How Game Theory Explains Why We Have to Sanction Putin — Even If It’s Costly

“The point of sanctioning is that, if we don’t, the norm against territorial incursions will collapse. Preserving this norm — and working to prevent similar abuses in the future — is worth the cost of sanctioning. But why is norm collapse an inexorable consequence of failing to sanction? Fortunately, a bit of game theory can help us answer this question.

Let’s call this the Repeated Sanctions Game, which has two players. In each round of the game, Player 1 (i.e., an adversary such as Putin) chooses whether to transgress, then Player 2 (i.e., NATO) chooses whether to sanction. Transgressing benefits Player 1 (Putin would like to annex Ukraine) but costs Player 2 (NATO would prefer that Ukraine be free). As in real life, sanctioning is costly not just to Player 1 but also to Player 2, who might prefer not to, for example, suffer higher prices or lose revenue from Player 1’s products and businesses as a result. Then Player 2 plays the game again and again — perhaps with the same Player 1, perhaps with another (Putin now, maybe Xi next time).

For Player 2 to deter future transgressions in this game, she would have to threaten to sanction Player 1 whenever he transgresses. This threat has to be credible, otherwise Player 1 will simply call Player 2’s bluff. Player 2 must, if called upon, reliably follow through on her threat.

How can this be worth it for Player 2, given that, as already acknowledged, sanctioning is costly? To see, we must factor future expectations into the cost-benefit calculation. When a transgression isn’t met with sanctions, everyone would reasonably expect that future transgressions may also go unpunished. This is the norm collapsing. So long as Player 2 cares enough about the costs of all those future transgressions, she’ll prefer the collateral costs of punishing the transgressor today to increasing the likelihood of future transgressions. It’s not preventing or stopping the current transgression that’s motivating Player 2 to sanction, it’s the fact that without sanctions as a response, there will inevitably be more transgressions.”

“what the international community is really trying to avoid is other, more rational actors, such as Putin’s eventual successor or Xi, inferring that future invasions will not be punished.”

“So, yes, it’s true that sanctions will hurt our economy, and it’s true that they may even push Putin to further escalate Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. That’s all really bad, but it’s not as bad as a future where national sovereignty is not respected. For the norm against territorial incursion to survive, everyone must forever know that we are willing to pay the cost to sanction.”

Was Russia’s decision to cut off natural gas exports a mistake?

“Despite Western powers’ broad condemnation of and efforts to isolate Russia, the country has managed to maintain ties and partnerships elsewhere around the world. In April, the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over its invasion of Ukraine. The resolution succeeded after it received a two-thirds majority of votes from member states with 93 nations voting in favor of Russia’s suspension from the body. But 24 of the body’s members voted against the action while 58 members abstained from the vote altogether.

Results of the UN vote signify the complexities of real-world diplomacy even in the face of war. Countries in Africa, South America, and Asia have increasingly sought to resist taking sides as the Russia-Ukraine war threatens to shape the world into political factions. But the West’s waning influence in other parts of the globe, combined with economic and political interests at stake, has resulted in many nations opting to maintain their independence when it comes to relations with Russia.

In Asia, where growing vigilance over China’s increasing influence is shared across borders, nations in the southeast and the south of the continent have expressed their intentions to remain on good terms with Russia in spite of the situation with Ukraine. Among Russia’s most loyal partners is India, with whom it has maintained a strong relationship since the Soviet Union’s backing of India during the 1971 war with Pakistan, even as India remained officially non-aligned during the Cold War.

Another factor behind their continued friendship is India’s reliance on Russia as a military arms supplier — from the 1950s to now the country has received an estimated 65 percent of firearms exports from the Soviet Union or Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India’s border disputes in the Himalayas with China, which triggered a bloody clash in 2020, is another motivating factor for India as Russia has functioned as an important mediator in the conflict with China.

China, another key Russian partner, has refrained from condemning Russia outright, instead asking for the warring countries to reach a peaceful resolution. In a March virtual meeting with France and Germany, President Xi Jinping called for “maximum restraint” on the issue and expressed concerns over the broader impact of sanctions on Russia. But some, like Herrera, doubt how far China will continue to toe the line if the situation worsens.

“China has not said they would not abide by the sanctions and they are so far going along with the sanctions against Russia,” Herrera said. A potential turning point, she said, could be Europe’s next sanctions, particularly any secondary sanctions it puts out, which will be “a big crossroads for China to decide whether to participate with those.”

