Last week the U.S. and its allies enacted sanctions which should for all intents and purposes be understood as a war crime. From a purely consequentialist/humanitarian perspective sanctions are totally unjustifiable. They will impoverish millions of people not only in Russia but the many countries which are economically reliant on and integrated with the Russian economy. Impoverishing millions in effect means killing tens of thousands.  

This is from Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs's 2019 paper "Sanctions as Collective Punishment.


I have not looked into their methodology, and the 40,000 number may be wildly inflated. However, that its even plausible that U.S. sanctions could cause 40,000 deaths in Venezuela over the course of one year speaks to the disastrous humanitarian consequences American sanctions can have.

Of course, it will not only be the Russian people who suffer. Central Asian nations are reliant on Russian remittances which have now become worthless, that is if foreign workers can even get their money out of Russia at all. The sanctions will also almost certainly cause massive disruptions to grain markets. Although the sanctions don't specifically target Russia's food exports, they will limit Russia’s ability to trade on global markets. The price of foodstuffs is already soaring, in part due to the actual invasion, but also largely due to the sanctions placed on Russia. I am not particularly knowledgeable on this subject, but I thinks it's safe to assume that this will cause tens of thousands of excesses deaths in MENA if not outright famine.    

What I find particularly galling however is that there is not even a semi coherent rational for what sanctions are supposed to accomplish. The simple fact is that sanctions don't work. You can read the Poli-sci literature on the topic, which is quite robust, but this fact should be self-evident just based off the recent history of Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia (2014), etc.

The few times sanctions can work is when they have limited objectives, or when they are used to deter an action before it happens. It is notable that U.S./EU sanctions have in no way been structured to do this. Prior to Russia's invasion the U.S./EU signaled that they would be unwilling to impose harsh measures such as cutting Russian banks off from SWIFT. If the U.S./EU wanted to achieve deterrence they should have publicly committed to these sanctions prior to the invasion. Once the war started, sanctions (if implemented at all) should have been structured specifically to encourage de-escalation with stated off ramps for Russia if they met certain conditions. Instead, the sanctions seem to be focused on the destruction of the Russian economy, a morally unjustifiable goal. Will destroying Russia's economy hurt their war effort? Perhaps on the margin, but the economic destruction also necessitates that Putin achieve his maximalist political goals in order to justify the cost. 

Some are justifying sanctions from a strategic perspective arguing they work to signal to potential aggressor nations that national sovereignty must be respected. This is of course laughable. I unironically consider myself a patriotic American, but the notion that the U.S. cares about respecting sovereignty is ludicrous considering the last sixty years of American military adventurism. What’s more, the U.S. has done almost nothing to punish other nations who have violated national sovereignty. Recent violations of national sovereignty including the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights, Morrocco’s annexation of Western Sahara and Turkey’s annexation of parts of Northern Syria, have drawn limited sanctions or none at all.

What those arguing for sanctions as a signal are really saying is that it will deter powerful countries the U.S. doesn't like, namely China from invading Taiwan. This argument however assumes some fantasy reality in which the U.S. has the ability to cut China out of the global economy through sanctions. China is the world’s largest exporter and is at the center of almost every important global supply chain. Enacting crippling sanctions against Russia will not scare China, because China correctly understands that it is too powerful an economic force to be bullied out of the global economy.

The ability to deter China invading Taiwan is dependent on actual economic and military strength, not the willingness to signal convincingly. In this respect sanctions will in fact weaken the U.S.'s economic deterrence by increasing Russian dependence on the Chinese while also threatening the U.S. dollar's central role as the global reserve currency.

To summarize:

-Sanctions are a humanitarian catastrophe (essentially collective punishment)

- Were not structured to deter Russia or to deescalate the conflict and will have at best an ambiguous effect on the actual war 

-  Weaken America's strategic position relative to China  

Why is no one opposing this? Where is the outrage? We are digging the world's largest invisible graveyard out of a self-centered desire to "do something". We should all be ashamed.

America's Invisible Graveyard - by Ezra (


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My understanding of sanctions is that they're designed to provoke hardship and unrest inside of the target country.

