The West is threatening another round of sanctions against Russia in an effort to deter meddling in the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine. The Obama administration and its allies are placing high hopes in the ability of sanctions to sway Russian actions and generally contest Russia's annexation of Crimea and meddling in the Ukraine. Yet, if lessons gleaned from other sanctions episodes are any indication, the sanctions in place today have little hope of reversing Russian aggressive or curbing Putin's drive to re-establish Russian dominance of the country's "near abroad." Sanctions, if they are to stand any chance of meeting the challenges Putin has thrown to the international community, must be clarified, deepened, and integrated into a broader strategy that looks beyond Ukraine.
In the last decades, sanctions earned a reputation as a policy option that "almost never worked." This was a gross oversimplification of a more complex reality. Collapsing decades of observing sanctions into a few key lessons, we do now have a good general sense of what does and doesn't work when it comes to sanctions, where "working" is defined to mean achieving the objective set out by policymakers, be it containment, behavior change, or regime overthrow. A hard look at many cases suggests the following: