Sanctioning Russia Didn’t Work for Carter, It Won’t Work for Obama


And no matter how tempting it is to call Obama, Carter II, the Carter sanctions had some actual teeth in them. The Obama sanctions are a punchline.

In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter came up with a way to retaliate: stopping grain sales to Moscow. The boycott, said Commerce Secretary Philip Klutznick, would prove to the world that “aggression is costly” and induce the Soviets to “halt their aggression.”

The Soviets did halt their aggression and pull out of Afghanistan. But that didn’t happen until nine years later, and it had nothing to do with the grain embargo. American farmers suffered because their prices dropped, but the Kremlin managed to buy grain elsewhere. So the following year, President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban.

The fact that those sanctions proved useless has not stopped President Barack Obama or congressional Republicans from proposing new ones. On Thursday, the president announced he would deny visas and possibly freeze the assets of Russian officials and entities deemed complicit in the invasion of Ukraine.

The measures would prevent American companies from doing business with those individuals and firms. An administration official told The Hill, in words that could have been beamed straight from 1980, that this response would “send a strong message” and “impose costs on Russia.”

The real message is different: We have no desire to take military action and don’t really expect economic punishment to work, but we have to do something, however pointless. In international relations, governments would rather engage in empty symbolic action than no action at all.

Sanctions can work on states that are basically democratic and want relations with the rest of the world. They don’t work on totalitarian oligarchies that are expert at black market tactics and whose elites actually end up profiting from them, the way that Saddam did.

Experts on the subject are divided into two groups: those who think sanctions usually fail and those who think they almost always fail. Gary Hufbauer, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, says sanctions have been effective in about 30 percent of the cases they’ve been used. But he doubts the steps taken by Obama — what he calls “light” sanctions — will make any difference in Ukraine.

“The success rates for symbolic or ‘light’ sanctions, for sanctions against autocratic governments, and for sanctions seeking territorial concessions are lower,” he said by email. For anyone hoping to get the Russians out of Crimea, he said, “these findings are not auspicious.”

Pessimists are even gloomier. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape calculates that sanctions have worked less than 5 percent of the time. The intractable obstacle, he has written, is that modern governments are “willing to endure considerable punishment rather than abandon what are seen as the interests of the nation.”

So the odds are not on Obama’s side.

  • darnellecheri

    I read an interview Carter gave on on 3/26/14 (I listed it below).

    Wha? Was I living on planet earth when this happened? It is amazing how tough he is. (sarcasm, unfortunately) Was he tougher than we all thought?
    My, oh my…

    JUDY WOODRUFF: What if he does though go into another country, what should happen there?

    JIMMY CARTER: Well, I don’t want to tell people what to do who are in office now, know more than I do about it, but I remember what happened when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in — Christmas Day, 1979.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: When you were president.


    Well, I was very forceful, because I saw the danger of them going further. And that’s similar to what it is now. And I sent Brezhnev a direct message that if you go any further, we will take military action, and we will not exclude any weapons that we have. And I almost broke diplomatic relations. Through my ambassador, I declared an embargo against him.

    And I began to arm the freedom fighters in Afghanistan who were repelling the Soviet troops. So, I took a lot of bold and very aggressive actions, some of which I think would be excessive now.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Excessive? So…

    JIMMY CARTER: I think so.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: … shouldn’t — should not happen today?

    JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think we — it is perfectly legitimate, in fact, I think it would justified to arm the Ukrainian military effectively and let everybody know that they’re being armed, yes.

    • A Z

      Jimmy Carter has not become wiser with age.

  • logdon

    ‘And I began to arm the freedom fighters in Afghanistan who were repelling the Soviet troops.’

    And how did that work out Jimbo?

    • A Z

      A lot of us on both sides of the aisle were for supporting the mujahideen, since we had a mutual enemy.

      If the Soviets had soundly whipped the muj maybe we would be talking about the communist threat still from Russia and not Islam. Expanding empires do not have the same need to balance the budget. They take. In the long term they have to balance the budget but in the short term they can square accounts through seizure.

      We might ask if Carter could have got a better deal with the Pakistanis. As it was they said they wanted to control access to the muj. if we had direct access and more access we could have shaped which faction came out on top instead of Pakistan.

      That said I think Jimmy Cater was a very bad president.