The futility of sanctions

It’s been one of the big talking points this week at Posidonia. Santosh Patil adds his thoughts to the sanctions debate.

The recent Tradewinds Shipowners Forum at Posidonia 2022 once again corroborated an established reality – sanctions don’t work; and on many occasions are counterproductive.

Some of the remarks (reported in the media) made by leading Greek shipowners at the forum are frighteningly honest….

‘They (Russians) are earning at least double what they were earning pre-war. I don’t know what kind of penalty is that’

‘It’s nice to have an announcement that our fleet would not carry Russian oil…… but I think this is bt, as simple as that’

‘The sanctions are not clear-cut, there are a lot of grey areas. This only creates problems’

Some of these remarks were not amenable – prompting a reaction from the EU.

It is perhaps only apt that the Greeks comment on the recent Russia sanctions. There are two reasons to this – the first recorded sanctions were placed by Athenian Empire when they banned Megara traders from its marketplaces – known as ‘The Megarian Decree’, back in the fifth century BC. So, it’s safe to assume that the Greeks know a thing or two about sanctions. Secondly and more importantly, Greece has the largest number of shipowners and therefore they know what works and what doesn’t apart from having plenty at stake.

Sanctions always almost hurt the poor in the receiving nations as the rich are well shielded

Sanctions are almost always placed and enforced by countries which have the power and privilege to punish those who don’t toe their line. They are a means to either control, repress, weaken or browbeat nations/ entities for political and/or economic means to achieve foreign policy objectives.

The higher moral ground, humanitarian or ethical argument is just a diversionary tactic. Otherwise, you would have seen EU sanctioning US (and at times itself) for the many military (mis)adventures undertaken all over the world which caused much destruction of life, property and not to forget the environment.

Sanctions is a word much tossed around in the mainstream media as it creates plenty of stories around it allowing a good stream of content. It helps present a narrative that some action is being taken against the country/entity facing the sanctions. It also acts as save facing measure particularly if you are helpless in a situation.

Maritime media is not immune to it with several leading publications grabbing the opportunity to create ‘special pages’ or ‘sections’ around a particular sanction. The phrase ‘international sanctions’ is being skilfully used to imply the ‘global’ nature of the sanctions. Media often uses ‘international’ for effect when they cannot use ‘global’ – the current sanctions against Russia and its entities by the US and Europe being a case in point. However, these countries represent less than 20% of the world’s population – far from being global.

Capturing luxury yachts of Russian oligarchs (‘businessmen’ when ‘non-Russian’) does assist in the optics a bit, but beyond that it doesn’t help much. Cancelling concerts, pageants and dead Russian authors while you continue to buy oil and gas from Russia sounds rather silly and even ludicrous. On the ground however, sanctions always almost hurt the poor in the receiving nations as the rich are well shielded.

History is replete with examples of how sanctions are often counterproductive. Countries and entities find a way to work around it some way or the other. So do they really work is a big question.

During the 1990s Madeleine Albright’s response – to the fact that half a million Iraqi children had died as a result of US sanctions – “We think the price is worth it” is a chilling reminder of the horrific outcomes of sanctions.


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  1. Given Greece’s membership of the EU why are Greek vessels still involved in Russian moving oil and related products when sanctions have been agreed. Profiteering from the effective invasion of a sovereign nation has a nasty flavour. This could heap oprobium on the shipowners who will then no doubt bleat.

  2. Sanctions do not work, and are a war crime. I absolutely agree with the article.

  3. “Sanctions don’t work” is an easy, lazy and cheap excuse for doing nothing in the face of egregious conduct by a Government. It is the excuse used by those who ignore sanctions – “This won’t work, so I can undermine it, because it won’t work, because of what I am doing, so what I am doing is OK!”

    Sanctions actually do work. Sanctions brought down apartheid. No mention by Santosh Patil, here.

    It isn’t sanctions on Russia that are starting to hurt the poor by raising the price of wheat; it’s the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports.

    The sanctions on Russia actually are working. Russia is running short of “smart” weapons.

    Greek shipowners as a body are never a useful source of collective wisdom for the industry because like shipowners anywhere they are good at responding mutually to mutual threats but they are always susceptible to individual opportunity.

    The late Basil Metaxas, in his excellent book on the economics of tramp shipping, long replaced as a student textbook by Martin Stopford’s fatter tome, included a chapter on the failures of tonnage stabilisation schemes – not a subject that Martin covers, iirc, perhaps because it doesn’t occur to him that anyone would try it – which illustrates the way in which self interest always beats out the collective good in shipowning.

    Collectively, the ton miles added by the sanctions on Russia are doing shipowners rather a lot of good, but each individual owner wishes that he could trade with Russia himself.

    What these owners are really trying to avoid is not the money they are making from increased demand (they hardly would!) but the penalties imposed on those who breach sanctions.

    To say that the USA and Europe are 20% of the world population is a statement of the obvious. But it is equally obvious that the people who will suffer from the lack of Ukraine’s wheat are in the 80%.

    “International” is not used as a substitute for “global” as Santosh Patil wants us to think; “international” means what it says – “involving more than one nation”.

    I could say a good deal more – perhaps about the really fatuous idea that modern Greece has retained a sort of collective memory from the events of the fifth century BC in Athens, which has somehow managed to survive a millenium and a half of Roman rule and several centuries of Turkish rule, and the odd way in which folk like Santosh Patil always refer back to Athens and not to, say, Thebes, an oligarchy, or Sparta, a particularly vicious apartheid regime.

    But I’ve probably said enough to indicate that I disagree rather strongly with this article. It’s mistaken in its premises, it’s selective in its choice of examples, and it’s ethically unsound.

    No doubt others will disagree with me…

      ‘The collapse of the Soviet Union helped topple Apartheid—South Africa’s rigidly enforced laws of racial segregation—by removing the global Communist threat, the country’s last white president told CNBC.
      Frederik Willem “FW” de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for his role in overseeing the end of white-only rule in South Africa. …
      de Klerk said that sanctions played no role in the move to end Apartheid.
      “We successfully rode the waves of sanctions for decades,” he told CNBC.
      “In the end also, sanctions hurt black South Africans much more than it hurt white South Africans, it never lead to a change at the ballot box, so sanctions was not the driving force, it played a role, but it was not the crucial role. Our reforms were conscious driven.” ‘

  4. Why local brits hate Russia so much? They invaded Iraq recently under false WMD reason. Russia never invaded UK but UK invaded Russia at least three times. Because they were kicked off with the tail between legs?

    1. I think Britain has invaded Russia twice – in 1854 in response to Russian invasions of what are now Romania and Bulgaria, and in 1918 as an intervention in the Russian civil war.

  5. Sanctions are a convenient alibi and virtue signaling for those ,who have too much to loose and/or have no guts to do the real thing .

    Since i have neither skills nor intellect/brains to confront the biggest Splash247 Guru ( Whom by the way a greatly admire 😉 ) I have opted to use a well known tactics of letting others do the fighting by selecting some interesting links below, trusting Editors will not delete my awkward comment.

    How sanctions work

    And how sanctions are laughed off by discussion panel experts can be seen at RT “Cross talk” video clips or heard in their podcasts.

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