In some sense, the people of a nation are at least partially collectively responsible for what that government does. This principle has been widely accepted, at least in the west, since the Nuremberg trials. If you subscribe to this widely held belief, then the Russian citizenry therefore bears some responsibility for the invasion via their consent to obey and support the existing regime.

A people have the moral obligation to overthrow a tyrannical government. The issue is that nearly everyone finds it easy to turn a blind eye if they themselves are not materially affected by the tyranny. I think this is a facet of human nature rather than a moral failing of any particular group of people.

If you accept that the economic hardship caused by sanctions is a collective punishment doled out in response to this collective guilt, the moral core is much greyer than this post asserts.

At a practical level, economic downturns nearly always precede regime change or institutional reform. I think you can draw a straight line from economic disruption, through political unrest, and to either social or political change.

It seems to me that a man who becomes poor while watching his government spend billions on an aggressive war is more likely to protest that war than a man whose status is unchanged.

I don't have the information to litigate whether the sanctions were effective as a deterrent. In some sense they were obviously ineffective since war resulted, but I think it's impossible for me as a layman to accurately assess this without the benefit of historical hindsight and more declassified diplomatic information than we're likely to get in our lifetime.

Does this weaken our position relative to China? Maybe? Again I think this is a very complex issue that I'm not really capable of answering. But I would suggest that "we" (the United States) are at least showing a very united front with the EU which seems like a relevant consideration.

I also consider myself to be someone who loves his country, and I appreciate you taking the time to write up a viewpoint thay contrasts with what seems to be the zeitgeist. Thank you.

Edit: corrected various grammar and spelling errors.

While I think the post itself is written in a way that's uncharitable towards proponents of sanctions, if the only argument for them was the "collective guilt/responsibility" argument you give here, I would have to say that sanctions are indeed both ineffective and immoral.

Western leaders have said again and again that they believe this is the war of the regime currently in control of the Russian government, and not of the Russian people. Boris Johnson went on television to say to the Russian people "I believe this war is not in your name" in Russian. That's flatly inconsistent with the idea that they bear some "partial responsibility" for failing to stand up to Putin's regime (what are they even supposed to do?)

The post is correct about one thing: sanctions have a very poor empirical record of affecting regime change. Japan didn't undergo regime change because of US sanctions on it leading up to the Pacific War. Saddam wasn't toppled as a result of the crippling sanctions placed on Iraq throughout the 1990s. The regime in Iran is still as strong as ever, and shows no signs of being toppled by a popular revolution triggered by Western sanctions on the country. In contrast, I can't think of a single example in which sanctions led to regime change in a country. Maybe this is my lack of imagination - can you think of such a case?

Better arguments have been offered in favor of sanctions. For example, the Biden administration said that one of the primary purposes of the sanctions they have placed on Russia is to hurt the Russian economy in order to undercut Russia's ability to project hard power, and sanctions can indeed be successful at doing this.

Maybe it's just me, but I find this language of "collective responsibility" to be repugnant. You're responsible for something if you could have taken actions which had a substantial influence over whether it happened or not. Ordinary people simply don't have any such influence over the actions of their government. It's true they have the power to affect change if they can coordinate their actions, but it's hardly reasonable to blame individual players in a game with millions of players for getting stuck in a bad equilibrium that they can't climb out of. If we applied these same moral standards to ourselves, all of us would be condemned without an exception.

What we should think of is how to provide the right kind of stimulus from the outside to change the situation, not cast blame at people for doing what's best for themselves, their family and their friends.

Sanctions will not work this way, period.

It is obvious if you think about it for a while.

  1. Sanctions have been the main official justification for Putin's prolonged rule and his mistakes. They were the fuel and the proofs for his "The World Is Against Us" rhetorics. Now they enabled him to introduce some interesting laws, like 15 years of corrective labor colony for "spreading fakes about the special operation of liberating Ukraine from the Nazis"

  2. People whose well-being has been affected by the war will not protest. It is always better to be poor than to serve 15 years of corrective labor colony. Period. And just in case, life in Russia is still much better than life in Ukraine, at least because war is on the Ukrainian territory.

