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The problem with sanctions

| Tuesday, December 4, 2018

When you were in grade school, did someone in your class get everyone in trouble unfairly? And did the teacher, failing to find the culprit, simply decide to punish everyone for something that almost none of you did? You probably hated the punishment and harbored some temporary resentment towards the teacher for imposing an unfair punishment. Instances like this seem confined to child’s play, as we assume that adults can cooperate to solve problems.

However, American foreign policy seems to engage in this child’s play when it comes to imposing punishment on states. Economic sanctions essentially punish a group for the actions of an individual or small group. Though the offenses are usually much more significant than a simple prank or joke, the response by the authority figure employs a similar strategy and similarly engender resentment and distrust. Now, the latest target is again Russia for election interference, where these sanctions are producing unsurprisingly negative reactions. In light of my general antipathy for economic sanctions, I reject the idea that economic sanctions are the solution to coercing good behavior from Russian leaders.

In September, the United States imposed yet another round of sanctions on Russian firms and individuals in response to their supposed engagement in American election interference. President Trump left out gas companies working on a Baltic pipeline, but these types of sanctions could be a future devastating strategy for the United States. Regardless of this possibility, the Kremlin and the Russian state media have incorporated these sanctions into their narrative of American aggression against not only the Russian economy but also the Russian state and people. In a time of strained relations, sanctions such as these are turned against the American agenda by the Russian media. Given Russia’s recent capture of three Ukrainian naval ships near Crimea, the possibility of future and harsher sanctions seems very probable.

The media narratives and popular perception of the United States in Russia are important for all of us to understand, because upon close inspection we see why economic sanctions will not effectively influence Russian behavior. Russian mentality has long focused on a constant struggle against the Western world, which intends to subdue and inhibit Russia from reaching her goals. In a Sept. 21 broadcast, Russian state network Channel One plays into this mentality of Russia against the world, describing the sanctions as a “blow to the Russian economy” and the “attacks of Washington” that intend to destroy Russian economic stability and ambitions. Furthermore, a separate article from Channel One even goes so far as accusing the investigation team of basing the sanctions on evidence they see as sufficient, instead of any definitive proof of Russian interference. Essentially, Channel One clearly displays its contempt for and lack of trust in American foreign policy towards Russia for its 50 million daily viewers.

Unsurprisingly, the media narratives trickle down to the public, and I can attest to this from my summer in Russia living with a host family. Throughout the summer, when my host family and I would discuss politics, we would talk about sanctions and how these impeded the development of Russian-American relations. In response to the sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and Crimea, my host mother stated very bluntly, “Crimea is ours” and cited that Crimeans wanted to join with Russia instead of Ukraine. In this regard, she believed that Russia had lost a rightful piece of land and that the United States was interfering in state-building ambitions. As a result, while she likes to interact with Americans and is incredibly friendly and hospitable, she simply does not trust the United States government. Given these reactions and mentality, reinforced by Russian media and government, sanctions will likely only cause future tension and distrust between the American government and the Russian people.

Furthermore, we must consider the ethical issues and possible impacts surrounding the latest round of sanctions. The economic consequences have been and can be severe, as shown with previous sanctions in Russia. Russian President Putin’s confidence betrays the economic reality: foreign investment is massively declining, and previous sanctions devalued the Russian ruble by 55 percent. Vladimir Milov, an economic advisor to the prominent Kremlin opposition politician Alexei Navalny, explains the effects: “They’re [the Russian government] not working toward the goal of growth. They’re working toward the goal of very tough fiscal consolidation” that prevents economic development in the country and instead protects and hoards the government’s resources. As a result, further sanctions promise to make life very hard for the average Russian, increasing inflation and unemployment while fostering mistrust and resentment of the United States. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the UN Special Rapporteur on the effect of sanctions on human rights stated that “[t]here is a need for differences between States to be resolved through peaceful means … while avoiding exposing innocent civilians to collective punishment.” Given an already unstable ruble and a weak economy, further sanctions could be disastrous for ordinary Russians and their hopes of economic prosperity.

Should Russia be punished for any interference in American elections? Of course, but should this come at the expense of the citizens who did nothing wrong? I would argue no. Supporters argue economic sanctions stir popular discontent and force governments to respond to their citizens, but true popular accountability is absent in Russia. Presidential elections give the impression of a government that legislates by and for the people, but in practice the Russian government tolerates little opposition to the Kremlin’s political agenda. As a result, it is not the government that chokes under the economic hardships of the sanctions — instead, only the citizens. In punishing an innocent group of people for the actions of elites, American foreign policy has truly resorted to childish games that do not actually solve the problems in an adult manner. The sad irony is that this policy hurts the very citizens who the United States claims to support by attempting to curtail the power of the Putin government.

Matthew Wisneski


Dec. 3

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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