Isolating Russia Is a Dead End

The US and its allies are reportedly pursuing a "long-term strategy" that seeks to "isolate and weaken" Russia in response to the war in Ukraine. Like other "strategies" to isolate targeted states through sanctions and threats, this one will use punitive measures to inflict economic pain for its own sake. Western governments are no longer even pretending that Russia can do anything to end the economic warfare against it, and they are laying the groundwork to make the economic war a permanent condition. That bodes ill for the possibility of a negotiated settlement, and it all but guarantees that the war in Ukraine will be a prolonged one.

The US has had no success in making other states to give in or collapse through policies of isolation and coercion in the past, so it is extremely unlikely that a similar policy will achieve anything with Russia except to deepen human suffering there and around the world. A policy of isolating Russia is a policy that will necessarily drive up food and energy prices for the world. Hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries will feel the effects of trying to strangle Russia as they face worsening humanitarian crises marked by increasing poverty and hunger. The costs of a policy of isolation will not be limited to these poorer countries. As Amir Handjani explained, "While the United States and its allies can take comfort in "unplugging" Russia from the global economy for its aggression in Ukraine, the risks of pulling the world into a global recession, a food crisis, and social unrest are rising."

Policies of isolation and punishment typically provoke more undesirable and destructive behavior from the targeted state. They are obviously not conducive to making the government more accommodating and peaceful. In the post-WWII era, there has never been a concerted effort to "cut off" a major power from the rest of the world, and the reason for that should be plain. There is an inherent danger that trying to strangle a major power for the express purpose of weakening it will provoke the targeted state to lash out and in the worst case start a wider war. Even if that does not happen, a policy of isolation resolves nothing and simply allows existing disagreements and disputes to fester for years or decades.

Collective punishment is always wrong and imposing that punishment for poorly defined or impossible goals is even worse. The Russian people are not free to change their leadership, and their leadership launched this war without their knowledge or consent. To the extent that Russians say they support the war, we should understand that people are saying this when the penalties for any criticism of the government or the war are severe. Reckless talk of "collective responsibility" for the war is a rationalization to excuse causing otherwise innocent people to suffer.

Sanctioned and isolated countries also suffer from increasing repression and authoritarianism. The political leadership and their allies exploit the scarcity created by economic warfare to benefit themselves while the rest of the population experiences greater deprivation. However difficult internal political change was before the sanctions, it becomes even more so when the country is under siege. A policy of isolation predictably encourages nationalist sentiment and makes it easier for the government to deflect blame for the country’s problems. Just as other "maximum pressure" campaigns have further entrenched targeted leaders in their positions and increased the influence of hardliners in their governments, a policy that seeks Russia’s isolation and weakening will tighten the grip of the current leadership on power and stifle dissent.

Because the goal to be reached by isolating Russia is ill-defined, a policy of isolation will become a permanent one because of inertia and the lack of political courage to change it. Long-term isolation will not be a means to another end. It will be isolation for isolation’s sake. If US policy towards Cuba or Iran is any indication of what we might expect, isolating Russia could continue even after Putin is long gone. The US and its allies are pursuing a course that would put relations between Russia and the West in deep freeze for decades to come, and it will be exceptionally difficult to rebuild them later when our government rediscovers that it needs to work with Russia on other important issues.

For all the talk of developing a long-term "strategy," seeking Russia’s isolation is short-sighted. There appears to be no serious thought given to where this path of isolation will take Russia, Europe, and the US. There is so much consensus among Western governments right now that almost no one in thinking about how all of this could go wrong and backfire on the US and its allies. The many failures of policies of isolation should warn the US and its allies to stop going down this dead end path.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.