James O’Brien

Event information

James O’Brien

Ambassador Overseeing U.S. Sanctions Policy

Sanctions: Do They Ever Work?

DATE: October 18, 2022 6:00 pm

The United States and its allies imposed the toughest sanctions ever when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and then they toughened them some more. But Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled his bets with plans to annex four Ukrainian regions and call up reservists.

So, what is the effect of the sanctions?

Do sanctions ever work?  Look at Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Afghanistan before 9/11.  Do they ever lead to regime change? Or do they even strengthen the hand of the leadership in the country?

We have invited Ambassador James OBrien to discuss these questions and more. He’s the newly installed sanctions “czar” at the State Department.

Ambassador OBrien has had important posts at the State Department going back to 1989.  He was Special Presidential Envoy for the Balkans, responsible for U.S. diplomatic and economic and security policy, deputy director of the State Department office of Policy Planning and a senior adviser to the late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He helped formulate the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, focusing on the Bosnian constitution, and guided the U.S. support for the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which indicted 161 suspects before it closed in 2017.  He worked on agreements to control weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union.  He also negotiated agreements protecting intellectual property rights with China. Later he became vice chair of the Albright Stonebridge consulting firm in Washington.  And during the Obama administration, he was Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs from 2015 to 2017.


Overview on Jim O’Brien:

Senate Confirms James O’Brien to Ambassador Role

Head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination

Jim O’Brien’s recommended reading list.
Tim Snyder, Bloodlands (WW2 in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine)

Tim Snyder, on Tyranny, second edition (with Nora Krug). It’s graphic book with 20 short lessons about how to prevent, survive, and overcome authoritarian turns in politics. I think everyone should buy it for the teenager or college student in their lives.

Serhii Plokhiy, Yalta: The Price of Peace. He also has a book on the last days of the Soviet Union.

Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction. He’s outstanding. Also has great books on the rise of the US and 2008. He has a weekly podcast called Ones and Tooze.

Scott Reynolds Nelson, Oceans of Grain, for Odesa, the Midwest, and the grain trade.

Other recommendations:

Putin’s People (Catherine Belton) and Putin’s Kleptocracy (Karen Dawisha) on how power and money are structured in 21stCentury Russia.

Oliver Bullough, Moneyland, on how this corrupts our societies. He discusses more than Russia, but given his focus on London there’s a lot about Russia.

Casey Michel, American Kleptocracy, for those folks interested in whether these issues matter at home. It includes an amazing tale of how a Ukrainian oligarch bought up and destroyed large parts of Ohio, including a chunk of downtown Cleveland.

Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation by Alan Little and Laura Silber

Overview on the War on Ukraine: 

Ukraine/Russia-Related Sanctions (2014)

Putin: Russia may halt energy exports if West caps prices

Imposing Additional Costs on Russia for Its Continued War Against Ukraine 

Statement from President Biden on Ukraine Independence Day

Shutting Down Nord Stream Marks the Point of No Return for Russian Gas

How Much Has U.S. Helped Ukraine? Aid Is Worth Most Since War Began


As the war in Ukraine continues, debates on the effectiveness of sanctions have erupted across the U.S. From an economic perspective, sanctions do more harm than good. From the international perspective, sanctions are a necessary measure to protect and support democracy. 

For more about why sanctions do not work, read: 

Why Sanctions on Russia Won’t Work

Why Sanctions Don’t Work, and Why They Mostly Hurt Ordinary People

Why Economic Sanctions Don’t Work

Why Sanctions on Russia Don’t Work

My Country, Right or Wrong: Russian Public Opinion on Ukraine (scroll down to “Double-Edged Sanctions)

For more about why sanctions do work, read: 

US: Russia to buy rockets, artillery shells from North Korea

Economic Impact of Sanctions on Russia

U.S. Sanctions on Russia

United with Ukraine 

In isolated Russia, a tale of two economies (impact of sanctions in Russia) 


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