All entries for Friday 27 February 2015

February 27, 2015

Russia Under Sanctions: It's Not Working

Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/92c75076-b606-11e4-a577-00144feab7de.html

On the evening of Tuesday 24 February I joined a panel discussion on "Russia Now," organized by Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery. My fellow panellists were Peter Ferdinand (Politics and International Studies) and Christoph Mick and Christopher Read (History). The discussion was chaired by Mead Gallery director Sarah Shalgosky, whom I thank for the invitation. Here's what I said, roughly speaking.

Sanctions in history

The Russian economy is subject to Western sanctions. These sanctions are of two kinds. There are "smart" sanctions that aim to limit the international travel and transactions of named persons and corporations. There are also broader sanctions that aim to limit the international trade and borrowing of Russia’s financial, energy, and defence sectors.

In history, advocates of economic sanctions against an adversary have usually claimed two advantages for them. One claimed advantage is speed of action: It has often been predicted that economic sanctions will quickly "starve out" an adversary (metaphorically or literally). The other claimed advantage is cost: By attacking the adversary’s economy we can achieve our goals without the heavy casualties to our own side that would result from a military confrontation.

Are these claims justified by experience? Based on the experience of modern warfare and economic sanctions from the Napoleonic Wars through the U.S. Civil War and the two World Wars of the twentieth century to the Cold War, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Cuba, the answer has typically been: "No."

How do sanctions work?

The effects of sanctions on national power have generally been slower and smaller than expected. First, they attack national power indirectly, through the economy, and the economy provides a very complicated and uncertain transmission mechanism. If a country is refused access to something for which it appears to have a vital need, such as oil or food, it generally turns out that there are plenty of alternatives and ways around; nothing is as essential as it seems at first sight. Secondly, external measures will be met by counter-measures. In a country that is blockaded or sanctioned, soldiers will look for ways to use military strength to break ouit and so offset economic weakness. Suffering hardship and feeling unfairly victimized, civilians will become more willing to tighten their belts and fight on.

It would be wrong to go to the other extreme and conclude that sanctions achieve nothing. What have sanctions actually achieved in historical experience? Sanctions do raise the cost of producing national power. They do so gradually, so that immediate effects may not be perceptible. Nonetheless they impose costs on the adversary, and eventually these costs will tell. It is hard to show, however, that sanctions have ever had a decisive effect on their own; at best, they have been shown to have their effect in combination with other factors, such as military force. In those cases, sanctions were a complement to military power, not a substitute or alternative.

Russia: How are Western sanctions supposed to work?

The purpose of Western sanctions is clear: It is to change President Putin’s behaviour, making him more cautious and more accommodating to the demands of Western powers.

What is the mechanism that is supposed to bring this about? Western observers generally see that President Putin's political base is built on the use of energy profits to buy political support. Russia's energy sector, much of it state-owned, has provided major revenues to the Russian government budget. The Russian government uses these revenues to buy support, partly by paying off key persons, partly by subsidizing employment in Russia's inefficient, uncompetitive domestic industries. The result is that many people feel obligated to Putin's regime because without it they would lose their privilege or position in society.

In that context, sanctions have been designed to target those industries and persons that supply resources to the government and those that depend on the government for financial support. By doing so, they aim to deprive President Putin of the resources he needs to retain loyalty.

How have sanctions actually worked? In Russia, real output is falling and inflation is rising. It is important to bear in mind, however, that in recent months sanctions have been only one of three external sources of pressure on the Russian economy.

Three pressures on Russia's economy

Three factors have been at work: sanctions, confidence in the ruble, and energy prices. These factors should be thought of as semi-independent: there are obvious connections among them, but in each case the agency is different.

  • Sanctions. Before the crisis over Crimea, Russian corporations had approximately $650 billion of short-term, low-interest debt denominated in foreign currency. International lenders have reluctant to lend to Russia long term because Russia's lack of protection of property rights leaves them uncertain about the security of their loans. Because this debt is short term, it requires regular refinancing. Russian firms, including organizations and sectors that have not been directly targeted by sanctions, are now unable to borrow abroad. Struggling to cover their credit needs, they have turned to the Russian government to make emergency loans or bail them out.
  • Confidence in the ruble. As lenders have lost confidence in Russia, capital flight has increased. The ruble has lost half its external value in the last year, and this has doubled the real burden of private foreign currency debts of Russian corporations and also wealthy families with housing debts in euros or dollars. This has intensified private sector pressure on the government for bail-outs.
  • Oil prices. The dollar price of oil has halved since this time last year, slashing Russia's energy revenues and plunging the state budget into deficit.