But its ties with Russia could still end up serving China economically. President Vladimir Putin has stated Russia will “redirect” its energy exports to “rapidly growing markets” elsewhere to help buttress against sanctions, perhaps an effort to maintain support from its key ally.”

Are sanctions against Russia working?

“The United States and its allies imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia in the wake of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The swiftness and intensity of the penalties crashed the ruble, forced the Russian stock market to close, and sent Russians to line up at ATMs to withdraw dollars from their bank accounts.

The Russian economy was in free fall. Until it wasn’t, exactly.

The country’s central bank responded by sharply hiking interest rates to 20 percent and imposing strict capital controls. Those interventions, along with Russia’s still-intact ability to sell its oil and gas abroad, helped create a buffer against the economic chaos after the initial sanctions shock. The measures were “straight out of the country’s economic crisis playbook,” said Adam Smith, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who worked on sanctions during the Obama administration.

The economic crisis playbook did its job, and calmed the immediate crisis. The ruble stabilized. That allowed Russia to declare victory over the sanctions onslaught. “The strategy of the economic blitz has failed,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in April.

At least, that is what Russia would like to claim. Russia’s efforts to shore up its currency mask the profound economic disruptions and transformations that sanctions are unleashing within Russia right now. The West’s sanctions are isolating Russia, cutting it off from key imports that it needs for commercial goods and its own manufacturing to make its economy work. That means high-tech imports like microchips, to develop advanced weaponry. But it also means buttons for shirts.

Right now, there is “this false sense of stability,” said Maria Shagina, a visiting fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Russia is facing a deep recession, one the Bank of Russia says will be “of a transformational, structural nature.” The Finance Ministry has predicted the Russian GDP will shrink by about 8.8 percent in 2022. Inflation is expected to clock in as high as 23 percent this year. Russia is looking at a looming debt default. All of this will mean hardship for ordinary Russians, who are already seeing their real incomes shrink. Some tens of thousands have tried to flee, especially those in tech, prompting a potential “brain drain.” And these are the things we know; Russia will cease publishing a lot of economic data, a tactic, experts said, Moscow has used before to obscure the effects of sanctions.

These sanctions, said Yakov Feygin, a political economy expert at the Berggruen Institute, are pushing Russia — a modern economy, integrated around the globe — back decades and decades.

“They’ve stabilized it, they’ve taken emergency measures. That was to be expected. But that’s not going to help them in the long run,” Feygin said of Russia. “You’re not going to see people queuing for food for quite a bit. But with the current course of things, it’s still very possible.”

The US and European allies have continued to pile on more penalties, refining and sharpening the sanctions, all in an effort to ratchet up the pressure on Moscow. The EU has proposed a phase-out of Russian oil products, and depending on the final details, that might further erode the Kremlin’s lifeline. And the US could take additional steps, like threatening secondary sanctions that go after countries like China or India, to deter them from buying cheap Russian energy. That comes at a cost, and not just for Russia.

Even without more escalation, the sanctions regime against Russia is one of the most aggressive in history, untested on an economy of Russia’s size and as entangled in the global financial system.

Whether the sanctions are “working,” then, depends on what they are intended to achieve. One thing is clear: Over time, these sanctions will likely make it harder for Russia to rebuild its tanks, manufacture cruise missiles, and finance a war. It will also make it harder to produce food and make cars. And it still may not stop Russia from pursuing its campaign against Ukraine, all with unpredictable consequences for the rest of the world.”

EU closes in on Russian oil ban — but how tough will it be?

“An immediate, full-blown ban imposed by the EU on oil is still a no-go for economic powerhouse Germany. Berlin has indicated to other EU capitals it’s ready to consider cutting Russian oil — even if it is not yet able to abandon imports of gas — but only under specific conditions, which are now being discussed with the European Commission.”

Buy Cuban Minerals To Mess With Russia

“Russia controls 4 percent of global cobalt production, for example, and 11 percent of nickel production. Following the sanctions package dropped on Russia, cobalt’s price increased from $74,000 per ton to $82,000 per ton and has now more than doubled since the start of 2021. Nickel’s price, meanwhile, has zoomed since the beginning of March, rising from $25,000 per ton on March 1 to a high above $45,000 briefly before settling at $32,000. Since 2019, the price of nickel has nearly tripled.

