Western Sanctions on Russia Aren’t Working as Intended

The US-led sanctions on Russia were meant to force an end to Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and weaken his hold on power. Instead, their main effect has been to exacerbate the West’s own economic problems and deepen its internal divisions.

Russian servicemen patrol a square with the Russian national flag in central Melitopol, amid the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine, on June 14, 2022. (Yuri Kadobonov / AFP via Getty Images)

The unprecedented US-led sanctions levied against Russia as punishment for its aggression in Ukraine were hastily conceived in a panic atmosphere earlier this year, and warnings that they could backfire were ignored. Four months later, it seems even the White House is acknowledging it should have listened to those warnings.

Last week, Bloomberg reported that “some Biden administration officials are now privately expressing concern that rather than dissuading the Kremlin as intended, the penalties are instead exacerbating inflation, worsening food insecurity and punishing ordinary Russians more than Putin or his allies.” To that list, you could also add “making Russia richer.”

While a European ban on 90 percent of Russian oil imports was meant to be “a big blow to Putin’s war chest,” it’s instead combined with other sanctions and various supply-chain disruptions to send oil prices soaring further. The result has been record-high export revenues for the country over the course of the war that have far outstripped its war spending, with export prices on average 60 percent higher than 2021, even as Moscow has sold oil at a marked discount to international prices.

This is largely thanks to China and India, which have stepped into the vacuum left by Europe, Germany in particular, to gobble up cheap Russian oil. Countries like NATO members Bulgaria and Turkey have also stepped up the shipments of Russian oil they’re taking in. Together with other factors, it’s saved Russia’s currency, the ruble, from collapse, taken it to a seven-year high against the US dollar, and even allowed Moscow to cut interest rates to their prewar level. Ordinary Russians are feeling surprisingly optimistic about the economy.

Of course, it’s far from guaranteed this will last. The Russian economy is still under a great deal of pressure, and it’s clear ordinary Russians are starting to feel the pain. If and when oil prices fall, what might be just a temporary boon to the Russian economy could easily be undone. But there are other signs the sanctions are having unintended effects.

The most alarming thing for Western governments might be the economic retaliation they’re seeing from Moscow. Russia parried the sanctions by slashing or even cutting off entirely natural gas deliveries to European countries, putting further strain on European industry. Germany has been warned that a total cutoff of Russian gas supplies would plunge the country into a full-on recession, and institutions like the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have warned this could happen on a global scale thanks in part to these inflationary pressures.

It’s not just oil. Sanctions on Russia have also strangled the supply of fertilizer, sending food prices soaring and threatening the prospect of food shortages — so alarming that Washington is now quietly urging private industry to buy more fertilizer from Russia, something it’s not clear they’ll do anyway, for fear of running afoul of sanctions or being caught in literal crossfire in the Black Sea. Various major banks and numerous economists predict the same for the United States, where we’re already seeing the signs of an economic slowdown.

As a result, there’s political fallout on the horizon. The enthusiasm for hitting back at Russia that could be seen among European citizens in the war’s early days has given way to worries about the cost of Western sanctions; the city of Brussels was just brought to a standstill when 70-80,000 protesters convened to demand action on price rises. In late May, for the first time, polling showed that a majority of the US public saw limiting damage to the economy from the war as a higher priority than sanctioning Russia, and US president Joe Biden’s party is currently on track for a historic rout in November, largely on the back of Americans’ unhappiness with the cost-of-living crisis.

Meanwhile, if US policymakers were hoping the economic pressure would lead to a weakening of Putin’s regime — or at least, force him to change course — for the moment, the sanctions appear to be having the opposite effect. The disappearance of Russian anti-war protests is mostly due to their swift and brutal repression by the Kremlin. But there are also signs that the ferocity of the sanctions has engendered a rally-’round-the-flag effect among ordinary Russians, with focus group respondents convinced that Western governments would have found a pretext to sanction Russia no matter what.

Meanwhile, Putin is reportedly digging in for the long haul, sure that the West will blink first and that Russia’s role as a supplier of key commodities will sooner or later make the sanctions unbearable for Western voters. In other words, because they inflict damage on Western economies as well as Russia’s, the sanctions have given Putin a rationale for continuing with the war, despite Russia’s very limited gains so far.

So at this point at least, the sanctions have not shown any signs of achieving any of their objectives — which is good reason to ponder what might have been. When the invasion started, there was talk of applying “targeted sanctions” that would put pressure on the Russian elite while sparing ordinary people. But most Russian oligarchs, including the very wealthiest one, have not actually been sanctioned, putting the burden of Western sanctions overwhelmingly on the Russians least culpable for the war and those most likely to suffer from them.

Part of that reluctance may have to do with these tycoons’ control of key commodities. But part of it may also be, as Thomas Piketty has argued, that Washington and its allies don’t actually want to do something like create a global financial registry and use it to penalize wealthy Russians’ overseas holdings, since “western wealthy people fear that such transparency will ultimately harm them.” Sure enough, last year, Oxfam International accused the United States and the UK of being “the biggest blockers to transparency,” and just this year, the Tax Justice Network ranked Washington as the world’s leading perpetrator of financial secrecy.

Warnings about the risks of such scenarios were aired in advance of the sanctions policy’s promulgation, but amid a climate of martial fervor, the warnings were ignored. As a result, the sanctions hawks got exactly the policy that they wanted. Now they, and the rest of us, have to live with it.