Is the U.S. Sanctions Weapon Effective?


By Ksenia Svetlova​​ | March 18, 2021

Vladimir Putin


Exactly as promised, U.S. President Joe Biden began his term in office by significantly leveraging human rights domestically and globally. This pair of words, human rights, rarely uttered during Donald Trump's term in office, is now inserted into every conversation held by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and features in almost every speech given by the president himself.


As a result, the clash between Washington and a number of countries, some of which are rivals and others old friends, on blatant violation of human rights, was inevitable. Earlier this month, new sanctions were imposed on several senior officials in Riyadh and Moscow following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the attempted poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020. Sanctions were not imposed, however, on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite CIA report findings indicating a direct link between him and the team of assassins. As for Russia, the names of the seven senior officials (among them: Sergei Kiriyenko, former prime minister of Russia; both Minister of Defense deputies; the head of the FSB federal security service; and Russia's attorney general) joined a long list of government officials and businessmen on whom the United States has been imposing sanctions for a long time. The European Union has also joined the campaign led by the United States, and has imposed similar sanctions on Russia. The latter has condemned the new sanctions, promising to take "similar steps". Senior position-holders and the media in Saudi Arabia, by contrast, have not responded, probably because they are struggling to contain the news.


This new state of affairs raises many questions. How effective are these sanctions and what purpose do they serve? Do they have a clearly defined objective? Are these steps accompanied by consistent policies? What are the side effects of personal and economic sanctions (such as the undesirable forging of ties between U.S. allies and Russia, China, or Iran)?



1. The sanctions will not topple the Russian or Saudi regime – just as they would never topple any regime elsewhere – however, they can cause some economic and political damage.


The United States has vast experience imposing sanctions on "disobedient states" – such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Russia. These punitive measures are directed against the country's institutions, senior officials, companies, and business owners active on its soil or behalf. The economic sanctions have a detrimental negative effect on these countries, but ultimately, the states themselves often get by, managing to survive despite the sanction. It is the citizens living in such states, however, that end up suffering the consequences. For example, in 2014, the United States imposed broad economic sanctions on Russia, and its GNP dropped by 6% (according to a Bloomberg report). Nevertheless, the part played by the sanctions on this nosedive in GNP was never proven, nor was the effect of low oil prices on it.


Following the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, the average Russian's standard of living went down significantly, and the Russian Ruble soared. However, as time went by, its currency stabilized, and Russia found various ways of importing "forbidden" goods as well as exporting its own. Putin's throne was undisturbed by the broad sanctions, which applied to Russian energy companies, several large banks and leading business owners; he continued to govern stably. It seems that Washington and Brussels did not intend to cause such turmoil, and perhaps even fear acute Russian volatility. The same is also true for Saudi Arabia, where the United States has no intention of replacing the regime. Even in Iran, the top pressure exerted on the regime by the former U.S. administration was not designed to achieve such goals. Had the regime indeed toppled – a development that has yet to take place, despite the fact that the United States has been imposing sanctions on Iran for many years – one may very well have wondered whether the sanctions would have been to blame for it, or other factors altogether.


For while sanctions may indeed cause certain economic damage, it is not immediately felt, as they often prevent access to innovative technologies, future investments and collaborations. For Russia, the most sensitive sanctions were those denying its oil and gas companies access to advanced western technologies such as heavy machinery, oil shales, and petrochemistry. These sanctions are detrimental to Russia's supply chains, impeding its scientific and technological progress significantly. As a result, a substantial 10–15-year gap is formed between Russia and the western world in these areas.



2. Sanctions can lead to a certain effect, but only as part of an organized policy


Sanctions only work if other parties join them. Pressure exerted by a single country, even if it the strongest superpower in the world, is not nearly as effective as wider pressure exerted from several directions at once. In Russia's case, the EU was coordinated with the U.S., imposing sanctions on senior Russian officials associated with the poisoning or persecution of Alexei Navalny. It seems that Europe will find it harder to persist with the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, particularly with regard to Nord Stream 2 – a 1200km-long gas pipeline in which 11 billion USD have been invested, due to carry 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Vyborg in Russia to Greifswald in Germany. The pipeline aims to supply gas to 26 million households across the European Union. Russian energy giant Gazprom, a governmental company, will profit most from this important energy project, which will enable Russia to bypass the Ukraine, and transfer gas directly into Europe. Several European countries, led by Germany, have been very supportive of this ambitious Russian project, and secondary sanctions could now cause harm to European companies. Europe therefore appears to be facing a particularly difficult dilemma.



3. The sanctions' side effects – new and unexpected alliances


Sanctions also have the opposite effect – they force sanctioned countries to turn to other areas and markets. For instance, since 2014, Russia has substantially increased its activity in the Middle East and Africa. Over the years, it has become more involved in several Arab and African countries, expanding its seaport in Syrian Tartus, and recently signing an agreement with the Sudanese government to establish a seaport in Port Sudan. Russia has also been active in the Central African Republic, as well as in other African countries, because it needs new markets for its products (particularly its weapons).


Naturally, the Middle East and Africa cannot replace access to European and American markets; however, by turning to these areas, Russia is creating new problems for Europe and the United States: France is concerned about Russian penetration into Africa; and Washington must grapple with Russian activity in Egypt and Syria. Strange new alliances may form under such circumstances between countries hit by U.S. sanctions, even if ties with North America are not altogether severed. For example, in 2015, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which were harmed by President Obama's polices, began to get closer to Russia and China. Thus, even if these countries are not expected to "play for the other team" at this stage, the United States will still have to cope with a new and challenging reality.


To conclude, economic and personal sanctions almost seem to be the only instrument available to western countries as means of exerting pressure on violators of human rights, developers of weapons of mass destruction, or those posing threats to their neighbors. This tool is far from ideal, however, and can only lead to the desired effect when sanctions form an integral part of an overall consistent policy supported by other global powers. With regard to Russia, the sanctions do not seem to have been very successful in changing Moscow's conduct, and probably will not be anymore effective in future. The Russian regime has survived them so far, and, even if it has been hit economically, it has rolled its sleeves up and moved on.




Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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