Agreements, Aggression, and Embargoes: Parallels from the Past to Russia and Ukraine

John Golden
May 04, 2022

Western sanctions imposed on Russia following their invasion of Ukraine have followed a similar path to those imposed on Japan in the lead up to their attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The implementation and escalation of sanctions on Japan and how they led to war should guide Russian sanctions to avoid escalation of the current conflict into a military conflict between Russia and NATO.

Major powers have recently come to an agreement to stand together against the Western world. Shortly after this agreement, one of these countries has become increasingly aggressive. Its hostile actions have led to condemnation and economic alienation. The United States and its allies have responded with harsh economic sanctions, first focusing on materials used in military equipment but later in serious discussions about energy resources as well.

It is safe to assume that the reader's first reaction to reading the above is to think immediately of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. This scenario, however, applies equally well to a much older historical flashpoint: Japan in the early 1940s.

Japan initially invaded northern Indochina on September 22nd, 1940, with fighting lasting through September 26th. The day after fighting concluded, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact. This defense alliance tied Germany, Japan, and Italy together and was partly created to deter the U.S. from entering World War II. The U.S. responded to Japan’s invasion of Indochina with economic sanctions focused on goods that directly fed into their war effort such as airplanes, engines, iron, and other metals.

The embargo, attempts at American diplomacy, and further negotiations did little to influence Japan’s aggression. Despite reports of Japanese atrocities – including the Rape of Nanking in 1938, where estimates vary on total deaths from 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese citizens – the U.S. continued to ship oil to Japan. Then, in 1941, Japan penetrated further into Indochina and secured key airfields with the acquiescence of Vichy France.

In response to Japan’s occupation of these airfields, the U.S. froze Japanese assets and banned all exports of oil to Japan. American allies followed suit and Japan lost access to 75 percent of its foreign trade and almost 90 percent of its imported oil. This completely crippled Japan’s ability to conduct war in the future. Government officials in Japan estimated they had less than three years of oil reserves without factoring in increased demand due to an increase in military action. Japan turned their gaze to the south, as the East Indies were the fifth largest oil producer in the world at the time.

Leadership in Japan knew an attack on the East Indies would bring the United States into the war. The invasion would draw Japanese forces closer to American forces in the Philippines as well as cut off the United States’ access to rubber and tin in the East Indies. As reliant as Japan was on American oil, the U.S. was even more reliant on the East Indies for rubber and tin, which were crucial for building military equipment, with over 90 percent of those materials coming from the region.

Prior to taking the East Indies, Japan planned a preemptive attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor to eliminate or at least lessen the threat from the U.S. Navy and make their move to invade the islands of the South Pacific uncontested. It was fortuitous that U.S. aircraft carriers were not in port on December 7, 1941, or the outcome of the war in the Pacific could have been drastically different. It was only four months after the U.S. oil embargo that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. was at war.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought large scale war to Europe for the first time since World War II. Of course, there are several major differences between Japan in 1941 and Russia today. First and foremost, the world is not currently at war on a global scale as Europe, Northern Africa, and Asia were in 1941. Not to mention the fact that nuclear weapons were still four years away from existence. Japan was an importer of oil and overwhelmingly reliant on U.S. oil, not a major energy exporter like Russia. The Tripartite Pact was a formal defense agreement between Germany, Italy, and Japan. Russia and China’s most recent joint statement before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February had no firm, formal ties, but the language indicates otherwise stating: “Friendship between the two states has no limits.”

Despite these differences, it would be foolish to not look at the past to draw some parallels from the last time large scale sanctions and trade embargoes were imposed on a major world power. The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that the economic sanctions levied on Russia are “unprecedented,” but the U.S. has followed a similar path in sanctions as they did 80 years ago.

Following initial Japanese aggression, the U.S. focused on trade that contributed to Japanese production of military equipment, similar to the trade restrictions placed on Russia in late February and early March. Those sanctions did not lessen Japanese aggression and increased Japanese demand for U.S. oil, which U.S. oil suppliers met.

Russia’s actions have primarily been deterred due to fierce opposition in Ukraine, particularly around Kyiv. Training and armament supplied by the U.S. and NATO and a surprisingly poorly planned and executed offensive are what have further hindered Russia’s advance, not the economic sanctions the United States and its allies have imposed.

However, despite NATO and American assurances on not escalating the conflict through military action, the impact of similar economic sanctions in 1941 eventually led to military conflict. The result of expansive economic sanctions on Japan ultimately led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into WWII in December 1941. Japan was forced to go on the offensive to secure oil and natural resources to fuel their war efforts.

It seems unlikely that Russia would turn its military aggression towards NATO or the United States in response to current economic sanctions. They do not necessarily require any specific goods or raw materials to continue their war effort. The loss of access to the SWIFT banking system and their international reserves sent the value of the ruble reeling and led to Russia’s central bank doubling interest rates, but after initial uncertainty their economy has stabilized. Russia has continued their offensive and moved their forces and focus to the Eastern Donbas region due to Ukrainian success on the battlefield, not from the economic sanctions.

Unlike Japan’s reliance on American oil in 1941, it is the U.S. and the E.U. that are at the mercy of Russia if they cut off access to Russian oil and gas. Uncertainty about Russian energy supply has thrown the global energy market into turmoil and caused serious discussion about energy dependence and revised plans on the much-needed transition to renewable energy. Reliance on Russian energy in Europe has led to reluctance to impose a complete ban on importing it, even after considerable evidence of war crimes in Russian occupied areas. Russia is dependent upon oil and gas revenues to fund their government and military – approximately 43 percent of the Russian government’s revenue comes from energy exports. In March, following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia exported more gas than they did in February, and rising energy prices will add an estimated $9.6 Billion in additional revenue from oil and gas in April.

Without a significant increase in oil and gas production by either the U.S. or countries friendly to the U.S. and E.U., it is unlikely that a complete ban on Russian energy will be imposed. The geopolitics of energy have come to the forefront more prominently than any time since the 1970s energy crisis. Loss of access to OPEC’s oil during the Yom Kippur War and uncertainty following the Iranian Revolution led to severe price hikes for oil, had long lasting economic consequences, and led to a focus in the U.S. on achieving energy independence in the future. Skyrocketing oil and gas prices in Europe and the United States following Russia’s invasion have shown the enduring importance fossil fuels even as the world attempts to wean itself from them in the face of irrefutable evidence of climate change.

Despite some similarities with the 1970s energy crisis, namely how reliance on a foreign country’s energy supply has influenced policy, the parallels to today seem stronger with the Japanese oil embargo in 1941. Japan was a major world power with a highly capable military, and the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia have followed a similar line to those imposed on Japan.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a direct response to the U.S.’s oil embargo. Despite countless movies and books on the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into WWII, shockingly few reveal that economic sanctions and the oil embargo are what ultimately led to Japan’s attack. The United States and its allies must review the missteps in the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and avoid economic sanctions that spiral into a military conflict between the two countries with the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenals.

John Golden is a graduate student at Columbia Business School and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College with a B.A. in International Affairs and spent five years on active duty as a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy and remains a U.S. Navy Reservist.