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Opinion: Why sanctions won’t deter Putin

The increased sanctions on Russia give the world the illusion that real action is underway against Ukraine, but will they have an effect on Putin’s decision-making? History suggests that this is quite unlikely.

Indeed, the whole theory behind sanctions is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that strongmen like Putin will change their policies if enough pain is inflicted on them, their cronies and their people.

This theory was expounded by an unnamed senior Biden administration official who told CNN on Wednesday that in the wake of escalating sanctions against Russia, Putin would ultimately have to reckon with his people.
Well, maybe. Strongmen generally don’t care much for the feelings of their people and preside over governments that prohibit a free press and a free assembly. They have also generally accumulated vast mountains of ill-gotten wealth in their own country and therefore may no longer need access to the international financial system to maintain their extremely well-stocked nests.
Let’s not forget that after Putin took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russia was subjected to a series of sanctions by the US and EU. These sanctions did nothing to deter Putin from clinging to Crimea, or waging a proxy war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine for eight years in which more than 14,000 people were killed.
For many years, the United States and the UN imposed increasingly punitive sanctions on the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which did not prevent Kim from continuing and even expanding his program. nuclear.
Meanwhile, for more than a decade, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad imprisoned, tortured and murdered large swaths of his own population despite a series of escalating US sanctions that began in earnest in 2011 when the Syrian civil war broke out for the first time. Today, Assad has effectively won this war.
In the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks, the UN sanctioned the Taliban for harboring al-Qaeda. None of this deterred the Taliban from continuing to harbor al-Qaeda, which launched the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan.
Now, of course, the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. More than half of the cabinet-level appointees in the Taliban government who were announced in September have some form of UN sanction against them. None of this stopped the Taliban from announcing last month that girls over grade 6 could not go to school.
For its part, the Trump administration has tightened sanctions against the authoritarian socialist regime of Nicolás Maduro. Today, Maduro remains in power as the Venezuelan population is increasingly impoverished.
This is an area where sanctions tend to wreak havoc: they impoverish the populations of the countries targeted by the sanctions.
Exhibit A for this is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq. Almost a decade later, the Red Cross found that in Iraq “wages are as low as US$2 a month, there is about 50% unemployment”. Meanwhile, Saddam’s grip on power remained as tight as ever.
And don’t even get me started on Cuba, which the United States has sanctioned since the Kennedy administration. Cuba is currently experiencing its worst economic crisis in three decades, while the Communist Party remains in control of the island, six decades after the start of US sanctions.
To be fair, “smart” actions against the Iranian regime that made it difficult for Iran to connect to the international financial system brought Iranians to the negotiating table under the Obama administration. This led to the nuclear deal in 2015 which halted the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
But when the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal and reimposed tough sanctions on Iran, the Iranians expanded their nuclear program and are now closer to having a nuclear weapon than ever before. time in the past.
One of the only cases where sanctions seem to have produced the desired result was against the apartheid regime in South Africa. International sanctions appear to have contributed to South Africa’s decision to end apartheid in the early 1990s.

Instead of turning the Russian population against Putin, the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West seem to have had a rallying-around-the-flag effect for the Russian leader.

An independent Russian poll released in late March found that 83% of Russians approved of Putin’s actions, up from 69% in January. Even considering that some Russians may tell pollsters what they think they’re supposed to say, Putin appears to be more popular today than he was at the start of the year.

The “debrief” that Putin is supposed to face from the Russian people doesn’t seem to be happening yet. That, of course, could change as the United States and its allies impose some of the toughest sanctions ever imposed on any state on Russia. But if the West wants to do anything effective to undermine Putin’s war in Ukraine, sanctions are unlikely to be effective tools.

What would likely be effective – in addition to continuing to provide anti-tank Javelins and Stinger missiles effective against helicopters – would be to arm the Ukrainians with as many S-300 missiles as possible, according to a group of retired senior US military officials. . and former defense ministers from Eastern Europe who published an open letter to this effect last month.
S-300s can shoot down high-flying Russian jets and ballistic missiles, which would create a de facto no-fly zone over Ukraine that would not allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone formally imposed by jet planes, a move the United States and NATO have dismissed as too provocative of nuclear-armed Russia.

Sanctions are welfare measures for the sanctioning states, but they primarily inflict suffering on the populations of the sanctioned, while leaving their leaders sitting atop their heaps of ill-gotten spoils and determined to do their will.

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