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Economic Sanctions: A Weapon out of Control?

Economic Sanctions: A Weapon out of Control? By Robert Skidelsky  Centre For Global Studies, April 2022 Copyright: Centre for Global Studies.  The Centre for Global Studies is a London-based think-tank that aims to improve public understanding of economics and global policy. The Centre is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee. It is independent of any political party or group and is financed by voluntary donations and the sale of publications. Contact: [email protected]  Printers: CPI Antony Rowe Ltd. Registered Office: 110 Beddington Lane, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 4TD. Registered in England and Wales (number 2823354) Robert Skidelsky is chairman of the Centre for Global Studies. He is a member of the House of Lords. He was Professor of

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Economic Sanctions: A Weapon out of Control?

Economic Sanctions: A Weapon out of Control?


Robert Skidelsky 

Centre For Global Studies, April 2022

Copyright: Centre for Global Studies. 

The Centre for Global Studies is a London-based think-tank that aims to improve public understanding of economics and global policy. The Centre is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee. It is independent of any political party or group and is financed by voluntary donations and the sale of publications.

Contact: [email protected] 

Printers: CPI Antony Rowe Ltd. Registered Office: 110 Beddington Lane, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 4TD. Registered in England and Wales (number 2823354)

Robert Skidelsky is chairman of the Centre for Global Studies. He is a member of the House of Lords. He was Professor of International Studies at the University of Warwick from 1978-1990 and Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick from 1990-2007. He is best known for his three volume biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes. He was Non-Executive Director of Janus Capital from 2001-2011 and Non-Executive Director of Russneft from 2016-2021.


I would like to thank Avis Bohlen, Christopher Granville, and Alan Moses for incisive comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I am grateful to Jess Tomlinson for research assistance and to Erik Schurkus for help in arranging printing, presentation, and distribution. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not of the Centre.

Economic Sanctions: A Weapon out of Control?

I. Introduction

‘A weapon out of control’ is how two legal scholars have accurately described the growing use of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. Originally designed to curb aggressive state behaviour, economic sanctions are now routinely used by the United States and its allies to punish any state, entity, regime, or individual which offends them, wherever located. They have become a knee-jerk reaction by Western nations to anything going on in the world of which they disapprove, actions which satisfy our desire to ‘do something’ and make clear our moral outrage in the face of abuses of one kind or another. Far from making the interstate system less warlike, they make it more warlike, by hardening divisions, and avoiding the need to negotiate differences. This is particularly so if the sanctions are directed at one of the leading nations in the world system. It is the lack of focus of the current sanctions system, its tendency to expand, its blindness to further consequence, its denial of natural justice to individuals, and its intellectual and moral laziness that has prompted me to write this essay.

There is no doubt in my mind that a tough response was called for to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the West certainly has a legitimate interest in its outcome. But it must also be recognized that the economic sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014 are the consequences of a massive failure of policy–a failure to achieve, or even attempt, a negotiated settlement of the differences between Ukraine, Russia, and NATO. 

The question is often asked: what was the alternative? Perhaps economic sanctions had become the West’s only safe response to what Russia was doing in Ukraine. But as T.S. Eliot reminds us, the present is a mixture of what was past and what might have been. ‘Footfalls echo in the memory, Down the passage which we did not take’. The path not taken was alert, continuous, and strenuous negotiations to overcome the potentially malign effects of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Specifically, the American push to enlarge the borders of NATO eastward–condemned as folly by both George Kennan and Henry Kissinger–helped create Putin ‘the monster’. There is no plausible end game. Even if sanctions unseat President Putin, they will not solve the problems which produced the explosion: the unsettled borders between Russia and Ukraine, Ukrainian treatment of Russians within its borders, the role of NATO in a collective security system. The alternatives are victory in war or negotiation.

