U.S. Sanctions: a Bluff, or an Effective Measure?

Written by Ken Wang 

Almost immediately after Putin invaded Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden joined other world leaders to impose a series of sanctions that aimed to cripple the Russian economy in the near future. 

This is not the first time the U.S. imposed sanctions on other countries, especially non-democratic ones, to get what it wants. Do these sanctions work, or are they no more than a bluff? 

Let’s start with the most recent sanctions on Putin and other Russian oligarchs. In the latest round of sanctions, the U.S. froze the Russian central bank’s assets to prevent the ruble’s value  from going up and curb the Russian economy in the long run. The U.S. Department of Commerce has also stopped exporting valuable technologies to Russia.

Another critical step Western countries (U.S. and EU) have taken to remove Russia from the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). SWIFT does not hold money like banks, but it helps different banks in the system to message each other securely and efficiently. 

Despite the harshness of the sanctions, Kremlin has not changed its decision to elongate the invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, to fight the Western sanctions, Putin requested payment from Europe for Russian gas in rubles. Is this wave of sanctions effective since the Kremlin did not change its behavior? 

The United States also used sanctions on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policies regarding its policies about the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Xinjiang has been an autonomous region for decades, with its own culture, politics, and economics forming civil society. 

However, the relationship between the central government and Xinjiang dramatically deteriorated after the 2013 suicide attack at Tian’an Men Square in Beijing, the political center of China. In March 2014, just five months after the attack in Bejing, eight extreme separatists from the northwestern Xinjiang region staged another attack at a train station in Kunming. In July 2014, violent clashes happened between protesters and police happened in Xinjiang due to the political tensions between Beijing and the region. 

Due to the growing extremism among the separatists in Xinjiang, the CCP has tightened its grip and involvement in the region, aiming to achieve political stability and preserve its internal security. As a result, the CCP established re-education camps for such purposes. 

The CCP’s actions have attracted criticism from the international community because they are seen as violations of human rights and international laws. For this reason, the United States and its allies imposed sanctions on China.  

Despite the condemnations and actions from western countries, the CCP did not change its course of action. The source of resistance to the pressure stems, arguably, is due to the hypocrisy of the United States’ leadership in this matter. 

During World War II, the United States assembled the Japanese population in the country for security concerns. The United States illegally holds immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with poor conditions. The United States is extremely hypocritical for criticizing other countries for violating human rights but unwilling to change its actions. The sanctions on China stem from hypocrisy; therefore, they would have no effect because it was not done for the right reasons. 

Besides China, the United States, under Trump, has imposed a series of sanctions on Venezuela, targeting the Maduro regime. The sanction packages are designed to impose financial and visa restrictions on any individual or entity that assists the Maduro government. The sanctions were also to force the Maduro regime to give up the dictatorship and respect the rule of democracy, law, and human rights. 

Although the imposition of sanctions was done to preserve and promote democratic values, the Venezuelan economy collapsed long before the 2017 sanction packages. Given one major purpose of sanctions is to cripple the target country’s economy, the fact that Venezuela’s deteriorating economy would make the purpose of U.S. sanctions on the Maduro regime useless and ineffective. 

On another hand, in recent months, the Biden Administration has eased off the sanctions on Venezuela to strike a deal on propane. For sanctions to be effective, sanctions need to be consistent. The lack of consistency in the strengths of sanctions on Venezuela would not achieve the desired outcomes for the United States. 

In addition to Russia, China, and Venezuela, the United States has also imposed sanctions on Iran, specifically regarding the nuclear proliferation in those two countries. The proliferation in Iran and North Korea has alerted the international community, given the destabilizing nature of nuclear weapons. 

To prevent Iran from gaining functional nuclear warheads, the United States and its allies signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The goal was to make it impossible for Iran to acquire nuclear-grade uranium and fissionable materials. However, the deal’s design only slowed Iran from getting nuclear; it failed to meet its intended goals. 

Based on the reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no evidence that Iran has violated its end of the deal. Yet the Trump administration still imposed sanctions on Iran, accusing Iran of violating the deal. Then The United States violated the deal because Trump insisted on exiting the JCPOA to negotiate a better deal. 

Similar to the sanctions on Iran, the United States lacked consistency in imposing sanctions. Therefore, they become ineffective against Iran. On another note, Trump assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani using drones. This is a unilateral, unusual action from the United States, especially considering the United States would normally seek collaboration from its NATO allies. The assassination would reduce the effects of sanctions on Iran, seeing that the United States is unwilling to follow international laws and extremely unpredictable with signed treaties.  

Each case of sanctions has a different geopolitical context and importance. Despite the differences, it is safe to say that effective sanctions require correct timing, multilateral actions, and consistency. Until the United States realize that all three elements of sanctions packages need to be present, the use of sanctions would purely be a bluff, as they would not be effective in deterring targeted countries. 

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