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19 April 2022

Are severe sanctions on Russia morally justified?

Sanctions may impose serious harm on ordinary citizens, but they are justified if they stand a chance of stopping the atrocities of war.

By Avia Pasternak and Zofia Stemplowska

The economic sanctions on the Russian Federation have already had an impact on ordinary Russian citizens. In shops there are shortages of sugar and sanitary products. Access to foreign currency is limited. Those who work in industries that rely on foreign markets face a serious risk of unemployment, and everyone is facing higher inflation.

The sanctions are altering life plans and shrinking opportunities. When describing their impact, a small business owner in Moscow said: “I’ve become one concentrated ball of fear.” And now the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Bucha are intensifying the calls for even harsher sanctions. As the sanctions continue, their bite will worsen.

Is the economic hardship facing ordinary Russians justified? Many Russians are not to blame for the war or the atrocities. Living under a draconian authoritarian regime, they are manipulated by a powerful propaganda machine and they face harsh punishment if they protest. This suggests their hardship cannot be justified by invoking their moral responsibility for the war.

Of course, the sanctions do not only affect Russians. Europeans are paying high energy prices as they try to reduce imports from Russia. Businesses with financial links to Russia are suffering. The impact of the sanctions may soon be felt worldwide as they stunt global economic growth.

To be clear, we do not know if the sanctions will work. The authoritarian nature of the Russian regime means it is insulated from shifts in public support. But there is a chance the sanctions will have an impact. As recently as 2018, Putin responded with concessions to popular dissatisfaction over a pension reform, and the domestic popularity of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine has probably contributed to this one. Furthermore, extensive economic sanctions may well undermine Russia’s ability to finance the war. Many agree that, short of a military intervention, they are our best shot at ending the conflict.

Still, the most common objection to economic sanctions is their impact on ordinary people. Sanctions are likened to “collective punishment” – indiscriminate and unfair. Many thought as much of the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions on Iraq, which lasted from 1990 to 2003, well after Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Yet there are reasons to think the sanctions on Russia are morally justified and that even tougher sanctions are needed.  

The first justification for these sanctions is found in their aim to pressure Russia into withdrawing its forces from Ukraine and thus stopping the killing of civilians and the destruction of Ukraine’s territory. Assuming the sanctions could work, Russian citizens and people outside Russia have basic humanitarian duties to incur some costs of sanctions in service of ending the war.

To see why sanctions that harm ordinary citizens are justified, imagine the following scenario: while walking in the woods, you encounter a dog that is about to attack a child in trouble. You know that if you throw your phone at the dog, you will scare it away but lose the phone. In this scenario you are not to blame for the dog’s attack. But your basic human decency (or your Samaritan duty) demands that you come to the child’s aid, even at the cost of losing your phone. In the same way that you are expected to make a sacrifice to save a child from a vicious attack, ordinary citizens both inside and outside of Russia have a duty to incur some of the costs of sanctions, if these costs will end a vicious war that they had no role in starting.

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But perhaps the burdens we can expect Russians and others to incur to assist Ukrainians are not very high. It is, after all, commonly thought that our Samaritan duties to others cannot be too burdensome. You are required to sacrifice your phone to save the child. But if what is required to save the child amounts to sacrificing your career, then doing so might be admirable, but it is not a moral demand.

This example suggests there are limits to the costs that humanitarian duties may impose on Russians and non-Russians alike. Temporary increases in gas prices, or the rationing of various goods and services, may be burdens one can be expected to bear to assist stopping the atrocities. But losing one’s job and one’s life savings are, perhaps, too much of a sacrifice. 

Yet even if there are limits on humanitarian duties and the costs they impose, we see a second justification for more serious sanctions. This justification concerns our moral duty not to act in ways that we know will contribute to grave harm. Such duties arise even when we are not at fault for initiating the harm.

To see this, consider the following case: you discover to your horror that the owner of your local corner shop invests what he earns into violent crime. Clearly, you are not to blame for the shopkeeper’s nefarious investments and for the harm you just learnt about. Nevertheless, you have a duty to stop using his business if you can.

Being implicated in grave harm to others is a terrible thing, even if we did not intend it. So, we each have a stringent duty to try and avoid being in that position when we are aware of such harm. In the corner shop case, this means you have a duty to stop shopping there, even if shopping elsewhere is burdensome and even if shifting your business means someone in the shop loses their job.

This insight has important implications for people outside Russia who have been doing business with it. Trade with Russia and Russian businesses, including trade in energy or technology, indirectly helps Russia finance their war of aggression. Citizens, investors and governments who continue to trade as usual with Russia run the risk that their contributions to the Russian economy will facilitate various atrocities, even if they do not wish for this to be the case.

As a result, people have a duty to cease economic co-operation with Russian businesses through the imposition of trade sanctions. Such a duty is stringent in cases of grave harm, and this suggests that even very high burdens on Russian citizens, including risks of unemployment and hardship, cannot be invoked as a reason to continue economic cooperation with Russia.

Our analysis points to one final justification for sanctions: the extent to which ordinary Russians play a part in Russia’s war effort. After all, it is Russian families who support the soldiers attacking Ukraine, Russian taxpayers who fund some of the tanks, and Russian citizens’ everyday actions that make the Russian state function. Many of those involved cannot help but act as they do: few can emigrate, and protest is costly. Nevertheless, they are implicitly helping the war effort. So perhaps they too can be expected to incur some harm if such harm could stop the war.

Determining whether to impose severe sanctions on those who are mere cogs in the war effort depends on what we think it is permissible to do to people who are manipulated or forced to play their roles. Philosophers of war are divided on this question. But even if one thinks that ordinary Russians’ indirect help with the war effort does not merit more severe sanctions, the other arguments we presented still hold.

Of course, our analysis does not lead to the conclusion that any magnitude of harm is acceptable or that innocent Russians are not entitled to assistance if in dire need. At some point, the economic sanctions on Russia may have such devastating effects, economic and political, that they would need to be scrapped.

But we are still far from that point. In fact, the recent reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine suggest that further economic restrictions ought to be imposed. Those living outside of Russia can help Ukrainians by pressuring their governments to take this line.

Avia Pasternak is Associate Professor in Political Theory at University College London. She is the author of Responsible Citizens, Irresponsible States: Should Citizens Pay for their State’s Wrongdoings? Zofia Stemplowska is Professor of Political Theory and Asa Briggs Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford. She is the co-editor of Responsibility and Distributive Justice.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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