  3. There still were and probably will be people who protest and protested, not because of the money interests you've described but because of their genuine repulsion towards the war, especially this war. Well, many of them got or will get their punishments. Also, they'll be a good picture for a TV report on a Russian channel called "The Enemy is brainwashing our nation, this is exactly why we must focus on searching for traitors and disposing of them." That's how it all will end.

  4. Nobody will start an armed protest on the same reason why there've been almost no slightly armed protests in Russia for the recent decades. In 1917 a revolution led to the establishment of a totalitarian state, nobody wants that to repeat.

This is the reason why those sanctions aren't capable of giving a start to a revolution. If they do provoke something inside the target country, that's the unrest towards those stupid Westerners who interfere in things they don't understand.

Sanctions might have an effect, though. If they manage to completely destabilise the Russian economy. But the costs for the whole world might be huge. In any case, that's to be left for another speculation

And for god's sake, I'm not saying that sanctions should not be taken. Apart from sending weapons, sanctions are the only way the West can help Ukraine without actually deploying their troops. That's the reason for the sanctions, I suppose.

What are the alternatives?

This is my question as well; sanctions may well be a humanitarian catastrophe, but so is a naked war of aggression.  My intuitive sense is that criticizing sanctions here, without suggesting an alternative, is insufficient for LW.

I don't think the "sanctions must have specific offramps" is a good argument against a naked war of aggression, unless you contend that Russia's transparently bad-faith casus belli is legitimate.  It seems like "sanctions will end, if you withdraw all troops from Ukraine" is a likely end-state result of peace negotiations, so making the subtext obvious is of little moral relevance.  Putin is not stupid.  

There's also the complex question of moral culpability/collective punishment (as Jonnston mentions).  I know that the 17,000 anti-tank Javelin missiles the U.S. has sent to Ukraine (NYT, paywall, sorry) will be used to kill Russian soldiers.  Should I oppose that step because many of the soldiers killed are conscripts?  Suppose all of them are conscripts and would be conscientious objectors except that there is no such objection allowed under Russian law; suppose commissars await behind the front lines to kill deserters.  Must I not destroy an invader's war materiel because arguably innocent people, who happen to be required to carry rifles, will die?  Should my moral calculus be affected by the other side's imposition of rules that force me to make difficult moral calculations about people who might be my friends otherwise?  Has war ever not done this?  Christmas Truce, anyone?

Suppose Putin believes that sanctions would be the West's only plausible option here (other than total capitulation to a naked war of aggression) and invades anyway.  Putin is forcing me to calculate the human cost of sanctioning Russia versus the human cost of not doing anything.  Is my moral calculus affected by this?  Maybe I should ask some Ukrainians if they think they should have value in my moral calculus, as the nation of non-aggressors?  

Godwin's Law: Suppose it was 1943 and I knew the Holocaust was happening.  Would I be justified in imposing similar sanctions on Nazi Germany?  If not, would I be justified in declaring actual war?  Is war more defensible than sanctions?  What if I know that my army will commit some war crimes no matter how hard I train it out of them?

Or, would not sanctioning Russia here be tantamount to appeasement, which, I note, we also have evidence to believe is not effective?

I agree with OP's position re the sanctions against Venezuela and Iran, by the way.  Both situations have been disastrously handled. I think we've mishandled North Korea as well, but sanctions are only a piece of that.

"Sanctions must have specific offramps" is an argument against sanctions without them. It is unrelated to whether a war of aggression was initiated. Yes Putin is not stupid and subtext may be obvious, but I still support making subtext manifest.

It is legitimate to worry sanctions will continue. For example, sanctions against Iran in fact had a clear stop condition. IAEA will do verification and sanctions will be lifted. IAEA did verification in 2018. Four years have passed, and sanctions against Iran are continuing.

Thanks for the feedback. I will do better to try and meet LW's standards for posting. I agree that I should have offered an alternative. I think targeted sanctions against Putin and his regime are fine, as are weapon shipments. It's hard to do a good cost benefit analysis on this but I think sending weapons has much lower costs and much greater ability to deter/limit russian aggression than does collapsing the Russian economy. Also, while I dont think killing 23 year old Russians should  be a primary goal, I am more comfortable with this than sanctions which will harm millions of Russian and non Russian civilians. 

