Are Sanctions Hurting Russia?

Are Sanctions Hurting Russia?

Historically, sanctions have failed to deter or change bad behavior on the international stage.


Last month, the European Union introduced its thirteenth sanctions package against Moscow. In 2021, before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia ranked among Europe’s top trading partners. Two-way commerce in goods and services totaled €257 billion. By December 2023, sanctions had reduced these trade flows by more than two-thirds. As the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion has passed, it’s worth asking what can actually be achieved by further constricting two-way commerce.

History may already have answers to this important question. Over the past century (and stretching back to the Napoleonic era), economic sanctions have sought objectives echoing criminal law: deterrence, rehabilitation, deprivation, and retribution. How do these objectives stack up in the current case of Russia? Deterrence has been elusive. In 1960, there were twenty active sanctions cases worldwide. By 2014, that number had reached 170. This sharp escalation indicates that past episodes did not seriously deter new offenders—neither countries that abused human rights, staged military coups, sought nuclear weapons, nor invaded their neighbors. After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the tepid U.S.-EU sanctions package hurt individual Russian firms and a few oligarchs but did not deter Putin’s massive assault against Ukraine in February 2022. Threats President Biden and European leaders voiced in the weeks before the invasion likewise had no impact on Putin’s war plans.


The rehabilitation record since 1914 shows instances of success through economic sanctions but seldom in cases against major or even middle-sized powers. Analysis by the Peterson Institute indicates that sanctions achieved some (rarely all) of the enactors’ foreign policy goals in just a third of cases since the First World War. However, successes are concentrated in sanctions against small countries with weak governments:. Regime change in Chile in 1973 and the reversal of the Ivory Coast coup in 2000 are illustrative.

Contrary to those successes, strong sanctions against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the ayatollahs in Iran did not change their territorial or nuclear objectives. Even against small autocratic countries, notably Cuba and North Korea, decades of sanctions have not yielded rehabilitation. Venezuela, under the grip of dictator Nicolas Maduro, now threatens neighboring Guyana despite a multitude of U.S. sanctions. For Ukraine, history records no instances where economic sanctions have rehabilitated the military goals of a major power—not Germany and its allies in the First World War, not Germany and Japan in the Second World War, not China in the Korean War, not the USSR in the Cold War, and not Russia in the Ukraine War.

That leaves deprivation and retribution as reasonable objectives for sanctions against Russia. Consider deprivation. Russia has lost direct access to European, American, and other allied markets for a wide range of military components. In turn, Russia has repurposed domestic factories to produce military rather than civilian goods—tanks rather than autos—while seeking transshipments through friendly or neutral intermediaries such as Kazakhstan, China, and Turkey. Russia has also purchased substitute drones and artillery shells from Iran and North Korea and basic semiconductors from China. While deprivation is a worthy goal and accompanies all wartime sanctions, troublesome leakages must be expected for a target with the geographic and economic magnitude of Russia.

The remaining objective is retribution—punishment for its own sake. At the outset of the invasion, the United States and EU imposed far stronger sanctions on finance and trade than Russia ever expected. It was widely predicted that the Russian economy would suffer a double-digit decline. To be sure, the Moscow stock market and the ruble both collapsed, but they soon recovered. As the IMF recently reported, the Russian economy contracted only 1.2 percent in 2022 and even grew 3.6 percent in 2023. This reflected both Russia’s ability to sell huge volumes of oil at discounted rates to its friends and the stimulus of war production.

But it would be wrong to conclude that ordinary Russians escaped Western retribution. Shortages are widespread, and as the war drags on, they are getting worse. Retribution seeks to punish officials and oligarchs. However, elites can always provide for themselves and pass on the suffering to lesser mortals. This is the experience of multiple sanctions episodes. During the First World War, some 300,000 persons in Central Europe died from the Allied naval blockade. In contemporary times, the sad story finds echoes in North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and today Russia.

U.S. and EU sanctions have clearly inflicted misery on ordinary citizens. It must be asked whether retribution for its own sake accomplishes the military and economic aims of Washington and Brussels. Working-class people have no political power, and yet political elites threaten their livelihoods as part of a broader global power struggle. Russian, European, and American workers all have practically no say in the trade actions their leaders choose to enact, yet they bear the eventual consequences. Decades of research and historical insight attest to the harm inflicted by punitive sanctions. National leaders should put time and effort into designing alternative policies to punish international wrongdoing.

Gary Hufbauer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.