Sanctions as potent yet unwieldy weapons of war

This timely book is a valuable history on a technique that dominates today’s landscape of war. But a discussion about the time sanctions require to take effect is vital.

Pressure gauge shows zero gas consumption at a gas plant in Europe. Credit: Anton Zubchevskyi / Alamy Stock Photo.
Pressure gauge shows zero gas consumption at a gas plant in Europe. Credit: Anton Zubchevskyi / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of War by Nicholas Mulder, Yale University Press, 448pp, $25

Since the second phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022 (the first being in 2014), there has been considerable interest in the ‘economic weapon’ of sanctions. Eager for tangible results to report, there have been high expectations that the measures put in place by the United States and European states, which had been threatened when the invasion was imminent, would be put in place quickly. But the outcome of sanctions, such as blockades, is less rapid than from military operations. Nevertheless, their effects can be far reaching. As Nicholas Mulder’s book demonstrates, the economic weapon was regarded as more terrible, because it was waged against the entire fabric of a society and its economic foundations. In a pre-nuclear age, it seemed a devastating option that would impact civilians rather than military personnel. It was ranked alongside air warfare and the use of poison gas by the generation of the First World War, which had seen the terrible effects of starvation caused by blockade. It is not clear exactly how many perished as a result of the wartime blockades (Mulder gives a conservative estimate of 900,000), but the fall in nutrition rates weakened civilians and service personnel alike, made the spread of diseases such as the Spanish Influenza pandemic, more virulent and deadly, and contributed to famines in the Middle East. The combined effects of U-boat warfare, Germany’s Atlantic blockade against the United Kingdom, and the exhaustion of credit from American lenders brought the British government close to the idea of capitulation in late 1916.

Economic warfare has existed as long as organised war itself. The destruction of cities by waves of invaders was designed to break economic power and deprive the polity of resources as much as it was to reduce any military advantage in fortification or garrisons. In the Napoleonic Wars, the French had tried to coerce the British by excluding them from the trade of the European Continent, but the British had countered with blockades of their own. Nevertheless, as more urbanised and capitalist societies became more dependent on imported goods and supplies, so the economic weapon took on a far greater potency.

President Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to find an alternative to the appalling bloodletting of the First World War, regarded sanctions and blockade as the better means. The League of Nations would be able to impose severe economic and financial measures against any state that threatened international peace.

Initially, in the inter-war years, the system appeared to work. In 1919, the Bolshevik regimes in Russia and Hungary were sanctioned without recourse to war. Crises in the Balkans were defused when sanctions were threatened, first against Yugoslavia for its threats of war against Albania in 1921, then the Greeks for threats against Bulgaria in 1925. Turkey, China, and Japan were also warned of the consequences of aggression by the League.

The sanction system nevertheless faltered because of the Great Depression in 1929, which weakened the potency of economic power among the liberal states, and by the adjustments made by larger, authoritarian regimes that feared they might be isolated and overthrown by the economic weapon. Fascist Italy was subjected to moderate sanctions in the mid-1930s for its illegal and unnecessary invasion of Abyssinia. The League nevertheless stopped short of imposing oil sanctions, fearing that Mussolini might simply join the new German dictator, Hitler, whom the Europeans intended to keep isolated.

In fact, Hitler and Mussolini had both come to the conclusion that year that they must opt for autarky, economic self-sufficiency, precisely to avoid the devastating impact of sanctions. Critics seize upon this decision to argue that sanctions will always fail, missing the point that autarky actually accelerated the economic failure of both Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. Both opted for the aggressive politics of plunder — Italy in North and East Africa and the Balkans, and Germany in Eastern Europe — to compensate for the anticipated economic problems they would face. Hitler calculated the future of Germany in acreage and foodstuffs he could acquire before the ‘waning point of the regime’ economically, which he estimated to lie between 1943 and 1945. His search for alternative and ersatz products reached the absurd.

Mulder states that fear of sanctions contributed to the rise of nationalism amongst the dictatorships, although such a development cannot have been solely economic in nature. Indeed, extremist ideologies were adopted around the world as reactions to a variety of challenges in the early twentieth century, including disappointments with the outcome of the First World War, resentment at the effects of the Depression, disparities of wealth and power, and ethnic rivalries.

Mulder notes that, since the Second World War, this alternative to waging war has had limited results, despite greater sophistication in targeting than during the inter-war years. Measures include energy controls, blacklisting, import restrictions, export controls, property seizures (including luxury yachts), asset freezes, financial limitations, and, in the case of Russia in early 2022, ejection from the global Swift banking system. But the reason for this is time. Sanctions are often slow to take effect and a government can try to adjust or find third parties to circumvent restrictions. Existing partners can take on more risk or a greater volume of goods to assist a sanctioned state, as India now does with Russia. China has long defied restrictions on North Korea. Russia aided Venezuela when its President, Maduro, was sanctioned for overturning a democratic election.

Yet the advantage of sanctions is not purely economic and financial. It is a form of ‘signalling’ in international affairs, indicating collective condemnation. It suggests, in an interconnected world, a greater willingness to endure hardship, in order to show that disapproval. It also offers the chance to dial up and dial down penalties in order to encourage a different policy line. The United States offered sanctions relief to urge Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. China uses economic threats more coercively, pressuring Western companies or governments to conform to Chinese foreign policy in return for access to Chinese consumers and funding. It made loans to Sri Lanka, and then imposed conditions on the failing economy of that South Asian nation that gave away a naval base to the Chinese navy.

A common question is whether sanctions have worked against Putin’s regime, and whether they will end his illegal and unjust invasion of Ukraine. The effects are, at the time of writing, still being calculated. Putin is hoping that his blockade of Europeans’ oil and gas supplies will force them to break before his economy does. Russia amassed great wealth through oil revenues and grain and weapons sales before the war, but the sheer cost of the war to the Russian economy is eroding that wealth very rapidly. The Russian aviation industry is on its knees. Many of its most talented citizens have fled the country, storing up enormous problems for the future. Vital component parts are in short supply. Western investors have abandoned Russia and are unlikely to return in the same numbers even after the war. In sum, Russia has mortgaged its future for a short-term, failing military adventure. If the objectives were to gain greater respect or security, then Putin failed in 2022.

Mulder’s book is a timely one. But the idea that sanctions can produce visible results in a short time frame are misleading. The damage the economic weapon has inflicted is yet to be seen.


Rob Johnson