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Can sanctions help win peace? According to this report, not likely

Not only does economic warfare not work because it ends up hurting the people it claims to help, but it can stand in the way of diplomacy.

Analysis | Europe


Economic sanctions —an increasingly popular tool for policymakers in Washington — can hinder peacemaking efforts, according to a report published on Monday by the International Crisis Group. 

The key questions of when to impose sanctions, how to use them as leverage, and when to lift them have never been as salient, after the U.S. and the West imposed the harshest global embargoes on Russia in history after it invaded Ukraine in February 2022 — yet an end to the war, much less a diplomatic course, is as elusive as ever.

A review of U.S. sanctions policy, released by the Treasury Department in October 2021, showed that over the last two decades, the use of sanctions by Washington had increased by 933 percent. As the Crisis Group report notes, the rationale for implementing these sanctions typically includes cutting off adversaries’ resources, punishing individuals or governments for human rights abuses, or trying to push warring parties toward negotiations.

Yet, the report finds, “sanctions sometimes hinder conflict resolution efforts. They can inhibit peace processes and post-conflict recovery, constrain peace organisations, undercut negotiations and entrench divisions between conflict parties.” 

Criticism of Washington’s use of sanctions is nothing new. But past critiques have often focused on the humanitarian consequences of this kind of economic warfare and its unsatisfactory track record when it comes to altering the behavior of targeted individuals or governments. 

The report, which adds to the growing critique, is based on three years worth of interviews with officials, foreign diplomats, members of civil society, conflict parties, and individuals in countries affected by sanctions, like Afghanistan, Colombia, Syria and elsewhere.

“While sanctions have found favour as a tool that allows the U.S. government to pursue policy objectives in conflict settings without the blood and treasure required for military campaigns, these tools are not cost-free,” the report reads. “Some of the downsides manifest themselves as impediments to peacemaking priorities, including Washington’s own.”

The unclear parameters when sanctions are imposed, and the uncertainty over the conditions under which they will be lifted or eased can impair Washington’s leverage in conflict resolution. “The U.S. does not always make clear what parties can do that will lead to sanctions relief. In some cases, Washington has not laid out any such steps or it has outlined steps that are unrealistic,” writes the Crisis Group. The report continues:

“In others, the U.S. was never willing to lift sanctions in the first place. Elsewhere, Washington’s communication on sanctions has been vague, leaving targets in the dark about what might lead to reversal. (...) Without clarity on why they were sanctioned and what they can do to be delisted, targets have little incentive to make concessions in exchange for relief. For U.S. officials, negotiating without the ability to lift sanctions is, according to one diplomat, like ‘playing poker with someone else’s money.’”

Another problem is that due to bureaucratic inertia, fear of being labeled “weak,” or other considerations, Washington is slow to lift or ease sanctions. In Colombia, for example, Crisis Group found, “[s]ome former combatants who had laid down their weapons were so disillusioned by the daily hurdles they faced in integrating into civilian life that, in the words of a former FARC commander, they ‘decided to go to war again.’” This happened because, even after signing a peace deal with Colombian authorities, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were still subject to U.S. sanctions, making it difficult for former rebels to integrate back into Colombian society. 

The most ambitious of Washington’s current sanction projects are those currently placed on Russia, which the Biden administration has consistently referred to as “unprecedented.” The report points out that these are a large part of why, despite early signs that his administration was aware of the shortcomings of sanctions, “in his second year in office, President Biden designated nearly 2,500 new groups and individuals, almost double the listings the Trump administration had made at the peak in 2018 (1,474).” 

The goal of these sanctions was to punish the Putin government in Moscow for its invasion and to make it rethink its its aggressive military goals in Ukraine by starving it of money and resources. Washington and the West have also gone after oligarchs in hopes of threatening Putin’s backdoor access to funds and elite support. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, a clear example of what Crisis Group warns about in its report today, says QI’s Director of Strategy George Beebe.

“The Biden administration has hoped that sanctions would force Putin to recognize that the costs of invading Ukraine outweigh the benefits,” Beebe says.

“But this hope was based on the mistaken belief that Putin saw the invasion as an ambition rather than as something vital to protecting Russia from NATO encirclement.  Sanctions rarely dissuade states from defending what they regard as their vital interests regardless of the costs,” he added. “They could in principle be useful as leverage in negotiating an end to the war in Ukraine, but Washington has given the Russians little reason to believe it would lift or ease sanctions even if Putin were to end the invasion tomorrow.” 

Analysis | Europe
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