II. Current Sanctions on Russia 

The sanctions imposed on Russia both before and following its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 are the most extensive ‘punishment’ ever meted out to a Great Power short of war. Since the annexation of Crimea in February 2014, the West, led by the world’s dollar hegemon, the US, has imposed an increasingly strict programme of economic sanctions on Russia, its oligarchs, and entities connected to it. US sanctions began on 3rd March 2014, when America suspended trade and investment talks with Russia as well as all military co-operation. On 17th March 2014, the US and EU began sanctioning individuals and their families connected with Crimea. Under the (mild) 2014 Russia sanctions regime, 183 individuals and 53 entities were subject to UK financial sanctions. 

None of this deterred Putin from further ‘destabilising’ Ukraine. Prior to Russia’s invasion on the 24th February 2022, the UK announced a first tranche of sanctions designed to forestall the anticipated Russian action. The Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons on 31 January:

We will be able to target any company that is linked to the Russian state, engages in business of economic significance to the Russian state, or operates in a sector of strategic significance to the Russian state. Not only will we be able to target these entities, we will also be able to go after those who own or control them. This will be the toughest sanctions regime against Russia we have ever had, and it is the most radical departure in approach since leaving the European Union. Those in and around the Kremlin will have nowhere to hide.

When this, and similar warnings from President Biden, failed to deter the Russian invasion, Western sanctions were ratcheted up in stages. At their heart was the identification and targeting of areas of ‘strategic significance’ including the ‘chemical, defence, energy, extractives, electronics, ICT and financial services sectors’. The US has banned the import of Russian gas, exports of technology to Russia, and investment by American firms in Russia. The USA and Britain have taken the lead in denying Russian banks access to the SWIFT system of international payments, and denying Russia’s central bank access to its foreign exchange reserves. Steps are under way to cripple Russia’s membership of the World Trade Organization by denying it Most Favoured Nation treatment. Britain has increased tariffs on Russian imports by 35%, banned Russian aircraft from British airspace and stopped Russian-owned or flagged vessels from entering British ports. The media clamour for more action against a ‘hit list’ of Russian oligarchs. So far there is no UK or European ban on Russian oil and gas exports, on which Germany depends, though payment facilities are restricted. ‘If it would stop the war, then we would do it immediately’, said the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. There are, as of 7 April, 978 individuals and 98 entities sanctioned under the UK’s Russia sanctions regime. 

The question naturally arises: what is this economic artillery designed to achieve? They have not caused Putin to stop the war, nor have they forced him from power. Any change of Russian tactics in Ukraine has been caused by successful Ukrainian military opposition. The most coherent exposition of the case for sanctions comes from the White House. According to White House press secretary Ms. Psaki, the sanctions are designed to ‘degrade all key instruments of Russian power’, impose ‘acute and immediate economic harm on Russia’, and push Russia ‘further down the road of economic, financial, and technological isolation’. An unnamed State Department official was quoted as saying ‘At this rate [Russia] will go back to Soviet style living standards…’ In other words, the purpose of the economic sanctions is to reform Russia by punishing it. However, the punitive theory of reform assumes that the criminal is unarmed – a point which seems to have escaped the champions of punitive sanctions. 

 III. The Classic Sanctions Regime 

States have always used economic blockade as a tool of war. The nineteenth century, when international economics was largely separated from international politics, was a brief exception to this rule: Russia even raised a loan on the London market during the Crimean War. During the first world war economic and financial blockades were imposed on Germany by Britain and (after 1917) the USA as ancillary measures, enforced by Britain’s naval supremacy. 

The fact that economic sanctions started as tools of war have rendered their subsequent purposes and consequences opaque. What later came to be understood as methods of war prevention started life in conjunction with military and other measures. So the question of whether economic sanctions are to be thought of as tools of war or tools of war avoidance has never been properly faced.What is clear is that economic blockades and embargoes require a view of the sanctioned entity as an ‘enemy’, which is indistinguishable from a war mentality. With this goes an inability to see any virtue in the other’s behaviour or truth in its story. The rhetoric used against Russia, especially by the United States and Britain, is identical to that used by belligerents in ‘killing’ wars.

