top of page
  • Writer's pictureElad Uzan

Economic Sanctions, Uncertainty, and the War in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been characterized as the most serious act of aggression in Europe since the Second World War. The West has, so far, mainly responded by imposing sanctions on the Russian economy. The sanctioning countries have also declared that they will not directly confront the Russian military, even though it is engaging in an unjust war of aggression and its personnel are, therefore, morally and legally liable to be harmed.

Is this response morally justified? Many believe that economic sanctions targeted at the general population (rather than supposedly ‘targeted’ sanctions imposed only on select individuals) are a morally acceptable alternative to defensive warfare. In this essay, I wish to question that conventional wisdom.

1. Economic sanctions, proportionality and effectiveness

Historically, sanctions are, or were, understood by all concerned to be a form of warfare. Over time, however, they have been abstracted from war, so that they are now seen by those who impose them as a coercive action short of war. They are managed mainly by international corporations, rather than by states and their militaries, are believed to be categorically distinct from war and thought to be legitimately deployable during peacetime, without any of the procedural constraints that some countries impose on official declarations of war.

There are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of economic sanctions. To be effective, sanctions would need to motivate their targets to pull back from their aggressive actions. But history is full of examples in which sanctions against civilians have failed to accomplish anything of the sort. The people typically affected by sanctions generally have little ability to sway their governments’ policies. Moreover, it is hard to predict whether economic sanctions will successfully deter invasions or other acts of aggression. Do sanctions make aggression more costly such that there is less of it? Or, do they serve mainly to isolate their targets and make their policies more extreme? The historical evidence suggests that economic sanctions are likely to be ineffective, and, as such, that they are unjustified.

Still worse, sanctions do not only have the effect of isolating and further provoking aggressors. There are myriad instances in which blockades (of which sanctions are a species) and other forms of economic warfare have had profound escalatory effects—for instance, the blockade of Germany during World War I, which, according to official German statistics, caused an estimated 763,000 civilians to suffer malnutrition and disease. Economic warfare was also a major German and Japanese grievance in the interwar period and was one of a few clear contributors to Japan’s escalation of hostilities in Manchuria. The 1973 oil embargo also dramatically worsened US relations with Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, leading to decades of violence.

The historical evidence suggests that economic sanctions are likely to be ineffective, and, as such, that they are unjustified.

Another reason to doubt the morality of economic sanctions is proportionality. In the simplest terms, proportionality is about comparing bad things with good things. As suggested by Jeff McMahan, if a large number of Russian civilians are caused relatively minor harm, then sanctions could be proportionate. More precisely, if liability is comparative, harm is unavoidable and the Russian civilians bear some small responsibility for this, in that they can put pressure on their government. Therefore, the choice is between inflicting small harms on each of a large number of Russian civilians or allowing the Russian government to continue to inflict very great harms on Ukrainian civilians who bear no responsibility for the unavoidability of harm.

But it seems that only hyper-inflation, severe monetary crisis, and significant food and energy shortages might outweigh Russian civilians’ fear of the Russian regime’s violent suppression of domestic dissent sufficiently to motivate a sustained revolt against it. And even civilians who support the Russian regime usually make no more than a very small contribution to the regime’s policies and so are not liable to such significant harm. To be effective, sanctions would have to be very harsh on millions of Russian citizens. Only a small number of Russian civilians are liable to such great harms for their role in the invasion of Ukraine and they are, presumably, also in the best position to circumvent the harm of sanctions anyway.

2. Economic sanctions and the argument from uncertainty

In my view, the economic sanctions against Russia have been taken up so readily instead of direct military intervention because sanctions involve less uncertainty than fighting. There are two major sources of uncertainty in ethical decision-making: moral and factual. Consider a political leader who is certain that a neighboring state is planning to invade their territory in a few months. If she uses force now, she will deter the political leaders of the neighboring state from following through with this plan. She faces moral uncertainty over whether deterring a future invasion justifies the use of force, and if so, what amount of force would be necessary and proportionate. She also faces factual uncertainty about whether the enemy will in fact invade in a few months, whether the current use of force will deter them, and whether measures short of war might effectively deter the attack. Moral and factual uncertainty make it harder to determine whether the use of force has a just cause and whether it is necessary and proportionate.