Shortages and price rises in those commodities will stymie any transition from carbon-emitting combustion engines to electric cars, since the average electric car battery contains 80 pounds of nickel and 15 to 30 pounds of cobalt. Increased gas prices due to a Russian oil collapse would not necessarily increase the adoption of green energy programs because electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines all use nickel and cobalt to varying degrees. The rising costs of nickel and other inputs will very likely cause electric vehicle batteries, which were growing rapidly less expensive over the last decade, to stop getting more affordable until at least 2024.

Reduced access to Russian commodities will drive up the cost of renewables and electric vehicles as gas prices also increase. It’s easier to increase oil production than it is to increase nickel or cobalt production; America has at least 35 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and OPEC can increase oil production whenever it wants. Pumping more oil is a faster and less arduous process than building a new nickel mine.

But the U.S. has another available source of nickel and cobalt that could be counted on when countries on the other side of the world have production difficulties due to war or internal strife, and it’s a scant 90 nautical miles off the coast of Florida.

Unfortunately, this source happens to be Cuba, and American companies have been forbidden by law to do business with Cuba for most of the last 60 years.”

Ukraine says EU road links won’t make up for loss of Black Sea trade

“Expanding road, rail and river links between the EU and Ukraine won’t be enough to stave off an economic and humanitarian crisis, Ukraine’s Deputy Economy Minister Taras Kachka told POLITICO.

“We cannot ensure the same volume of exports as via seaports by other means of transportation in forthcoming weeks or even months,” Kachka said. “The only way to ensure proper reinstallment of export is to unblock sea ports. This is the only solution.”

The comments were in part a response to European Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who said last week that he was “ready” to establish fast-track trade routes to and from Ukraine to bring fuel to the country’s desperate farmers, and help take their produce out while maritime trade is frozen due to its ports being under Russian fire.”

“Some of Ukraine’s cargo has shifted to Izmail, Reni or Kiliya — smaller ports on the bank of the Danube, in the southwest of the country. But those have limited capacity.”

“The logistical challenge is immense. Before the war, Ukraine shipped over 70 percent of its exports. In 2021, 99 percent of Ukraine’s 24.6 million tons of corn exports were shipped out.”

Biden Praises Ukrainian ‘Iron Will’, Refuses To Use Ukrainian Iron in Infrastructure Projects

“Buy American provisions ensure we won’t get nearly as much infrastructure for the money as we otherwise could.

That’s because domestically manufactured materials and products often cost more than foreign alternatives. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have to require that project sponsors use them.

Buying American steel for infrastructure projects costs around twice as much as importing it from China, according to a 2019 Congressional Research Report. That requirement cost American roadbuilders an additional $2 billion from 2009 to 2011, back when then-Vice President Biden was overseeing the spending of stimulus dollars on infrastructure projects.

Procuring American-made buses means that we pay twice as much as Japan and Korea do for their rolling stock. Our train cars cost as much 34 percent more because we insist on buying domestically.

Because these requirements can be so onerous, federal departments often grant exemptions to Buy American rules when they make projects economically infeasible. Biden is making sure fewer projects get those cost-saving exemptions.”

Biden’s Protectionist Trade Agenda Will Increase Prices. In Fact, It Already Has.

“If concentration in the marketplace was somehow to blame for rising prices, then it would make sense to attack that problem by expanding competition. Give consumers more choices and they will naturally flock to lower-priced alternatives, putting pressure on other sellers to keep prices down.

The problem, for Biden, is that so much of his economic agenda is pointed in exactly the opposite direction. In one breath, he complains about the lack of consumer choice driving up prices. With the next, he proposes to further restrict consumer choice.

“We will buy American to make sure everything from the deck of an aircraft carrier to the steel on highway guardrails are made in America,” Biden said, before promising that his administration would make some of the “biggest investments in manufacturing in American history” to bring about “the revitalization of American manufacturing.””

“”Shifting demand to American producers with ‘Buy America’ polices [sic] that stop firms and consumers from buying at the lowest cost, no matter how politically attractive, are inflationary. This is something all economists should agree on,” Summers tweeted. “Blaming inflation on corporate greed or holding out the prospect that capacity can be expanded rapidly is at best diversionary.””

“Tariffs are also contributing to inflation by artificially raising the prices of imported goods, including products like raw steel, aluminum, and lumber that are necessary inputs for American manufacturers and home builders.”

“The two researchers found that costs imposed by trade barriers were passing along nearly in full to consumers. For every 1 percentage point increase in the cost of imported construction materials caused by tariffs, for example, they found domestic price increases of 0.9 percent after six months.”