Tough talk on Ukraine only makes us look weak [Commentary]

President Barack Obama, with European support, has imposed selective sanctions against Russia, and he indicated in a Rose Garden news conference today that he will continue moving "to impose additional costs on Russia." But we have been down this road many times with goals never reached, and America always winds up looking weaker, despite the illusion of action which gives comfort to many politicians.

In 1980 I gave Congressional testimony concerning the recently-enacted grain embargo against the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan. American policy-makers' hope was that such actions would force the Soviets out by inflicting economic pain on them. My logic and evidence were so condemnatory of this policy that they were even quoted (very selectively) in Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper. I pointed out that neither the Soviet party leadership nor the Red army would go hungry and that the regime would blame rising food costs — and all sorts of other problems, related or unrelated — on U.S. economic aggression, leaving the average Russian with anti-American feelings. There would also be significant economic costs to us as well as to third-parties — disruption of U.S. agriculture and American exports and damage to European states. And, of course, there would be strains in political relationships with our allies and friends over embargo costs and breaches.


Within less than two years, under the Reagan administration, a pipeline embargo was imposed. The United States prohibited American companies from selling supplies to the USSR for the gas pipeline, fearing undue Soviet energy influence over Europe and also as retribution against the Soviets for their policies toward Poland. European companies were pressured to do likewise. I interviewed nearly a dozen U.S. ambassadors to European countries during that period, every one of whom expressed frustration and angst at how much effort and time they were spending listening to complaints about the embargo and demands that it be terminated rather than discussing other — and from our perspective — more critical issues on our policy agenda. While some European states may be on board in the short-term, a long-term commitment is unlikely. Needless to say, neither the grain nor pipeline embargoes achieved their ends.

Further, as in any significant sanctions endeavor, third parties, to include many U.S. friends, will also suffer. For example, U.S. sanctions against Saddam Hussein were very costly to Jordan and meaningfully costly to Turkey. Explaining away the deaths of children and old people became a major Department of State endeavor, and America's world image suffered greatly. Sanctions have many unintended consequences, and the proposed ones will be no exception.


Russian President Vladimir Putin is both proud and crafty. He will not stand idly by while suffering economic blows. Costs will once again be imposed upon the average Russian while Russian billionaires will suffer overseas asset freezes. The U.S. will be blamed, and Mr. Putin will not budge. Europe, hardly unified on sanctions, will feel retaliatory energy pressures from Russia, igniting another round of tension and discord within the U.S.-European alliance. And Russia's influence on Iran — its nuclear endeavors, current nuclear discussions, terrorism and Syria — will be another retaliatory venue.

What we can do is conduct quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations and implement less visible economic pressures (an art the Soviets mastered). And we can seize the bully pulpit to encourage a nation as great and respected as Russia to do what is right for the international community. Honey will be far more effective than vinegar.

We are a nation tired of war, one whose military is pivoting to the Pacific, and one without any potent tools to force the Russians out. Sanctions are a weapon of the weak, and their failure only degrades U.S. influence — tough talk without results weakens us everywhere. In 1982, then West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told an audience in Bonn that "East-West trade provides no leverage to force the Soviets to do anything. It will take time, but gradually the Americans will learn to understand this." We are past due. Let's awaken to realities now.

Donald L. Losman teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He has written extensively on international sanctions. His email is

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