If history is any guide, sanctions imposed by the Obama administration on Russian officials, individuals and a bank as punishment for Russia’s actions in Ukraine are unlikely to defuse a crisis that has been likened to the Cold War.
Syria, North Korea and Cuba stand out as stark examples of countries where years — even decades — of Western sanctions have failed to moderate the targeted regime’s behavior.
In Syria, Bashar Assad’s forces show no sign of ending a 3-year-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 and displaced close to 9 million Syrians.
In Cuba, the Castro brothers cling to power despite five decades of U.S. sanctions.
And in North Korea, sanctions have done little to convince Kim Jong-un to give up his quest for nuclear weapons.
“Most open sanctions, a slap in your face, fail,” said Donald Losman, lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“These ones, too, will fail,” he added, referring to sanctions the U.S. has imposed on the Russians this month in response to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
The U.S. has so far imposed sanctions on 31 Russians and Ukrainians, and has frozen the assets of Bank of Rossiya, a Russian bank with $10 billion in assets. The European Union has penalized 33 individuals.
Those on the blacklist are barred from traveling to the U.S. or to any of the 28 members of the European Union, and any assets they might have in U.S. or European banks have been frozen. It is unclear whether these individuals have assets in the U.S. or EU.
“The sanctions that have been imposed so far on Russian entities and individuals have been very, very modest; certainly not enough to compel Russia to change its behavior,” said Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
“But even if you imposed comprehensive sanctions on Russia, I would be extremely doubtful that it would change their course of action at this point,” he added.
Sanctions, regardless of their bite, will not be enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to give up the Crimean Peninsula, say analysts and former officials.
“[The annexation of Crimea] is wrong, it is illegal, but I don’t think President Putin will give back Crimea,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who served as the under secretary of state for political affairs in President George W. Bush’s second term.
“Unfortunately, it seems like a done deal,” he added.
If Russian forces were to withdraw from the Crimean Peninsula, Mr. Putin “wouldn’t be in power the next day because he has put his personal stake on this,” said Mr. Drezner.