According to the argument from uncertainty, military intervention against Russia could escalate all the way up to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Indeed, Putin threatened to use nuclear power at the start of the war. Sanctions are less likely to provoke such a disastrous outcome. Furthermore, even if effective sanctions are disproportionate, the possibility that military intervention would result in nuclear war means that sanctions would still be less disproportionate than military intervention. The possibility of a great harm resulting from a nuclear exchange is, the argument goes, a decisive reason against military intervention, if effective sanctions can be shown to be proportionate.

When examined in detail, however, the argument from uncertainty has significant flaws. The West prefers to use sanctions against Russian civilians instead of direct military intervention because the use of sanctions involves less factual uncertainty. There is less factual uncertainty because the range of possible (negative) outcomes of sanctions is narrower in a very significant way than the possible (negative) outcomes of military action—there is essentially zero chance that sanctions alone could ever lead to nuclear war. The West is even willing to inflict great expected harm on Russians with sanctions, so long as they avoid the possibility of extreme harm due to military intervention. But while a precautionary approach to decision-making can be reasonable, in the case of economic sanctions the West is too risk averse. It gives greater importance than it should to minimizing uncertainty, specifically to minimizing the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear conflict.

Sanctions invert the ethics of war by targeting civilians instead of soldiers, who are liable to harm.

The most extreme risk-averse decision-making strategy is known as minimax. This strategy accommodates uncertainty by minimizing the worst possible outcome of the intervention. Minimax ignores probabilities and looks only at the worst possible outcomes. It is equivalent to being willing to pay any moral cost to reduce the variance of the worst outcome as much as possible. In the case of sanctions, the worst outcome is a massive humanitarian crisis in Russia. In the case of military intervention, the worst-case scenario is nuclear war. So minimaxing recommends sanctions over military intervention.

However, philosophers working on war should recommend avoiding the minimax strategy in moral decision-making as much as possible. To illustrate, suppose that soldiers are tasked with capturing an enemy village, occupied mostly by enemy troops but also some civilians. Should the soldiers risk their lives clearing the village or call in an air strike? According to minimax, the worst possible outcome of an air strike is that many enemy soldiers are killed, and some civilians as well. The worst possible outcome of trying to capture the village is that the soldiers are all killed in the attempt. Thus, calling an air strike is the less bad moral option if and only if it is better than the soldiers all being killed. But it is always possible that the soldiers will all be killed, so minimaxing would always justify an air strike.

Minimax, which ignores probabilities, pays with the lives of civilians to prevent a negligible risk of serious harm to soldiers. But probability is crucial to morality. An air strike can be permissible if it is very likely that all the soldiers sent to clear the village would be killed, even though it may kill some civilians. But it is impermissible to call an air strike when the probability of harm to the soldiers clearing the village is low. Such a conclusion can only be avoided if one weighs the lives of one’s own soldiers as much more valuable than those of soldiers or civilians on the other side. While such thinking undoubtedly does influence real-world decision-making, it is surely incompatible with any genuinely moral approach to such matters.

In reply to this rejection of minimax in moral theory, one can argue that preferring economic sanctions over direct military intervention is not minimax—it does not ignore probabilities. On the one hand, hardship significantly short of the mass starvation or pauperization of the Russian population might force the Russian regime to end the invasion. This makes it less likely that sanctions would need to cause extreme harm to be effective, which in turn lowers their expected harm. On the other hand, while the probability of a nuclear war due to military intervention is small, the harm caused from such a war would be immense. This means that the expected harm of military intervention is high despite the low probability of a nuclear exchange. It simply is the case that sanctions have a lower expected harm.

