metro station, St Petersburg

Can Sanctions Stop Russia?

March 10, 2022
Nicholas Mulder

This is a summary of an interview originally published in The Atlantic.

Nicholas Mulder, a professor of history at Cornell University has written a new book on the history of sanctions, “The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War.” In that historical context, Mulder sees the wave of international sanctions deployed against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine as “totally new territory,” extraordinary for their speed, sweep and size.

In the interview, Mulder discusses the collateral damage inflicted by the Russia sanctions. “On top of the government sanctions,” he points out, “there is an enormous, global private-sector reaction. It’s a divestment wave.” This combination is “hitting not only the Russian government but Russian civil society and the private economy as well,” Mulder says. “The fact that PayPal and Mastercard and Visa are no longer working there [in Russia] has enormous implications for the large number of liberal Russians who are fleeing the country now, who can no longer access their money. … I am sure that there are people who think this adds to the total pressure, but it is hitting the people who we would want to be a backbone of the anti-war position in Russia.” 

Another significant point to consider for Mulder is the efficacy of sanctions. (The Axios news site cites his book as saying that sanctions have only been “effective” about one-third of the time in the 20th century.) In terms of Russia, Mulder notes that the numerous sanctions in place since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and fomented separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, “haven’t solved the problem. That should make us a little bit more circumspect. We have tried this at a lower level of intensity. But that doesn’t mean that increasing the intensity is going to fix the problem.” The key question he raises is how to apply sanctions pressure “in ways that make countries do what the West would like them to do.” If the circumstances and situation aren’t right, “it can happen that [sanctioned] countries move in the opposite direction.” 

One important thing, Mulder says, “is to have clarity about the aims of the sanctions.” Western governments have said the goal is “the end of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the withdrawal of all troops and equipment and respect for the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine… But in imposing the new sanctions, they haven’t reiterated it. … That fosters speculation about the goal maybe being regime change. If you are a paranoid Russian nationalist right now, that would be a very plausible interpretation. That raises the stakes. It makes it existential”—and increases the chance of “an adverse response” by the Kremlin. 

Another important thing is clarity about what it takes to get sanctions lifted, Mulder suggests, pointing to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as “the most successful use of American sanctions in the 21st century so far.” Given that Russia is a powerful, nuclear-armed state, “we should make clarity, to the degree that we can, the absolute priority. We just can’t afford errors or a major escalation.” Concrete if-then conditions can be tied to the lifting of sanctions, according to Mulder: “If there is a perception … that these [punitive measures] are going to be permanent and they’re going to be there no matter what Russia does, they will just be a weapon to wreck Russian society and the economy with. I don’t think that will lead to the kind of longer-term international situation that we want to pursue.”

Mulder described “four ways we can think about sanctions working”:

1. “The deterrent function. That was what we tried from December until two weeks ago.”

2. “The compellent function”—trying to “force Putin out of Ukraine and force him to end this war.”

3. “Maybe we can cause regime change or a change in government. That’s a pretty ambitious goal.”

4. “You’re never going to change behavior. … Instead, this is purely the long-run degrading of Russian power. This is attrition, exhausting them as an adversary.”

“Right now,” Mulder says, “it’s not really clear whether our goal is two, three or four. It’s only clear that No. 1 didn’t work, because the war happened.”

Mulder considers “sanctions that inflict damage on entire populations and their economic life to be morally fraught.” If Western policies are “premised on the idea that bad governments and their people are one, then we have bought into a way of thinking that comes perilously close to how ultranationalists and fascists see the world. If total economic sanctions are the weapon to which liberal internationalism resorts to defend itself, then in a sense the totalitarians will have won. … Any liberalism worth its name should support and defend individual dissent and resistance against oppressive and dictatorial governments, not punish those unfortunate enough to find themselves living under such regimes.”

As for the ultra-wealthy, headline-grabbing Russians who have had their yachts and other assets seized and access to the West drastically curtailed: “They are suffering from these expropriations, but it’s not clear they can translate that into sway over the policy-making process.”

Read the full interview with the magazine's staff writer Annie Lowrey on The Atlantic’s website. 

The opinions expressed in the quotes are solely those of the interviewee. Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.


Nicholas Mulder

Nicholas Mulder is a professor of history at Cornell University. His new book on the history of sanctions, “The Economic Weapon,” was published by Yale University Press in January.