Economic sanctions only emerged as a tool of preventive diplomacy after the first world war, their purpose being to prevent, contain, or eliminate wars and peace-threatening behaviour by making it too costly for states to indulge in such behaviour. Their ambitious aim was to remove war itself from the repertoire of international relations by establishing a collective security system to render war impossible or unthinkable.

What was classic sanctionable behaviour?

Article 10 of the 1920 League of Nations Covenant pledged the members of the League ‘to respect and preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the League’. Article 11 states that ‘any war or threat of war is hereby declared a matter of concern to the whole League, and the League shall take any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace nations’. Article 16 states 

Should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its covenants….it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other Members of the League, which hereby undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nations of the covenant-breaking state, and the prevention of all financial, commercial, or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking state and the national of any other State, whether Member of the League or not. […] The Members of the League agree, further, that they will mutually support one another in the financial and economic measures which are taken under this Article. 

Members were expected, that is, not just to cooperate with each other in applying sanctions but to share the costs of applying them. ‘The provision of supplies to allies was indissolubly linked to the interdiction of supplies to the enemy’. 

The context of the League’s foundation is important. It was a product of one circumstance and of one belief. The circumstance was the dissolution of the German, Austrian-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires in the First World War. The belief was in the Wilsonian principle of ‘national self-determination’ as the foundation of an inherently peaceful international order. The founders of the League saw economic sanctions against an aggressor as a way of giving some assurance to the newly independent states of Europe against any revanchist ambitions of their former imperial masters.

Three further points are worth making. First, the sole ground for sanctions was the ‘external aggression, or threat of aggression’ of any state against a member state: the internal policy of states was not on the agenda. Second, the United States did not join the League, so did not accept the obligations of the Covenant. This meant it preserved for itself the right to enforce the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas. Third, the colonies of the imperial powers like Britain, France, and the Netherlands, not being members of the League, did not come under League protection, though the ‘white Dominions’ and India, being founder members of the League, did. Thus the League started with only 42 members (this had grown to 58 by 1935), that is, states recognized as being ‘independent’. 

The system of collective security started with one objective–to prevent or halt war–and a package of tools of which economic sanctions were just one. The question of whether sanctions themselves could stop wars, was fudged. The League’s most notable effort of collective security was to impose economic sanctions on Italy in 1935, when Mussolini’s forces invaded Abyssinia, the one independent state in Africa. They failed, because the USA and others refused to impose an oil embargo against Italy.

The UN Charter aimed to improve on the laissez-faire evolution of the League’s sanctions system. There were three main differences from the sanctions regime of the League. First, the UN (now 193 members) had many more members than the League,reflecting widespread de-colonisation, particularly in Africa. Second, the United States, the world’s leading economic and military power, was a founding-member. Third, determination of breaches of the peace and appropriate responses to them were centralised in the Security Council, though subject to a veto by any of the five permanent members–the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. These were the ‘Great Power’ victors of the Second World War, and it was to the continuation of their wartime alliance that the founders of the UN looked to secure Kant’s ‘perpetual peace’. 

Chapter 7 of the 1946 UN Charter was headed ‘Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression’. It was for the Security Council alone to ‘determine the existence’ of any such threat, breach, or act of aggression’ (Article 39), to recommend measures to prevent an ‘aggravation of the situation (Article 40), and decide on measures, not involving the use of armed force, including ‘complete or partial interruption’ of economic relations, diplomatic relations, and communications (Articles 41-2). Article 43 gave the Security Council power to authorise military measures. The sanctions thus imposed were mandatory–binding on all UN members. According to the initial design, there would have been a UN Army, under the direct operational command of the Council, to execute any military sanctions determined by the Council under Article 43.

