Sanctions are Blunt Instruments Which Punish Entire Populations But Hurt Leaders Least

Photograph Source: Andre VVine’o’smokeroff – CC BY 2.0

Economic sanctions are like the siege of a medieval city. Siege engines batter at the walls and hurl missiles over them, but it is all a slow business. Those suffering the most are too powerless to surrender, while those in charge are the least affected by shortages.

The countries imposing sanctions on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine face the same problems as besiegers in the Middle Ages. Sieges take months or even years to succeed, but the crisis in Ukraine is deteriorating by the hour and the day – as demonstrated by the fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. As at Fukushima, there is the risk that the electric power needed to cool the reactors will be cut off with disastrous consequences.

Yet the weakness of sanctions is not only that they work slowly, but that they give a false sense of achievement which is largely illusory. This has been demonstrated again and again in the last 30 years, ever since stringent UN sanctions were imposed on Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Collective punishment on entire populations

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).