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The U.S. keeps turning to sanctions despite their mixed record

President Biden announces new sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden announces new sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.

A slew of world leaders are hitting Russia with additional sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

President Biden announced new sanctions on Russia's military and economy Thursday, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin and his country will bear the costs of the attack. This latest batch will limit exports to Russia, target its largest state-owned enterprises and "stunt the ability to finance and grow the Russian military."

They follow a "first tranche" of sanctions announced earlier this week, which targeted Russian financial institutions, oligarchs, access to Western financing and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

"This aggression cannot go unanswered," Biden said from the East Room of the White House. "America stands up to bullies, we stand up for freedom. This is who we are."

The U.S. and its allies have for months pledged to enact severe sanctions in the case of a Russian invasion, warnings that evidently did not serve to deter the Kremlin.

The Council on Foreign Relations defines sanctions as "the withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations for foreign- and security-policy purposes," noting that can take the form of travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes and trade restrictions. The U.S. Treasury Department has dozens of active sanctions programs targeting various countries (like Cuba and Iran) and activities (like terrorism and drug trafficking).

Sanctions have become a favored tool in presidents' arsenals to avoid going to war (though critics note they can backfire and harm civilians) — even though they don't always work.

"The record of sanctions at deterring war is pretty mixed, and one of the reasons for that is that it's quite difficult to calibrate, to sort of ... really arrange the pressure exactly right," says Nicholas Mulder, a Cornell University history professor who has researched sanctions. "If you make a threat that is too weak, then it doesn't deter. But if you make a threat that is very strong, then you might not be actually able to deliver on that threat, and it might not be credible."

Mulder spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about where the practice of sanctions came from and why the U.S. continues to favor it. Listen to their conversation or read on for details.

Sanctions emerged in 20th century Europe

Sanctions were first created in the early 20th century and were mainly used by European countries in an effort to deter nations from going to war again after World War I.

"And they hit on this thing that they had used during the war itself, economic blockade, and began to use that in peacetime as a form of pressure to try and prevent countries from going to war," Mulder explains, adding that Americans weren't initially enthusiastic about the practice.

That changed after the 1940s when the U.S. became a dominant global power. Since then, American governments have consistently seen sanctions as an attractive foreign policy tool.

Russia has been under Western sanctions since 2014

Mulder says the existing sanctions on Russia have had "serious economic impacts," like reducing the rate of growth of the country's economy and causing the living standards of everyday people to stagnate.

But they haven't been successful politically, he says, noting that the Russian government hasn't really changed its behavior during that time.

"So in that regard, I think the sanctions we've had in the last eight years haven't really proven to have worked," he says.

In fact, Mulder says, Russians seem to have taken precautions to try to withstand sanctions and appear better-prepared for an initial economic disruption than they were eight years ago.

Speaking weeks before the Russian invasion, Mulder theorized it might be more effective for Biden to motivate Russia to do the right thing in exchange for relaxing certain sanctions, rather than adding more.

Lifting some sanctions might actually make others more effective

Shapiro points out that there are several countries, including Iran, North Korea and Russia, acting in a way that U.S. sanctions were designed to deter. Why aren't they working?

Mulder offers two explanations: The countries have "goals that they find more important than short-term economic loss," and the U.S. hasn't exactly made it clear that it can lift the sanctions if they start behaving better.

It's also difficult politically to lift sanctions quickly, he adds.

"Biden can do some things with an executive order, but there are certain sanctions that are congressional legislation. Those are much harder to lift," he explains. "But if the United States shows that it can do that, then its negotiating leverage will be much enhanced."

Despite their mixed success rate, sanctions appear here to stay

Sanctions are growing more common and less effective over time. So why do the U.S. and other countries keep reaching for them?

Mulder says one of the reasons is that the U.S. and other Western countries have grown tired of military intervention over the last decade, particularly after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Economic sanctions offer another route.

"But still, of course, foreign policy goals need to be pursued," he says. "And in that regard, the foreign policy establishment has seen sanctions as a very effective way of using pressure without actually putting boots on the ground."

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.