The existence of empires and spheres of influence was initially accepted as a fact of life: the veto in the Security Council was designed mainly to put such locations beyond the scrutiny of the UN. The veto power thus blurred the line between foreign and domestic affairs. What it enshrined was the view that it was up to the Great Powers to keep the peace of the world. Since being a Great Power meant having colonies or spheres of influence, domestic affairs necessarily included such spheres. The principle that what states did within their own ‘spheres’ was their own concern only slowly yielded to recognition that the domestic behaviour of states might constitute a ‘threat to peace’. For example, oppression of minority groups within a state or national groups within a ‘sphere’ might trigger ‘third-party’ effects such as a refugee crisis which could be construed as a threat to peace.

Neither the League nor the UN Charter used the word ‘sanctions’; the preferred word was ‘measures’. This was to avoid the implication of ‘punishing’ the offending state, and to keep open the path of preventive diplomacy. Once punishment is threatened or imposed, the incentive for a powerful state to negotiate is weakened. 

UN mandatory sanctions have occasionally been successful in changing state behaviour, generally in conjunction with other measures. Examples are the sanctions imposed between 1945 and 1990 on Southern Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977. Sanctions are generally thought to have been a major factor in bringing Iran to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) for control of its nuclear programme. One crucial condition of success was that all the Great Powers signed up to them. 

The Cold War crippled the use of Chapter 7, as the Great Powers routinely resorted to vetoes against the application of sanctions and war measures against themselves. The UN’s standing army was never created. The Soviet Union was not sanctioned for its invasions of its satellites Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, though both were members of the United Nations. Britain and France used their veto to block the threat of UN sanctions when they invaded Egypt, a UN member, in 1956, to reclaim ownership of the Suez Canal. The United States has exercised frequent vetoes to prevent UN sanctions against Israel. Russia has used its veto 143 times, the USA 83 times, the UK 32 times, France 18 times and China 16 times, mostly in the Cold War period. The UN was marginalised.

Scholars have talked of the emergence of a ‘hybrid’ model of ‘permissive enforcement’ of the collective purpose by individual countries in face of Great Power vetoes. In ordinary language western states have imposed sanctions unilaterally, ostensibly on behalf of the ‘international community’. However, western sanctions philosophy has not been uniform. The EU has been the most reluctant sanctioner, because EU sanctions are imposed by the Council and require the agreement of all its members. The United States and UK (UK since Brexit) have been the most enthusiastic, because they have the sovereign power to act on their own.

The US has always used economic sanctions to enforce its own foreign policy aims, especially in the Americas, the main example being the 1962 economic blockade of Cuba, which continues to this day. This was imposed under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. The use of these powers suggests that US sanctioning policy has by no means been in harmony with the purposes of League and UN sanctions. Whereas UN sanctions derive from a collective decision by the Security Council on behalf of all its members, unilateral sanctions depend solely on the sanctioning state’s ‘views and interpretation of the foreign situation to which it reacts and which it seeks to influence’. 

The collapse of Communism and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 promised to restore the use of mandatory UN sanctions to repress conflict in the warlike parts of the world. Today there are 14 ongoing UN sanctions ‘regimes’ against Somalia, ISIL ,Al-Qaida, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan,North Korea, Libya, Taliban, Guinea Bissau, Central African Republic, Yemen, South Sudan and Mali, all of which can plausibly be held to ‘threaten the peace’ either by developing nuclear weapons (North Korea), terrorist activities, or through endemic civil war spilling over into humanitarian and refugee crises. There was no Great Power disagreement that these particular entities should be sanctioned.

The ‘new’ post-Cold War ‘norms of decolonization, non-discrimination and human rights’ were seen as the successors of the shattered Great Power consensus of 1945. But these new norms proved far from universal. The ‘United Nations’ were still disunited about what constituted a threat to peace, and with Russia and China using or threatening their vetoes in the Security Council to protect themselves and their allies, the UN was once more marginalised as a sanctioning authority.

