The western world has responded to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by imposing a historically large suite of economic sanctions upon them. Are such measures likely to cripple the kremlin, or are they merely wreaking havoc on the lives of innocent civilians?

Following the invasion, Lina, a 21-year-old living in Russia, found herself suddenly locked out of her OnlyFans account. Her loss of livelihood and income as an adult content creator was a direct consequence of comprehensive sanctions imposed upon her country. Taking to Twitter to voice her discontent, Lina wrote “I don’t support this war, but I became its hostage”.

Although OnlyFans has since reinstated Russian owned accounts, this has not stopped ordinary citizens from being caught in the crossfire of a war they do not necessarily condone. The rapidly plummeting value of the ruble coupled with aggressive boycotts has seen the cost of living skyrocket, causing many to question who is truly paying for this war.

Porn stars and geopolitics are worlds apart, as are innocent civilians and armed combatants. Universally recognised international humanitarian law tells us that jus in bello (justice in war) means protecting people not involved in the conflict from unnecessary hardship. The use of economic sanctions as an alternative to boots on ground intervention has challenged this principle, punishing everyone from the oligarchy to sex workers in one fell swoop.

Russia is a relatively impoverished, repressed, socioeconomically divided and bellicose country. The average citizen does not enjoy the same social and economic freedoms as those in the nations that sanction them. Such diplomatic measures might seem unethical because they have the potential to make innocent lives even more miserable – so why is the international community so trigger-happy when it comes to implementing them?

Sanctions in brief

The latent power of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy was revealed through the Blockade of Germany during WWI, where the restriction of maritime goods by naval boats played a crucial role in securing victory for the Allies. Taking this lesson into their stride, the League of Nations (superseded by the United Nations) began threatening the use of an “economic weapon” to reign in troublesome countries such as Italy and Japan, mostly unsuccessfully.

Using a mix of coercive tools ranging from the withdrawal of diplomatic and economic relations to boycotting sporting games, nations (usually acting collectively) set out to back their targeted regime into a corner. Coupled with the external pressure of being unable to access vital resources and capital, sanctions are designed to deteriorate living standards and stoke discontent to the point where governments are faced with the choice of kowtowing to international pressure or risk facing civil war.

Nowadays, sanctions are more ubiquitous than ever, despite having a demonstrably mixed track record.

The trade embargo in Cuba has cost the country over $130bn and has been in place for over 60 years. Nevertheless, the communist government has endured, with sanctions doing little more than providing the government with a scapegoat for its tanking economy. Research suggests that sanctions meet their stated objectives only 34 per cent of the time.

On the other hand, many credit such measures with delivering a fatal blow to apartheid in South Africa and nuclear proliferation in Iran. Even if such sanctions aren’t always successful, their utility can be viewed as largely symbolic, allowing nations to turn ideological enemies and human rights abusers into international outcasts, all without firing a single shot.

The ethics of using sanctions

From a consequentialist perspective – which looks to outcomes rather than intentions when it comes to making a moral judgement – the case for sanctions looks rather grim. To be ethically justified in pursuing such measures, those enacting this policy would want to be guaranteed that their actions are helping, not causing unnecessary hurt.

Perhaps a recognition of this principle was the reason why OnlyFans was so quick to backflip on their boycott. If only those pulling vodka from supermarket shelves and Dostoevsky from university reading lists could make this same calculus. These grandstanding gestures are not the kinds of actions that will meaningfully impact the course of war. If anything, they distract from a lack of meaningful action, erstwhile promoting xenophobic discourse.

It is worth noting that Joe Biden was referring to Putin, not his motherland, when he instructed the world to make the aggressor a “pariah on the international stage”. We would do well to remember the distinction between a country’s elite and their citizens (particularly in countries with low levels of democracy, like Russia) before implementing sanctions that treat them as one and the same.

As acknowledged by the United Nations, arguably the biggest international advocate for multilateral sanctions, sanctions often cause disproportionate economic and humanitarian harm to the very people they seek to protect. Additionally, such actions often cause collateral damage to otherwise uninvolved countries. Underscoring these issues is a lack of historical evidence to support the effectiveness of such measures.

Some may work their way around this point by arguing that such measures would shorten the war through crippling the economy, thereby negating some of the fallout for innocent civilians. However, the facts show otherwise – Sanctions stand the best chance of success when they are short, targeted, and implemented against a democratic government.

The measures in place against the kremlin meet none of these criteria, all but guaranteeing a prolonged amount of suffering for innocent civilians. To this end, imposing sanctions could be considered unethical.

Nevertheless, countries often justify their use of sanctions by claiming that they have a humanitarian duty to act against perceived injustice and moral violations. Accordingly, the ethicality of this decision must be judged to a different standard; if an actor is fulfilling their obligations as a member of the international community, then they are acting morally (a theory known as deontology).

This line of reasoning does not hold when it comes to the sanctions placed on Russia. Firstly, these actions replace a perceived injustice with perhaps an even greater one – the unnecessary involvement of innocent civilians in a conflict that is largely beyond their control. Some may justify this by arguing a responsibility to punish wrongdoers irrespective of the consequences, but the fact that all countries in the world are signatory to the principles of jus in bello vis-à-vis the Geneva Convention indicates a more binding duty. Undeniably, Russia has broken this code of conduct many times over, but moral decisions are not conducted on a tit-for-tat basis.

Secondly, they are not principally sound. Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of energy, yet curiously, this industry is largely exempt from most sanctions. We are unlikely to see this change significantly until the world moves away from fossil fuels altogether. Moreover, the international community will fail to cripple the kremlin unless it is willing to endure some short-term sacrifice for a greater duty.

Altogether, if those imposing sanctions are attempting to do so morally, they are failing. History has shown us what happens when we attempt to choke a country economically and politically, and it is ugly. We should be suspicious of the idea that sanctions are the only way for us to respond to misbehaving countries.

This is not to excuse citizens from the crimes of their government, but to call into question why the international community is so willing to use a tool that inevitably punishes the innocent, vulnerable, and often powerless (noting that this economic weapon is so often wielded against autocratic regimes).

The facts cannot be ignored; the elites responsible for the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine will continue to dodge sanctions through the likes of anonymous international bank accounts, foreign sympathisers and, increasingly, cryptocurrency. Meanwhile, people like Lina will shoulder the brunt of this burden.

All is fair in love and war – but some things are fairer than others, like avoiding the use of debunked tactics that mess with innocent lives needlessly. Without considering the ethicality of their behaviour, the international community risks causing an entirely avoidable humanitarian crisis which undermines the very principles that they to defend. We must think twice before we applaud those that are quick to sanction lest we cause more injustices to be committed.