The thesis in the original post was that sanctions do not work for achieving their aims. If that's in fact the case, then "don't impose sanctions" seems like a superior alternative.

If sanctions don't work at all, ever, then you shouldn't use them ever. But the OP seems to be defending less sweeping claims , like "sanctions are wrong when the US does them" or "sanctions are wrong without clear start and stop conditions".

The post suggests two: sanctions should have been precommitted to have any deterrence effect (this seems obviously true), and sanctions should have a clear stop condition to encourage de-escalation.

I support lifting SWIFT sanctions immediately if Russia reverts to status quo ante bellum (that is, Crimea is still annexed and Donbas is under Minsk agreements), but if that is not politically feasible, any stop condition would be better than the current situation. For example, a stop condition could be territorial integrity of Ukraine as of Budapest memorandum, that is, returning Crimea and Donbas to Ukraine control.

I think it is sad and crazy that this post is heavily downvoted instead of discussed.

I have not looked into their methodology, and the 40,000 number may be wildly inflated. However, that its even plausible that U.S. sanctions could cause 40,000 deaths in Venezuela over the course of one year speaks to the disastrous humanitarian consequences American sanctions can have.

No, hang on. You can't do that. That's a classic backtrack to a dangling justification: “I don't know whether it's true, but doesn't the part where I thought it seemed like it might be mean something kind of similar?” No, not really.

There's a lot of other hyperbolic description here too that seems to be poorly justified and leans heavily on the “you are probably not being serious if you don't think this already” tone. Doesn't mean it's false necessarily either, but this is sketchy.

My understanding is that the purpose of sanctions are:

  1. Diminish the capability of the Russian economy to sustain a military invasion. 
  2. As a bargaining chip. The releasing of sanctions can be traded for a withdrawal, creating an incentive to end the invasion.

There are people (especially online commenters) who think it will change the entire government of Russia, but that's not a concrete outcome like the main effects.

What other options are there in terms of nonmilitary responses to a military actions?

I believe ebrodey's post fails to meet the epistemic standards we expect of writing here on Less Wrong.

The post makes many different claims. Some of them make sense. Others don't. None are carefully investigated in detail. It ends with a call for outrage.

This post is indistinguishable from Russian propaganda. It's a Gish Gallop.

Last week the U.S. and its allies enacted sanctions which should for all intents and purposes be understood as a war crime.

Imposing economic sanctions on a country is not a war crime. It is not even an act of war. If there was an actual direct conflict between NATO and Russia, failure to impose sanctions would be ludicrous.

Will destroying Russia's economy hurt their war effort? Perhaps on the margin, but the economic destruction also necessitates that Putin achieve his maximalist political goals in order to justify the cost.

The Russian economy is imploding. It is unambiguously true that sanctions will damage the Russian war effort. Ebrodey's writing is propaganda-level bullshit.

Strongly downvoted for falling into the same trap as the OP, only worse. The OP has a bunch of really good points about sanctions not working generally and being poorly structured in this specific case. You have some excellent posts and comments, but this one does not meet your own epistemic standards.

After this post of yours, I did notice a disturbing characteristic set of symptoms. In another comment, Bezzy finds a number more, including that there is no question about alternatives at the end of the post, which seems to encourage us to just do nothing, setting a precedent of unpunished war in Europe. This also makes me want to ask, how is the situation with bots on lesswrong in general, including specifically Russian ones? Before that, I had the impression that here you can discuss things constructively without them, unlike the dominance of bots in other places. On the other hand, I think the general idea of ​​the effectiveness of sanctions is worth discussing. And I'm concerned about the style in which you yourself write, and the answers to you too, it seems to be becoming too politic-mind-killing.

I'm downvoting this, not because it's wrong or because of weak epistemics, but because politics is the mind killer, and this article is deliberately structured to make that worse.

I believe politically sensitive topics like this can be addressed on less wrong, but the inflammatory headline and first sentence here are just clickbait.

I understand that perspective and will try and due better to work within LW's guidelines. Thanks for the feedback. I think the first sentence was justified given the humanitarian costs associated with the sanctions. 

Enacting crippling sanctions against Russia will not scare China, because China correctly understands that it is too powerful an economic force to be bullied out of the global economy.

