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"The question of the effectiveness of sanctions is a complex one overall"

Sanctions were imposed on Russia by many Western countries as early as 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea. After the invasion of Ukraine 2022, these were expanded into a comprehensive sanctions regime that imposes sectoral trade restrictions, cuts off Russian banks from international payments, and makes it more difficult for wealthy elites to access their assets. But sanctions are controversial for a variety of reasons. Political scientist and sanctions expert Dr Clara Portela, currently Konrad Adenauer Visiting Scholar at the Centre for European Studies at Carleton University in Canada, answers questions on this topic in an interview with Ethics and Armed Forces.

Dr Portela, the EU and other Western states have imposed sanctions against Russia in response to the Russian war of aggression, which violates international law. Is that permitted under international law?

A distinction must be made on this issue: The UN Security Council can impose so-called multilateral sanctions based on the UN Charter, which bind all states in the world. The sanctions against Russia are unilateral sanctions, i.e. sanctions that are not imposed by the UN Security Council. In principle, however, unilateral sanctions are also considered lawful.

In this respect, the EU has exactly the same rights as an individual state. Moreover, the political message is also much stronger when states jointly take the same measures. And it may seem more “legitimate” if several states impose sanctions together, although this is a matter of perception. In addition, if only a single state imposes sanctions, its companies have many disadvantages compared to their competitors because they are the only ones that are not allowed to supply certain goods.

So there is no doubt about the fundamental legitimacy of such unilateral sanctions?

Legally, it is usually argued that sanctions may be imposed because they are not explicitly prohibited. Unlike the prohibition of the use of force under international law, which is enshrined in the UN Charter, there is no prohibition on the interruption of trade. When Nicaragua challenged U.S. economic sanctions in the 1980s, the International Court of Justice followed the U.S. view that every state has the right to decide with whom it will and will not trade.

Some states, especially from the global South, nevertheless fundamentally dispute that unilateral sanctions can be imposed because they violate the right to development. Since 2014, Russia has also held this view with particular emphasis. Accordingly, only measures imposed by the Security Council would be permissible; anything else would not. Whether a measure is adopted by the Security Council or not, however, depends purely on political circumstances. As a result, the Security Council loses legitimacy.

In addition to this fundamental debate, there is also a legal discussion about the cases in which sanctions can be imposed, what they may contain, to what extent they must be targeted and proportionate, and what these criteria mean. In my opinion, it would make sense to regulate this more precisely. But as long as some people deny that they are permissible at all, we will not make any progress in this discussion.

In ethics, for example, there have been attempts to assess the legitimacy of sanctions against the just war doctrine. Some have concluded that at least comprehensive trade restrictions are not permissible because they intentionally harm civilians. It is debatable, however, whether just-war theory applies to sanctions – which are, after all, economic pressures rather than military means. An overview of these issues is provided, for example, by James Pattison1 or Elizabeth Ellis2

Can Russia take legal action against the sanctions?

As far as Russian territory is concerned, Russia remains sovereign anyway; it is not subject to any restrictions there. At the international level, it is possible to defend oneself against trade restrictions in the context of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russia has also already lodged an appeal with the International Court of Justice. And there is a third option that directly affects the EU, namely to appeal to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In a precedent-setting case in 2021, the ECJ ruled that states also have the right to challenge economic sanctions that affect them and referred Venezuela’s complaint back to the court having jurisdiction.

How would you classify the current sanctions against Russia? Are they very broad measures or rather so-called targeted sanctions aimed at individuals and certain groups?

They are in fact a mixture of comprehensive measures and targeted sanctions. This also means that they do not all follow the same rationale. Some are aimed at making it more difficult for Russia to finance the war. In addition, in the area of high technology, there are some goods that can no longer be exported to Russia, in particular microchips, which already significantly affects the ability of the Russian armed forces to continue to wage war. The measures directed against the elites and their wealth, against their luxury yachts, real estate and bank deposits, are designed to make them withdraw support from the system. The way autocracies function has a lot to do with the leadership favoring the political elites economically or in other ways. If, at some point, these elites find that their loyalty is no longer worth their while because of sanctions or the country’s weaker economy, they no longer have a reason to support the regime. That, at least, is the calculation behind it.

And will this calculation work out?

It is difficult to say. In any case, we must assume that power in Russia will become more and more centralized as the war progresses. It may become increasingly difficult for certain elites to withdraw support from the political leadership without exposing themselves and possibly fearing reprisals.

At this point, have we already talked about all the possible functions of sanctions?

No. One of the functions of the sanctions against Russia is to position oneself internationally on the side of Ukraine and its Western supporters. Even if the sanctions do not lead to a change in Russia’s behavior or make warfare more difficult, they have a strong symbolic and communicative value because they clearly position the country in geostrategic terms.

