Are Sanctions Actually Nonviolent? | Sojourners

Are Sanctions Actually Nonviolent?

A Russian flag flies behind a chain link and barbed wire fence. Via Alamy.

Over the course of the last two months, the United States has imposed numerous comprehensive sanctions on Russia, in response to the country’s war in Ukraine.

The United States and its allies have implemented these sanctions in an effort to support Ukraine without escalating the conflict. According to Washington Post-ABC News polling released on May 2, the sanctions are popular.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans support increasing U.S. sanctions against Russia. The survey also found this level of support was similar even among those concerned that sanctions are spurring inflation in the United States.

Supporters of sanctions, including some Christians, often characterize them as a peaceful alternative to military intervention. 

President Woodrow Wilson, who in 1919 wanted the United States to join the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations), promoted sanctions by saying: “Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force.”

However, according to some experts, sanctions are not as nonviolent as they may seem.

“[Sanctions] are, as we see now in the case of Russia, warfare by other means,” Jim Hodgson, a retired program coordinator for the United Church of Canada whose decades of work focused on Latin America and the Caribbean, told Sojourners.

How sanctions hurt Russian civilians

Current U.S. sanctions against Russia began in 2014 when the Obama administration initiated economic sanctions after Russia’s invasion of Crimea. In 2021, the Biden administration instituted sanctions in response to Russia’s alleged election interference and cyberattacks and after the poisoning of Russian opposition-leader Alexei Navalny. The United States imposed its first new set of sanctions on February 24, after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

“Together, along with our Allies, we are right now enforcing powerful economic sanctions,” President Joe Biden told Americans in his March 1 State of the Union. “... [W]e’re choking Russia’s access to technology that will sap its economic strength and weaken its military for years to come.”

Some of the most prominent measures include removing Russian banks from SWIFT, the primary system that banks use to quickly communicate and transfer money internationally; and a ban on the import of Russian fossil fuels into the country. The sanctions have also targeted Russian elites by cutting them off from the U.S. financial system and freezing their assets, which has led to highly publicized seizures of superyachts and other property. Most recently, the United States prohibited Russia from using dollars held at American banks to make sovereign debt payments, a move that could lead to Russia defaulting on its debts and trigger a decrease in the value of the ruble, the Russian currency.

David Cortright, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame and the co-author of The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s, told Sojourners that these sanctions are “probably the most severe sanctions that have ever been imposed” on Russia “in terms of the sweep of the restrictions and the amount of money that’s locked down.”

Michael Duffey, associate professor emeritus of ethics in theology at Marquette University told Sojourners “there has to be real credibility that the kind of sanctions that are being imposed do not intend either directly or even indirectly to harm civilians.”

Even so, Russian supermarkets are already experiencing shortages of diapers, sanitary pads, and sugar, according to a CBS report in early April. CBS reported that analysts at Raymond James say that 95,000 Russian workers have been furloughed and 60,000 have been laid off since the beginning of the war. These experts also expect Russian unemployment to rise steeply as stores and factories shut down.

Liam Peach, an economist who covers Russia for the research agency Capital Economics, told Sojourners that inflation in Russia surged to a 17 percent in March of 2022 compared to March 2021. In comparison, the United States faced an 8.5 percent inflation rate over the same period. Capital Economics predicts that Russian inflation will peak at 21 percent this summer. While wealthier Russians can handle the price increases that come with inflation, poor Russians may struggle to access basic necessities.

Cortright said he was concerned about reports that Russia’s exclusion from SWIFT will restrict migrant workers in Russia from sending money home. In Kyrgyzstan, remittances make up 31.3 percent of the gross domestic product and 83 percent of those remittances come from Russia; a significant reduction in remittances from Russia will be devastating for Kyrgyzstan.

When sanctions hinder humanitarian aid 

In 2019, the international humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch linked U.S. sanctions in Iran to a 30 percent increase in inflation and shortages of critical drugs in Iran, including chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients and epilepsy drugs necessary to prevent permanent brain damage.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.N. experts connected sanctions to shortages in water, soap, electricity, fuel, and food in sanctioned countries.

“Sanctions that were imposed in the name of delivering human rights are in fact killing people and depriving them of fundamental rights, including the rights to health, to food and to life itself,” Alena Douhan, a UN rapporteur, and other UN experts wrote.