Today the chief sanctioners are the USA, the UK and the EU. They impose sanctions in support of their ‘norms’ without recourse to the UN, claiming that they are enforcing international law on behalf of the paralysed Security Council. Examples are the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, both of which followed the failure of economic sanctions to effect regime change or change regime behaviour. It is striking that in the Ukraine crises of 2014 and 2022, the UN has been almost wholly inactive, because of the Russian veto. One important consequence is that the current sanctions against Belarus and Russia are not mandatory on UN members, and countries like China, India, and Turkey have disregarded them, while Brazil has criticised their ‘indiscriminate’ nature.

IV. Sanctions Creep 

The four important developments in sanctions practice since the Cold War have been the growing use of sanctions in the name of democracy and human rights, the sanctioning of sub-states, the sanctioning of individuals, and ‘extraterritorial’ or ‘indirect’ sanctions. 

The first development moves from the idea that the purpose of sanctions is to prevent or halt wars between states to the idea of stopping or preventing abuses of human rights, whether or not they carry a threat of war. A good starting point is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1948, a non-binding instrument. Abuse of human rights can be interpreted, on a liberal reading, as ‘acts of war’ against individuals or minorities. 

A more substantial statement was the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which committed its signatories to respect a subset of human rights (freedom to travel, freedom of information, and freedom of the press) which undermined the mechanisms on which the communist governments relied to control their societies, and set up a monitoring system to identify human rights’ violations and hold the violators accountable. The USSR swallowed the human rights clause (Article VII) in return for what it thought was the much greater prize of recognition by the United States of the ‘inviolability’ of its own borders, including the Baltic states which were annexed in 1940.  

It was obvious to many at the time that the principle of humanitarian intervention was incompatible with the doctrine of national sovereignty which the UN had been formed to uphold. Western accusations that domestic policies in the Soviet Union were in breach of the USSR’s human rights’ commitments under the Helsinki Final Act were met by the reply that these were purely internal matters. 

However, the Helsinki Accord did not make violation of human rights sanctionable under international law. For one thing, the Helsinki commitments were non-binding. Secondly, the signatories were limited to 35 European countries, including the United States and Canada; Asian countries, notably India and China, were not invited to sign the Final Act: rather it was portrayed by the American president as ‘part of the great heritage of European civilization, which we hold in trust for all mankind’. In short, the commitment to democracy and human rights was principally a western commitment, which it was hoped would become, in time, genuine universal norms.

Traditionally, it had been supposed that the primary condition of inter-state peace was security of states against external attack. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 showed that minority groups might be genocidally assaulted within states. Kofi Annan, secretary general of the UN, spearheaded the attempt to enlarge the mandate of the UN to the ‘protection of the innocent’. This might provide the juridical basis of a new international law in which national sovereignty was qualified by a ‘behavioural test’.

From the Annan initiative grew the practice of holding sub-state groups accountable for acts of war. This was partly a response to the growing privatisation of violence, with ‘state failure’ increasingly common in the post-colonial era. Mary Kaldor has highlighted the emergence of ‘new wars’ which blur the lines between violence between states, terrorist violence, organized crime, and human rights’ violations.

The traditional view that sanctions were properly directed exclusively at states suffered another damaging blow following the coordinated attacks by the militant Islamist network al-Qaida against the USA on 11 September 2001. It was not just ‘rogue’ state sponsors of terrorism which needed to be sanctioned but political-criminal groups operating in ‘failed’ states. Following 9/11, a combination of presidential decrees and provisions of the Patriot Act gave the US Administration sweeping powers to impose economic sanctions on state sponsors and sub-state perpetrators of terrorism, together with their financial backers. 

These powers were justifiably taken in self-defence: they were initially directed at al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attack. However, the American Administration has not hesitated to use economic sanctions in response to what it deems to be terrorist activity of any kind, and has also resorted to wars of ‘self-defence’ in several global locations, notably Afghanistan. For the United States, economic sanctions have never been seen primarily as acts of war avoidance, but rather as steps on an escalating ladder of tightening pressure culminating in war.

