tech goods, and the US Treasury has blocked Russia from using dollars held in US banks to make payments on its foreign debt.

But will they work?

"Sanctions can't turn back tanks, at least not immediately. And we know that the full effects of sanctions won't be felt for weeks, months and years," Juan Zarate from the Center for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.

"This tool boomed when military responses were no longer very popular," said Olivier Dorgans, a Paris-based expert on international financial disputes.

And their use is growing given that the global economy is changing, said Erdal Yalcin, a professor of international economy at Germany's Constance University.

"Over the last 20 years, the world increased in financial integration. Every country is linked to the banking system... The temptation to punish a country with economic instruments has increased," he said.

Apart from aiming to end wars, sanctions have also been used in attempts to stop human rights abuses and to restore democracy.

In a recent interview with AFP, Gary Hufbauer from the Washington-based Peterson Institute, who has written a book on sanctions, said they were only effective in less than one-third of cases when they were used to stop a conflict, especially if they were imposed on small countries.

Unsuccessful at times

"Sanctions are very efficient in terms of economic damage," Yalcin said but warned that "in terms of political change, the success rate is between 30 and 40 percent."

"It is also very difficult to measure the success of sanctions, they come sometimes with other measures, military actions for example in the case of Kuwait," he said.

"Sometimes it also takes time before we observe policy changes, between five and 10 years. The range of time is very broad and sometimes there is no success, like for Cuba."

International sanctions have failed to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, while they have arguably had more of an effect upon Iran by at least bringing it to the negotiating table.

Russia has already felt the economic bite of sanctions.

The World Bank has forecast an 11.2 percent decline in GDP for Russia this year and S&P Global has placed Russia under a "selective default" rating after Moscow said it had repaid about $650 million in dollar-denominated debt in rubles

But the Russian currency has staged a spectacular comeback after a historic collapse on the back of strict capital controls and energy exports.

Zarate said the sanctions regime was not "complete".

"European restrictions on imports of oil and gas would be a major step and a significant measure that would affect Russian revenues," he said.

"It will add a dimension to sanctions that will have ripple effects, including closing gaps with respect to Russian banks that have not been sanctioned or not been deSWIFTED ... Ultimately it will weaken the Russian economy," Zarate said.

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