#2 Economic Sanctions as Punishment vs. Economic Sanctions as Instruments
What is the actual objective of the sanctions imposed on Russia?
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I have been thinking a lot of about Max Weber. This can sound strange but Weber thought a lot about the balance between principles, means and goals in human action, which is a problem that pervades a lot of the policy choices that democratic countries have to make when responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Faced with an illegal invasion, the bombing of civilians in Mariupol and elsewhere, the war crimes committed in Bucha, how should democratic countries react and what should be the balance between “symbolic”, “principled” and “goal-oriented” action? This is especially important when we think about the economic sanctions that rich countries have been imposing on Russia. Imposing sanctions has been an expressive tools to signal outrage to the public and the international community, but the purpose of sanctions is also to act as instruments to achieve some political outcome, namely to prevent or stop war.
Sanctions as Punishment
Weber has a typology of types of actions, depending on what drives individuals and which meaning they assign to their actions. The first type of action is what he calls “emotional” action, namely and action that
'satisfies a need for revenge, sensual gratification, devotion, contemplative bliss, or the working off of emotional tensions. In this context, the actor is directly impelled to act on the basis of an emotional response to a situation or external circumstance that is determined by the state of mind of the actor”1
This has been I think an important driver of the sanctions against Russia. An instinctive reaction of many individuals - but also their governments faced with public opinions - was the willingness to make Russia, Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs pay for the horror they had created - or tacitly supported - without much consideration for the actual effects of the punishment. We then saw a number of sanctions against individuals popping up and nice photo ops of superyachts being seized. Such actions may provide gratification and be popular domestically but what they actually achieve in terms of stopping the war, or removing Putin from power is unclear.
If we assume that there was a rationale behind sanctioning foreign oligarchs, it was based on the assumption that the Russian government was subordinate to them, and pressuring them would make it possible to exert power on Putin. However, this assumption is fairly shaky for anyone who has a passing knowledge of how the political economy of Russia has evolved under Putin. The things that I have read seem to indicate that the opposite is true: Russian oligarchs hold economic power because of their connections to the state rather than the other way around. Putin is not in power because of the support of rich oligarchs; instead, oligarchs are rich because Putin tolerates them and allows them to extract resources under the umbrella of the state. Sanctioning oligarchs would work if the former was true (and perhaps it was in the the crony capitalism of the 1990s), but it is not true anymore. Any policy is based on a particular assumption about how the world works, and the assumption needs to be true for the policy to work.
Sanctions as Principled Rules
The second type of action is what Weber calls “value rational action”, or
a straightforward orientation to absolute values and considerations of action based on a value orientation to the world. Under these circumstances the actor seeks to 'put into practice their convictions of what seems to them to be required either by duty, honour, the pursuit of beauty, a religious call or the importance of some cause no matter in what it consists, regardless of possible cost to themselves.'
This is the principled rationale for sanctions. We set a set of norms for the countries we trade with and those that breach these norms pay the consequences. But if we take this rationale to its end, if democratic governments believe that what matters no matter the cost is the defence of democracy, freedom and the pursuit of justice for the victims, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious alternative to a direct confrontation with Russia, the unlimited supply of weapons to Ukraine, the severance of all political and economic links with Russia and possibly the escalation of conflict to an open war. We often understand the victory against Nazi Germany in these terms. We understand the politics of appeasement pursued by Chamberlain as a form of cowardice, and often understand any attempt of compromise with a regime that could have committed such crimes against humanity as despicable. The discovery of the horrors committed in Bucha are raising this question even more: how is it possible to negotiate anything with a regime that could instigate such things? But for most governments, the implications of this principled approach are terrifying in the nuclear age. The “regardless of possible costs to themselves” qualification in Weber’s words takes a new meaning when the actors involved have weapons that can cause total destruction. And is any principle, however, noble, worth this price?
Sanctions as Leverage
Finally, the last type of action Weber mentions is what he understands as the most elaborate and characteristic of the modern age, instrumental rationality:
In instrumental rational action, the actor is free to choose the means of action purely on the basis of its rational efficacy, and action of this type represents the greatest degree of rational orientation in as much as it systematically weighs up means and ends in relation to calculating possible outcomes.
The problem with many of the sanctions implemented so far is that they have been driven either by an emotional, essentially symbolic rationale (seizing superyachts) or a principled approach (not doing business with Putin’s regime) but the actual articulation of objectives and means to achieve them was not clear (at least to me). One obvious problem, if the goal of the sanctions was to influence the behaviour of Russia, was that there were no explicit demands associated to them. Stopping the aggression is obviously one demand, but it is not likely to work in the short term if there is no clear understanding how which action from Russia would trigger more or less sanctions. This is a point that Nick Mulder makes when discussing his book on sanctions, namely that there is a difference between sanctions as punishment (force) and sanctions as leverage. The difference is that the former serves no particular effective purpose in terms of changing behaviour. If I am sentenced to life imprisonment I basically have nothing to lose and won’t change my behaviour. Whatever I do doesn’t matter. This is the kind of reaction I have read about the Russian elite in the press, namely that they have accepted that their lifestyle of the past is over and that they have no other choice than to hunker down and rally around Putin. This would result in a North Korea of 140 mio people on the edge of the European Union.
If I am on parole, however, and need to report regularly to the police station with the threat of going to jail if I commit further crimes, then the leverage becomes real and is probably more effective: I have an incentive to behave or change my behaviour. There needs to be something that the Russian government or the elite can do to de-escalate, with or without Putin. So far, I haven’t really understood what the sanctions against Russia try to trigger. We could think of three possible objectives.
First, if the goal of the sanctions is to starve the Russian economy to stop the war while the existing elite remains in place, this is unlikely to work in the relevant timescale with the current sanctions in place. North Korea is an extremely poor country with no relevant exports, yet is able to constitute a potentially lethal threat to its neighbours, and has been under sanctions for decades. A war situation such as the one Russia is in is probably different because of the huge drain on resources it represents. This doesn’t mean it cannot be attempted, but thinking that the Russian war machine can run out of fuel because of the sanctions currently in place doesn’t seem to be working, especially if EU countries are not ready to impose an actual oil and gas embargo. This might change, however.
Second, the goal of sanctions can be to immiserate the Russian people to a point where protest becomes so strong that the regime is overthrown. This is a very uncertain and risky gamble, not only because of the pain inflicted on the civilian population (think of shortages of medicines, etc.) but also because we’re not sure what would emerge out of it. We can consider this as a legitimate strategy set against the crimes committed in Ukraine, but nobody has an interest in a civil war situation in Russia, a huge, heterogeneous country. The mess created with attempts at regime change in the middle east can act as a cautionary tale.
Third, and I think this may the most realistic objective of the sanctions, the goal can be to create the combination of economic damage and popular discontent that can lead some part of the elite to get rid of Putin. We’re not talking about regime change here but some form of coup led by the people who are currently in place, and probably have blood on their hands too, but would be ready to respond to the incentives set by sanctions. This wouldn’t be fair but we know from most peace-making processes after (civil) wars, genocides or dictatorships (in Rwanda, South Africa, Colombia) that it is difficult to achieve peace and justice at the same time. These processes often involve some form of amnesty, unless the perpetrators are completely defeated.
Whatever the objective is, it needs to be somehow clear in the minds of the governments imposing the sanctions if we are to use them as leverage rather than as goals in themselves.
Morrison, Kenneth. 1995. Marx, Durkheim, Weber: Formations of Modern Social Thought. 1st edition. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications Ltd. All the other quotes are from this book.