However, these probability calculations involve treating the two options—military intervention and economic sanctions—with two different sets of rules. On the one hand, they minimize the risk of extreme harm that Russian civilians may suffer due to sanctions. On the other, they overemphasize the risk of extreme outcomes that Westerners (and Russians, and, in the worst-case scenario, the whole world) could suffer due to military intervention that escalated to nuclear conflict.

Such a standard is morally problematic, for two reasons. First, even if the risk of the sanctions leading to disastrous results for millions of Russians is low, it is by no means zero. And it may actually be quite likely that only the most extremely harmful sanctions would be effective. Second, even if the probability of nuclear war is not zero, it is presumably very low. Objectively considering the harm of both outcomes may well tilt the balance in favor of military intervention. The calculus could be tilted even further in favor of military action if there is more chance of it being effective than sanctions. Perhaps a limited military intervention would be much more likely to help Ukraine than even the most aggressive sanctions. If it is quite likely that the armed conflict would remain limited in scope and destructiveness, then the poor historical track record of sanctions might add further weight to military options.

My aim here has not been to beat the drum for war but to push back against the seductive notion that sanctions are somehow a cleaner, lower-risk option.

In reply, it can be argued that the West wishes to minimize not uncertainty as such, but second-order uncertainty. First-order uncertainty means it is not known whether an event would occur or not—it is given a probability. Second-order uncertainty means that the probability is itself not known with precision. All that might be known about the risk of the nuclear exchange due to military intervention is that it is somewhere between 1:1,000 to 1:1,000,000. Suppose the probability of a nuclear exchange were totally unknown. One would have to suppose military intervention would definitely result in a nuclear exchange and military intervention would thus be disproportionate. The second-order uncertainty of military intervention is, according to this argument, decisive in tilting the balance against military intervention.

This argument fails. Considering second-order uncertainty does indeed give more weight to extreme outcomes. But it does not follow that military intervention is disproportionate, for two reasons. First, the chance of a nuclear exchange is not wholly unknown. There are good reasons to think it is confined within rather narrow and low probabilities. Second, and more importantly, we cannot consider the second-order uncertainty only for one option. The probability of sanctions on Russian causing disastrous starvation or pauperization, while low, does exist and also cannot be precisely defined. Thus, one may not consider the second-order uncertainty of military intervention without also considering the second-order uncertainty of sanctions.

The greater uncertainty of possible harms does count against an option’s proportionality. But we cannot consider the first- and second-order uncertainty of military intervention alone. Furthermore, it may well be that only by applying a different standard in favor of military intervention can the West reach the conclusion that economic sanctions are proportionate and military intervention is disproportionate, namely by (odiously) assigning more weight to harm to Westerners than to Russians. But, historically speaking, the potential bad outcomes of economic sanctions are very great, and it is quite likely that these bad outcomes will be realized. A level playing field may well show that military intervention is, after all, the proportionate option.

3. Conclusion

In this case of grand strategy—of whether to use crippling sanctions against an entire country or to use force against an invading army—minimax overemphasizes extreme but uncertain outcomes. The moral result is puzzling. Sanctions invert the ethics of war by targeting civilians instead of soldiers, who are liable to harm. And historical experience suggests that they fail to undermine the political power of dictators. They are also actually very likely to provoke escalation in the near term and to generate harmful geopolitical realignments in the long term.

Certainly, even initially constrained military action can also have such deleterious consequences—in the case of Russia and NATO, dramatic escalation is perhaps more likely than not and would quite likely include significant harm to civilians. But this may not be enough to redeem sanctions. Rather, it suggests that, as was universally recognized in earlier times, sanctions are simply another form of war, with the same inherent risks of escalation and severe harm. My aim here has not been to beat the drum for war but to push back against the seductive notion that sanctions are somehow a cleaner, lower-risk option. This is not true. Sanctions are an act of war.

Elad Uzan is a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Corpus Christi College, and a Marie Curie Fellow at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford. He writes on topics at the intersection of moral, political, and legal philosophy.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


bottom of page