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Sanctions and the Ukraine: what can we learn from the literature?

Natasha Lindsaedt, University of Essex David Trubek, University of Wisconsin-Madison Bojan Bugaric, Sheffield University (*)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents the biggest security challenge facing Europe since World War II. In response, countries around the world have imposed an unprecedented array of sanctions. Never before has the global community worked so quickly and efficiently to cut off a country economically from the rest of the world, and never has such a powerful country been hit so hard by economic weapons.

Sanctions so far include the whole gamut of available tools. There are unprecedented penalties on Russia’s central bank, which has seen its US assets frozen. Most Russian banks were ousted from the SWIFT, the inter-bank messaging service. Two huge banks tied to Russia’s defence industry have been targeted and restrictions have been placed on purchasing Russian debt.

Top Russian officials including Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been personally targeted, along with other oligarchs. To reduce Russian military capabilities, the US has restricted the export of high-tech products such as computers and semi-conductors, while the EU has restricted exports to Russia in the energy, transport and technology sectors. Germany stopped certifying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the US and other countries are moving to ban imports of Russian oil and gas.

The sanctions regime is still evolving, not all are working as was intended, and it is too soon to predict the outcome of this unprecedented effort. But there is a rich literature on sanctions that can help us identify the questions to be asked about their possible impact on the situation in the Ukraine. In this short note, we present a series of findings about sanctions culled from the literature and discuss how each may play out in the Ukraine. It draws on a longer essay done for TRECA, the project on Transnational Efforts to Combat Authoritarianism, which is available here.

F1: Sanctions work best when the target state is economically weak and, in some way, dependent on the sanctioning state.

Ukraine: To some extent, this is being tested today. The sender of the sanctions consists of a broad coalition of states that control a sizeable portion of the world economy while the Russian economy is comparatively small. Russian GDP, US $1.7 trillion, is about 10 per cent of the European Union’s GDP, or, roughly, the combined GDP of Belgium and Netherlands. At the same time, it is unusually dependent on its links to the global economy. Russia relies heavily on the import of manufactured goods and the export of raw materials: manufactured goods represent 80 per cent of imports; raw materials (largely gas and crude oil) amount to 80 per cent of exports. Both are being targeted: can Russia absorb this level of sanctions, especially if effective curbs are put on its oil and gas exports?

F2: Sanctions are less likely to work on authoritarian regimes that can easily shift the blame and transfer the economic burden.

Ukraine: Most authoritarian regimes can use sanctions as a rallying cry to garner more support for their regime. But this is contingent on the regime having a monopoly on the dissemination of information. Russia is trying to impose its own narrative about Western aggression to explain why sanctions are being applied. This is working for now internally: with total control over the media, Russian propaganda endlessly spews misinformation about the regime and threats emanating from Ukraine and the West. Russian propaganda has been fairly effective in selling the idea that the “special operation” is needed to stop Ukrainian Nazis who are seeking to undermine Russia. But it is not working at all externally: Russia is failing to convince the world that the fault lies with the Ukraine. The voices accusing Russia of illegal acts and rejecting the Russian narrative are legion, while supporters are few. At the same time, it is far from clear that the regime can shift the economic burden of sanctions. Many of the sanctions are directly targeting its key supporters, while other sanctions are wreaking havoc on the entire economy. While for now elites appear to be on board and popular opposition repressed, over time we may see elite defection and manifestations of popular dissatisfaction.

F3: Autocrats facing sanctions can rely on other authoritarian regimes.

Ukraine: Russia is trying this strategy, reaching out to China and other autocracies. Russia is dependent on many US and European products, especially technological goods like semiconductors, lasers, and navigational and telecommunications equipment. Being cut off from these items will likely inflict severe economic damage and Russia is reportedly seeking economic and military support from China (and testing China’s loyalty). The issue is to what extent China will be willing to support Russia and whether Western efforts can limit support from China and other potential allies. The US is urging China to stay out: President Biden spoke directly to Chairman Xi indicating that China could face repercussions if it decided to intervene to assist Russia. So far, China has declined to support the ruble, Chinese banks have steered away from Russia, and no military aid has been forthcoming (it’s important to note that China only does about $150 billion in trade with Russia, a fraction of what it does with the EU and the US). Other countries like Brazil, India and South Africa have declined to join the sanctions regime but have not offered positive support and lack the capacity to help Russia make up for the economic losses from sanctions.

F4: Personalist regimes – or those that are essentially one-man rule with a high concentration of power in the hands of one leader with the military and party apparatus severely limited under his power—are the most vulnerable.

Ukraine: Russia under Putin is a personalist dictatorship, and he has internal resources to pay off the elite support group that props him up in power. As long as Russia has access to rents from oil and natural gas, this may be enough to ensure his inner circle can maintain the lifestyle they are accustomed to. This group of elites has narrowed over time and is thought to be quite cohesive and likely to remain dedicated to Putin no matter what: dislodging them from power would be a major challenge. This group shares his worldview and is far more loyal than competent. However, as members of this inner circle are both individual targets and well positioned to see the general effects of the sanctions on the population, might they pressure for a negotiated solution?

F5: Sanctions applied to aggressor states during a conflict may impact that state’s military effectiveness

Ukraine: The morale of Russian troops is already low, and the sanctions may play a role in worsening it as soldiers hear from home about their economic effects. Further, sanctions could affect Russia’s supply of military hardware. The fact that Russia seeks military aid from China suggests the sanctions are affecting its war-making capacity which has been degraded by Ukrainian resistance: the news is full of pictures of damaged tanks and other Russian war material.

While the sanctions literature suggests that the current efforts could eventually cause Putin to seek a negotiated solution, the military timetable moves much faster than the sanctions can really start to bite. So, the effectiveness of the sanctions may be dependent on how long the Ukrainians can defend their territory, to what extent China is willing to be Russia’s lifeline, and if the West can maintain economic pressure by fully implementing existing sanctions and ramping up more on gas and oil while providing other forms of support including weapons.

(*) The authors coordinate TRECA, the Project on Transnational Efforts to Combat Authoritarianism This note is also available on SSRN at:


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