Crimea come what may: Do economic sanctions backfire politically?

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October 22, 2019

When powerful global actors like the United States and European Union impose international economic sanctions – ‘actions that one or more countries take to limit or end their economic relations with a target country in an effort to persuade that country to change one or more of its policies’ (Morgan, Bapat & Kobayashi, 2013: 1) – critics have long warned that sanctions can backfire in at least one of two interrelated ways: (1) by rallying domestic public support for the target state leadership; and (2) by allowing that leadership to shift the blame for economic problems onto international aggression (Knorr, 1975; Galtung, 1967; Pape, 1997, 1998; Nooruddin, 2002). If this happens, target-state leaders might continue rather than give up the behavior that triggered the sanctions. For example, Charap & Sucher (2015: 6) argue that the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU on Russia for annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and stoking up the Donbas war in 2014 gave ‘Mr Putin a powerful political instrument to deflect blame for the consequences of his own baleful decisions in Ukraine’ and thus to obtain ‘all-time-high approval ratings’ and ‘the near-complete marginalization of dissenting voices’.

Do international economic sanctions actually generate the backfire effects that are often attributed to them? This question is important, as a positive answer could lead policymakers to reject such sanctions as counterproductive. Yet it is also a complex question requiring a systematic analysis of domestic public opinion in target states at the individual level, which until very recently has been a missing dimension in sanctions research. Several studies have begun addressing this knowledge gap (Grossman, Manekin & Margalit, 2018; Seitz, Presbitero & Zazzalo, 2017). 

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