Poke a Russian bear with a stick and he will retaliate. That’s the lesson facing Australian exporters today.

When Australia announced it would join the US and Europe in placing trade sanctions on Russia in response to Malaysia Airlines MH17 being shot down in Ukraine, it could do so realising there wasn’t much trade to talk about.

Australian-Russia trade is only worth A$1.8 billion – Russia is our 28th-largest export destination and 30th-largest import source. In fact, Russia’s main export destinations are – wait for it – The Netherlands, Turkey and the Ukraine.

It imports mostly from China (like everyone else), Germany and the US. Australia only accounts for 0.3% of Russian imports as Russia’s 44th-largest import source and we are Russia’s 99th-largest export destination (barely registering on the trade accounts).

But now Russia’s counter sanctions could hurt agricultural exports, particularly in wheat, dairy, beef and kangaroo meat (Russia is our main export market for kangaroo meat). In most cases Australian exporters will be able to sell items such as beef to Japan, Korea (thanks to the new FTAs) or Indonesia.

In any case, Russia had already reduced beef imports from Australia (due to alleged concern over growth hormones). These would be the only sectors adversely affected assuming no further Russian retaliation over energy or financial sector sanctions placed on them by the West.

So how will the trade sanctions play out? Russia’s actions could hurt Russia most of all. A government putting on tariffs or other forms of trade protection is a like a government shooting its own people during peace time. Or as the legendary Cambridge economist Joan Robinson used to say, trade bans are like “putting rocks in your own harbour”.

Putin might well be bringing food shortages back to Russia like the bad old days of the Soviet Union and tsarist regimes – something the poor Russian populace has been used to historically. For a democracy it would be unbearable, but at an 87% approval rating, Putin won’t worry about that.

As he told me at the APEC meeting in Sydney in 2007 when John Howard allowed then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd to speak: “How nice to allow your leader of the opposition to speak. I would do so also, except I don’t have one.”

So will trade sanctions work? In economic history the record is patchy. The evidence shows economic sanctions against South Africa were more “psychologically hurtful” to the apartheid regime than economically damaging, though there is evidence that disinvestment by major institutions such as Chase and Barclays had more of an impact than trade sanctions.

As in the case of Cuba and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), trade sanctions did not have as much impact as restrictions to foreign investment. And, in any case, the economic distortions in the domestic economy (like South Africa’s apartheid labour market distortions) were as damaging as external sanctions.

Ironically, the collapse of the old Soviet Union was the key factor in enabling the white minority government to start negotiating with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, making South Africa a “special case” in terms of effectiveness of sanctions.

In a well-functioning economy sanctions can bite quickly, but as in South Africa (due to apartheid) and Myanmar (due to having a ludicrously large army for a country of its size) they can have mixed effects.

Russia has an oligopolistic, or we could say “oligarch-istic”, anti-competitive economy so the oligarchs will choose to absorb the sanctions or distort the effects. The West has tried to target Russian funds abroad (in the UAE and London’s Chelsea) as that’s where the Russian oligarchs keep their capital, but that’s going to be a difficult target.

The MH17 Russia–Ukraine crisis has a long way to go in terms of geopolitics, and trade is likely to be just one weapon of choice in the skirmish.

Tim Harcourt is the J.W. Nevile fellow in economics at UNSW Australia Business School and author of The Airport Economist. A version of this post appeared on The Conversation.