Since the Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, he did not seek a democratic mandate. Russia has an authoritarian regime where a man and his lieutenants run the show. The differing views of over 140 million citizens of the Russian Federation – which span a large number of ethnicities and languages, not to mention geography – mean little when it comes to foreign policy choices.
But as Russian tanks began to roll into Ukraine, the United States and its European allies turned to a well-known weapon, a weapon that arbitrarily targets all Russian citizens rather than just those responsible for the crimes we see today. : broad-based economic sanctions.
In recent years, sanctions have become a favorite tool of American politicians, used as a modern form of siege war, but with lower domestic political costs than sending American troops abroad. In addition to sanctions against oligarchs and the Russian high-tech and defense sector, the United States and its allies have gone after the jugular by trying to refuel the entire Russian economy.
Russia is staying afloat at the moment, thanks to the continued sale of its natural gas reserves, but the stories from a handful of other countries contain a warning story for the West about the potential human cost of sanctions for ordinary citizens.
A public letter from a coalition of advocacy groups today called on the Biden administration to review its use of economic sanctions and fulfill its promise to reform this area of foreign policy. The letter pointed to countries such as Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan and Venezuela, which are suffering from economic collapse and even famine under the pressure of sanctions and blockades from the United States and its allies.
“Many politicians see sanctions as a politically appropriate alternative to war, but the fact is that broad sanctions are economic warfare that punishes the innocent,” said Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, one of the groups that stood in the tip of the letter. “The human cost to the hundreds of millions of people suffering under US sanctions is an unacceptable side effect, and it is time for serious efforts to reform our sanctions regime.”
The letter was primarily organized by advocacy groups created by diaspora communities from countries where sanctions have impoverished the peoples while not doing much to change the undemocratic regimes they live under. In addition to the National Iranian American Council, the diaspora groups that signed the letter include Afghans for a better morning, oil for Venezuela, the Korea-focused group Women Cross DMZ and the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. Other foreign policy advocate groups also added their names to the letter, including Washington, DC-based Win Without War and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
The spokesmen’s letter briefly outlines the impact of sanctions on civilians in a number of countries, while chastising President Joe Biden for paying only a mouthful to the problem of humanitarian crises caused in whole or in part by Western sanctions.
“We recognize that the Biden administration initiated a comprehensive review of U.S. sanctions policies last year, which sets a general goal of minimizing humanitarian impacts and supporting humanitarian trade to heavily sanctioned jurisdictions,” the letter said. “However, this guidance has not been followed by concrete and comprehensive steps to provide relief and open up for humanitarian trade. As a result, the US government has failed to change course significantly and continues to enforce policies that fuel humanitarian disasters. and public health disasters. “
The Biden administration’s review of sanctions policy was heavily criticized last year for not recommending any concrete policy proposals, let alone legislative changes that would protect innocent civilians from being harmed by sanctions today or in the future.
Examples of Harmful effects of sanctions on civilians – and their inability to influence authoritarian leaders – are not hard to find.
In the 1990s, the United States imposed a crushing sanctions regime on Iraq after the war in Kuwait. The measures left ordinary Iraqis while allowing Saddam Hussein to further consolidate his grip on society. Today, the middle class in places like Iran has fallen into distress due to US sanctions against the Iranian economy and central bank. In Afghanistan, following last year’s collapse of the central government, the United States not only cut off critical aid but also confiscated its bank reserves, leading to a liquidity crisis in the poorest country on Earth and ultimately to reports of famine. Under a blockade led by US allies, Yemen has similarly faced mass outbreaks of disease and malnutrition.
Sanctions reform is not a very popular topic. Often, as in the case of Russia today, countries subject to broad sanctions are really tasteless or engaged in behaviors that need to be stopped.
The problem, however, is that untargeted sanctions punishing the civilian population have been a poor means of persuading foreign governments to change their policies. While elites in sanctioned countries usually find a way to get what they need, ordinary people are sent out into poverty – victims of economic blockades that US politicians treat as open.
“Only by fighting for the full effect of sanctions can the United States ensure that sanctions do not aggravate the situation of ordinary citizens and serve rather than undermine American interests.”
Even in the case of Russia today, there is an argument to be made that lowering the pressure on sanctions against ordinary Russians and increasing the supply of weapons to Ukraine would be both a more humanitarian and strategically effective way of ending the war.
Calls for sanctions policy reform are likely to become more stringent as the United States continues to escalate its use of this policy tool. While the Biden administration has engaged in some symbolic attempts at reform, millions of people who are not guilty of any crime against Americans continue to suffer around the world today under US sanctions regimes.
“The United States must lead by example, revise US sanctions and ensure that sanctions are targeted, proportionate, discreet and reversible. This would inevitably result in an end to unfair collective punishment of civilians around the globe, has little control over government decision-making, “advocate groups’ letter read.” Only by fighting the full effect of sanctions can the United States ensure that sanctions do not aggravate the situation of ordinary citizens and serve rather than undermine American interests. “