These three pressures all point in the same direction and complement each other. Their cumulative effect is to be seen in the deteriorating outlook for the economy as a whole and for public finance. The government has lost important revenues while spending pressures have multiplied. Arguably, therefore, sanctions have "worked," because they have squeezed the capacity of the Russian administration to satisfy the expectations of its supporters.

A learning opportunity

From a social-science perspective, we should think of this moment as a learning opportunity: How the Russian administration responds in these circumstances should reveal its type.

To benchmark the Russian response today, consider how two Soviet leaders responded to closely similar situations in the past.

  • One benchmark is offered by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. By the mid-1980s the global energy market had reached a situation not far removed from that of today. A decade of high oil prices was being brought to an end by new non-OPEC suppliers. This put the Soviet economy under a severe squeeze. Faced with this squeeze, Mikhail Gorbachev chose policies of demilitarization and relaxation abroad and at home.
  • Another benchmark is offered by Joseph Stalin in 1930. If anything, the predicament of the Soviet economy in 1930 was even closer to its situation today. Soviet exports were faced with collapsing prices as the world economy entered the Great Depression. The Soviet economy also had considerable short-term debts that suddenly could not be rolled over because international lending dried up. In response, Stalin demanded "the first five year plan in four years!" This involved accelerated mobilization and sacrifice, and ended in the famine deaths of millions of his own citizens (many of them in Ukraine).

These examples illustrate the alternative responses of a ruler under external pressure. When it becomes harder to buy loyalty the ruler can respond like Gorbachev, by moderating demands on supporters; or like Stalin, by cracking the whip over them. In 2015, faced with economic sanctions, falling oil prices, and a falling ruble, which choice has President Putin made? His words and deeds both deserve attention.

  • Before sanctions, President Putin's words were of a Russia encircled by enemies and penetrated by foreign agents. His policies involved accelerated rearmament and frozen conflicts with Moldova and Georgia, capped by the annexation of Crimea.
  • How did things change after Western sanctions were imposed? Putin's rhetoric shifted up a notch with talk of national traitors and a "fifth column" of enemies within. His economists began to discuss ways to shift from a market economy to a "mobilization economy." His foreign policy spokesmen incited tensions in the Baltic region and made nuclear threats against the West. The Russian military embarked on continuous large-scale exercises and increased the frequency of testing NATO defences in the Baltic and the North Sea. Russian forces and heavy weapons were infiltrated into Eastern Ukraine.

The lesson for social science is that under external economic pressure President Putin has revealed his type: He is a power-building authoritarian ruler.

It isn't working

From a policy perspective, the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy is only the tactical outcome of sanctions. Their strategic purpose is to change Russia's behaviour for the better, and that is the only true test of whether they have worked. The lesson for policy is that, despite sanctions, President Putin remains prepared to take risks with peace and to commit aggression. Sanctions are not changing his behaviour.

Now we know this, what should we conclude? A clear implication is that things could get worse. Some worry (or threaten) that, if the pressure on him grows, President Putin might became more confrontational and take additional risks rather than back down and look for compromise. It has also been suggested that, if unseated, Putin might be replaced by someone worse -- a role for which there are several candidates.

Why isn't it working?

This leads to me to a sombre conclusion. It's not a conclusion that I much like; I have thought about it a lot and I wish I could see another way out of the situation. To sum it up, I'll quote in full a letter that I wrote to the Financial Times recently in response to an article by Gideon Rachman ("Russian hearts, minds, and refrigerators," February 16). My letter appeared on 19 February:

Gideon Rachman ... writes : “Rather than engage the Putin government where it is relatively strong, on the battlefield, it makes more sense to hit Russia at its weak point: the economy.” But this neglects the incentives that arise from the time factor.

If the West plays to its strength, which is economic, President Putin will play to Russia’s strength, which is military. But the action of Western financial and trade measures is slow and cannot be accelerated. Meanwhile, Russia can accelerate its military action at will.

In playing the sanctions card while neglecting defence, the West is encouraging President Putin to raise the tempo on the battlefield and change realities quickly and irrevocably through warfare, before the Russian economy can be weakened further.

For the West, therefore, economic sanctions are not an alternative to a military confrontation that is already under way. To avoid disaster, the West must support financial and trade measures with a credible defence.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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  • Great blog as usual Mark. You always lay out the facts of the situation. by Thomas O'Malley on this entry
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