I think this argument is weak. Sanctions vary in scope and magnitude. I think it’s highly plausible that the US would impose some sanctions on China if they invaded Taiwan, even if those sanctions fell short of a total collapse of American trade with China.

Public, registered prediction: ebrodey is a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda.

My prediction will be falsified if ebrodey ever becomes a regular producer of quality original writing that has nothing to do with Russia.

I’d be willing to bet against this claim, assuming by “mouthpiece for Russian propaganda” you mean something more similar to “spends multiple hours a day parroting the party line online” and not just “is mildly sympathetic to Putin.”

An appeal to cold, calculating rationality, a tug at heartstrings, a call for outrage (literally), some classic whataboutism and shoddily constructed cover a la "I as an American patriot" (who even talks like that). This post really has it all.

They may well be, but fake claiming ought to be done more carefully and less loudly.

Disagree. I am generally against tone policing, and encouraging public registered predictions is so worthwhile that some disadvantages can be overcome.

Wait just one minute.

According to everything I've seen here, you're not even supposed to pose a question like that. You're not supposed to ask "Are sanctions good or bad?" because you're not the ones responsible for imposing them in the first place and, let's be sincere, nobody here can make an actual, significant effect on the course of that war.

No, instead of that you're supposed to ask "Why exactly are the Western nations imposing those sanctions?" You can express moral judgement only AFTER you understand what's going on, or else your words will be an emotion-driven description of stuff going on in your head. And how can any of you be sure that your current picture of the war isn't biased or oversimplified?

And if you analyze the article with cold blood, you can immediately see that it doesn't give any explanation for the West's actions, apart from the fact that They Are Evil. Bad West!

Were not structured to deter Russia or to deescalate the conflict and will have at best an ambiguous effect on the actual war

Sanctions that cause significant economic damage have to effect the ability to sustain warfare so long as the country effected is paying its own way. Russia is, but Ukraine isn't ...its allies can keep it supplied indefinitely. The war is asymmetric twice over... Ukraine is smaller, but Russia has finite materielle.

This post currently has 15 total votes and +7 karma. Sort by controversial indeed.

Moderator note: Have any sockpuppet accounts been used to upvote the post and downvote lsusr, especially the comment where he asked a similar question to this one?

I upvoted and strongly-downvoted the OP and lsusr respectively, for the same reason as shminux: lsusr's comments were clearly far more mind-killed than the OP, jumping immediately to vilifying the OP in emotional terms and accusing them of being a foreign operative without even trying to address the contents of the post. Not that the OP is great in this regard either, but responding to a politicized post with an even more politicized outburst is not a good norm to set.

I unironically consider myself a patriotic American…

Public, registered prediction: ebrodey's writing is a false flag operation.

Moderation note: Have any sockpuppet accounts been used to upvote this post?

I strongly upvoted the OP after seeing it being in the negative for no good reason. I think you would do well to chill instead of going on a crusade against it. You could try to refute its main points, which I will conveniently summarize for you here, since apparently the summary in the OP wasn't good enough:

  • Sanctions don't work (the only counter-example I can think of is South Africa and even that is iffy).
  • Sanctions hurt general population disproportionately (well, that's hard to refute, but give it a go).
  •  That it is intended as a potentially inept deterrent of China taking over Taiwan.
  • Sanctions have not been structured to incentivize Putin to deescalate.

I hope you will dedicate one of your thoughtful and original posts to this topic... Once you chill a bit.

It's a new account. I think suspicion is somewhat justified.

I would add that this post appeared on substack the same day it appeared on LW. In both cases, we have a totally new account opened that day (with different usernames), who never commented anywhere before publishing the post. This is definitely not the typical pattern I would expect from the average user.

That said, I can agree that sanctions will have horrible side effects, that they are not structured in an optimal way and so on, but the main feeling I got from this post is something like "it would have been far better to just sit quietly and watch". Is it just my impression?

I only looked at aggregate patterns and didn't see who voted on the post, but in-aggregate the patterns looked pretty organic to me. Mostly a bunch of strong-votes on both sides with relatively high weights, which you can't easily achieve with sockpuppets, so my guess is this post is just controversial. 

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