In his work for the United Church of Canada, Hodgson said he witnessed the difficulty in delivering humanitarian aid to countries under sanctions.

“People who defend sanctions will always say that there are exemptions for humanitarian aid. In theory, that’s true. In practice, it becomes really difficult,” Hodgson said. “How can you get food aid to Iran after an earthquake if nobody will ship things?”

When it comes to Russia, Hodgson said he “would be watching for the usual indicators: hunger, access to medicine,” and long lines as people try to find food.

“Depending on how long this all goes on, I think we’ll start to see some pretty dire consequences,” Hodgson said.

While Cortright understands sanctions as measures “short of war,” Khury Petersen-Smith, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, disagreed with “the idea that sanctions are an alternative to military action.” Petersen-Smith emphasized the “devastating” impact of many sanctions, even when those impacts are less visible.

“[Sanctions and military action are] actually just different tools in the toolbox that are combined with each other,” Petersen-Smith told Sojourners.

What should Christians consider?

Hodgson said there are several factors that Christians should consider when evaluating the ethics of sanctions, particularly because of their potential to significantly harm vulnerable populations. He said that Christians should pay attention to whether the oppressed see sanctions as helpful in their calculation.

Myroslav Marynovych, vice rector of Ukrainian Catholic University, told Sojourners he supported both military aid and increased sanctions. Marynovych said that a majority of Russians support the war, citing one poll that found more than 80 percent of Russians support Russia’s military actions.

“It would be ethical, in my understanding, to punish not only the government with sanctions, but also to punish the population,” he said. Other studies found lower levels of support, and some experts have questioned the reliability of such measurements.

Marynovych drew a comparison between the current situation in Russia and Nazi Germany, and credited sanctions with helping defeat Nazi rule.

Duffey, however, said looking closer at the example of Nazi Germany illustrates that there were mothers, children, seniors, and sick people who were not contributing to the German war effort.

“The things that people need simply as human beings can’t be denied them on the grounds that they’re all part of [their government’s] evil,” he said.

The second question that Christians should ask themselves, according to Hodgson, is, “Will sanctions be effective?” There are several theories about how sanctions can work to end a war. One theory states that sanctions that cause enough suffering among ordinary people will serve as the catalyst for revolution and ultimately change the government’s actions or even the government itself. While Johan Galtung, referred to by some as “the father of peace studies,” labeled this theory the “naïve theory of sanctions” in a 1967 study of its failure in Rhodesia, Francesco Giumelli wrote in the 2016 book Targeted Sanctions that the theory continues to be popular in policy circles.

Petersen-Smith and Cortright agreed that sanctions for the purpose of regime change do not work.

“Sanctions actually have a contrary effect than what many assume,” Cortright said. “People don't turn against their own government, they turn against the foreign powers.”

However, Cortright believes that sanctions can be powerful in bargaining with a country like Russia to change their behavior, especially if there is a clear commitment to end the sanctions when the behavior of the country changes. He said these sanctions are most moral and effective when they are targeted at the political and economic elites.

According to Cortright, the current U.S. sanctions against Russia are “primarily targeted measures,” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s communication has hinted at a willingness to remove sanctions once Putin changes behavior, both encouraging signs.

When asked about targeted sanctions, Petersen-Smith said that, in high-profile cases, the United States combines targeted sanctions with broad sanctions, but questioned idealizing targeted sanctions.

“Respectfully, I think it's a bit of a fantasy to say, ‘Wouldn't it be great if the sanctions could target the bad guys?’ The notion that the U.S. can use precision to target the right people is not limited to sanctions. The U.S. has smart bombs. It has drone strikes that are targeted killings, and, in all of those cases, those technologies have not just targeted the bad guys. They inevitably target populations.”

Petersen-Smith said they worry that sanctions have been an easy sell against Russia, and that if sanctions have a new legitimacy, “they will be used against Iranians and Venezuelans and people elsewhere.”

For Americans who want to stand with Ukraine while opposing sanctions on Russia, Petersen-Smith urges them to call for greater support for accepting refugees and an end to militarism. They also hope Americans seeking peace can find ways to support the causes of Russian peacemakers.

“It's not easy to both pledge solidarity with people in Ukraine and dissent from this country's militarism, but I think that we have to,” they said.