And one must not forget another function, namely communication to one’s own population: They demonstrate that you are trying to become active, that you are reacting at all to a breach of international law. There is a kind of public demand for that. If you do not react at all because you assume that it won’t lead to an end to the conflict anyway, that might not be appreciated by the public.

What does this mean for the effectiveness of sanctions and the criticism that they have no effect at all?

By imposing so many waves of sanctions so quickly, it may only be discovered in retrospect that some sanctions do not quite fit or do not hold up in court. The EU had too little time to consider this and wanted to react quickly and resolutely. Fortunately, it may be said, Russia's “special military operation” was not as quick and effective as originally thought, and so some effects became visible after only a few months.

The question of effectiveness is a complex one overall. For example, the relevant provisions sometimes remain vague about what they are supposed to achieve, and sometimes they do not say at all. The sanctions against Russia following the covert military intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014, for example, were not tied to compliance with the Minsk Agreement until a year later. But if the objectives are not clear, you cannot measure the achievement.

Sometimes objectives are not stated for political reasons. The whole issue is further complicated by the fact that sanctions do not usually pursue a single goal, but rather different ones. It is therefore difficult to make general statements about the effectiveness of sanctions. But once you have identified objectives, you have to measure them individually. Together with a colleague from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, I evaluated the sanctions against Russia in this sense.3 The economic effects are noticeable in Russia, but limited; political effects, such as growing resistance to the war among the population, are hardly evident, however.

So is the impression correct that sanctions cannot really achieve anything – certainly not a maximum objective such as an end to the attacks or a withdrawal from Ukraine? 

We have to be clear about that: The impact of sanctions can often only be properly evaluated once they are already in the past. But even then, they must always be evaluated in the context of other instruments. The information needed for this is often only available much later, for example when archives are opened or politicians who played an important role can speak openly.

The sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, for example, are often considered a success story, but they ended in the early 1990s. Today, research is perfectly possible, but at the time, people simply did not know what was going on among the elites. While the sanctions were in place, many observers claimed that they were not doing anything. When the turnaround finally came, they were suddenly seen as a success.

In the case of Cuba, it has been said for 50 years that sanctions do not work. If there is a turnaround at some point, one may claim the opposite. Or take the example of Myanmar, where sanctions were in place for about 20 years until 2012/2013 before there was at least a transition from a military to a civilian government and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from prison. In this respect, it is hard to say that sanctions are not working while they are still in place.

However, some critics also point out that sanctions, especially when imposed on autocratic regimes, can be counterproductive and tend to close ranks. The Russian regime can also use them for propaganda: Look, the West is waging an economic war against us, they want to destroy us.

It is obvious that the Kremlin does everything in its power to promote precisely this discourse. However, sometimes there is indeed this effect and sometimes not. In any case, it does not happen automatically. At the moment, it’s not easy to see: Public opinion is rarely measured independently in autocratic states. Even if there is an independent polling institute, it’s hard to determine whether people are answering honestly. If I were sitting somewhere in Omsk right now and my phone rang, “This is the Levada Center, we are measuring the approval rating of the government. Are you satisfied?” ...

... well, what would you answer?

In no case anything other than: “Yes, I am satisfied”! Otherwise, I would be taking a big risk; there is no way to know if it is the opinion research institute or some spy. I do not mean to question that existing opinion research institutes are independent, but under the present circumstances it is another question how reliable their survey results are.

If you look at the current sanctions policy of the EU and Western countries against the background of current events and what we have just discussed here, how would you assess it?

Basically, I think there has been an effort to respond very quickly and very resolutely. It is true that the EU has also imposed an oil embargo and very far-reaching financial sanctions on Iran, but much more slowly – the pace is definitely unusual this time. In the end, what is probably most interesting is not at all what the EU imposes or how fast it goes, but what has been achieved in the area of sanctions circumvention. This is because the Commission has recently been empowered to establish a universally binding definition of what constitutes an offense and minimum standards for penalties. Before February 2022, each state could individually define what constituted evasion of sanctions and what did not. The level of penalties was also extremely variable. Even if this change in EU law did not receive as much media attention as individual sanction measures themselves, it has great significance.

Dr Portela, thank you very much for the interview!

Questions by Rüdiger Frank.

1 Pattison, James (2015) The Morality of Sanctions. In: Social Philosophy and Policy, 32/1, pp. 192–215.

2 Ellis, Elizabeth (s. a.): The Ethics of Economic Sanctions. https://iep.utm.edu/ethics-of-economic-sanctions/ (accessed December 14, 2022).

3 Portela, Clara und Kluge, Janis (2022): Slow-Acting Tools. Evaluating EU sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief_11_Sanctions_0.pdf (accessed December 14, 2022).

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Dr Clara Portela is the inaugural Konrad Adenauer Visiting Scholar at the Centre for European Studies, Carleton University, Ottawa (Canada). She teaches Political Science at the Law School of the University of Valencia, having previously served at Singapore Management University and the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris. Her research focuses on multilateral sanctions, arms control and EU foreign policy.