Current sanctions against Russia are not global, and Russia is seeking stronger economic ties with countries outside the sanctions coalition. Also, many countries in Asia and Europe depend on Russia’s oil and gas. Since the 2022 war started, Russia’s exports to China, India, Brazil and Turkey have increased by at least 50 percent compared to the previous year. Russia earned EUR 297 billion in revenue from fossil fuel exports, with EU countries purchasing for more than EUR 139 billion in supplies.
Third, one may contend that there are two strategic objectives of sanctions – convince Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine and withdraw its troops, and promote the collapse of Putin’s regime. Some argue that the key to the outcome of the Ukraine war lies in the effectiveness of the economic conflict. This strategic objective appears unrealistic in the short term as Russia’s economy remains resilient. Russia seems to have the economic, financial, and military strength to continue the war for quite some time. Others expect (or wish) that sanctions could result in the collapse of Putin’s regime. As with US sanctions against most authoritarian regimes, however, achieving this strategic goal through sanctions seems unlikely. And Washington and its allies do not appear to have a strategy for regime change in Moscow.
Sanctions against Japan before the Pearl Harbor attack
As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, the US will upgrade its Russia-related economic sanctions and tighten restrictive technological exports to Russia. But what is the worst-case scenario for the US and its allies in continuing to apply these onerous sanctions?
When looking back at the case of Japan and the US in the 1940s, the US escalating sanctions and embargos on Japan before the Pearl Harbor attack, to some extent, parallels the current situation with Russia.
In the 1940s, Washington had attempted to flex its economic muscles to coerce Japan to stop regional aggression. The Japanese government, however, considered economic pressure a stranglehold that threatened its survival. Japan heavily relied on imports of oil, gasoline, iron, machine tools and other equipment and resources to support its economic and military expansion. For Tokyo, the US sanctions further convinced it of the necessity to occupy Southeast Asia and aim to destroy the US Navy.
As a result, Japan, an island state with an economy and navy dwarfed in size by the world’s most powerful country, attacked the US Pacific naval headquarters at Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack was a direct response to US sanctions. Economic restrictions failed to have a deterrent impact on their target but resulted in high costs for the country imposing them. The escalating economic coercion not only failed to prevent Japan’s military expansion and aggression but accelerated it.
Sanctions from the target’s perspective
Although Washington declared that sanctions against Russia are “unprecedented”, the current escalating Russia-related restrictions are not vastly different from those imposed on Japan in the last century. After the US boosted military support for Ukraine and hosted President Volodymyr Zelensky on a historic visit to Washington, the Kremlin accused Washington of fighting a proxy war against Moscow with the US and NATO seeking to weaken and even destroy Russia. This narrative is underpinned by the fact that the US is by far the largest supporter of Ukraine, with a commitment of EUR 73.18 billion.
The long-term impact of the ongoing war and international sanctions on Russia may lead to a different scenario than the end of the conflict. As Western countries continue to provide military assistance to Ukraine, upgrade sanction measures, reduce energy reliance on Russia, and restrict technology exports (including chips vital to advanced weapons and military technologies), they may leave Russia diminished in economic, technological, and military terms. Russia’s continued military failures in Ukraine, combined with worsening economic deprivation, rising casualties, and growing domestic anti-war sentiment could strengthen Moscow’s belief that the West is intent on prompting the overthrow of the Putin regime.