Sanctioning of sub-state entities went hand in hand with the third development, the use of ‘smart sanctions’, which aimed to punish the officials of targeted states, eg. by preventing their travel or blocking their foreign bank accounts. Advocates of such ‘smart’ sanctions have argued that they deter officials from serving malign governments while avoiding ‘punishing’ whole populations for the sins of their rulers. Current sanctions against Russia target not only President Putin and his family, but all the high officials of his court, and the 350 Russian Duma deputies who voted for recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

The best-known ‘smart’ sanctions are the Magnitsky sanctions, named after the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who fronted a whistleblowing campaign that exposed a $230 million tax fraud perpetrated by Russian tax enforcement officials. Magnitsky was arrested and charged with tax evasion and died in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison in 2009, after allegedly being beaten by the police.

The US passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 with the intention of punishing the Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death. The broader 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act ‘authorizes the president to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person identified as engaging in human-rights abuse or corruption’. Other Western powers – including the United Kingdom (2017-18), Canada (2017), and the EU (2020) – have since passed Magnitsky legislation.

Following the West’s sanctioning of Russian officials for alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya, the US, Canada, the EU, and the UK imposed asset freezes and travel bans on mainland Chinese officials involved in the mistreatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Russia and China have joined together in condemning the West for starting a new ‘cold war’, and both countries have imposed counter-sanctions. 

The final, and most egregious development has been the growing use of indirect or extra-territorial sanctions. They operate in two ways. First, they sanction individuals and firms for their ‘association’ with sanctioned states or sub-state groups. Second, they prosecute banks which do business with such individuals, the US having asserted ‘that it is illegal for anyone, anywhere, to deal with countries or entities it has placed under sanctions’. As a result ‘almost no bank will now go anywhere near someone who might be on the list.’ The numbers of these ‘specially designated’ nationals and ‘blocked persons’, often listed by a Congress even more addicted to moral posturing and showy punitive action than the US Administration, now run into tens of thousands. Almost anyone who has had any dealings in the past with a sanctioned entity is liable to have their bank accounts frozen.

What makes this type of smart sanction possible is the globalisation of finance together with enhanced technology of surveillance. Moreover, because of the opaque and complex structure of ownership of assets and bank deposits, the principle of ‘association’ is a catch-all which can be used to block the accounts of almost anyone engaged in international commerce. 

Cross-border payments between individuals and businesses have come to depend on a critical piece of infrastructure: SWIFT [Society for World-Wide Interbank Financial Telecommunication], which is linked to 11,000 global banks. Most of the world’s trade is invoiced in dollars, and most of it is paid for through SWIFT. Although SWIFT is officially non-political, it normally accedes to the wishes of the US. For example, the US forced SWIFT to block financial transactions with Iran in 2012, resulting in the loss of half of Iran’s oil export revenues and 30% of its foreign trade. With the help of the UK, the US has blocked Russian banks’ access to SWIFT following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, disrupting payments for Russia’s energy and agricultural products. As a recent report put it, denial of access to SWIFT is to ‘sever contact [of the sanctioned entity] with the international financial system’. 

SWIFT provides the US Treasury with financial information, which allows the US Government to prosecute banks for ‘money laundering’. ‘Large international banks including Lloyds TSB, Credit Suisse, Standard Chartered, HSBC, RBS, BNP Paribas, Commerzbank and ING have all paid fines for violating American sanctions, as have Bank of Brazil, Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi and Bank of China. The fines sometimes run into hundreds of millions of dollars.’ One in five employees of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO is now employed in monitoring ‘financial crime’ following a €480m fine in 2021.

 As a result, banks and other financial institutions are extremely risk averse and use all kinds of excuses to close or freeze bank accounts and assets of entities and individuals that may potentially be implicated or sanctioned in the future. Thus, the collateral damage is high, with lives and business of many innocent parties affected. For banks, the potential downside from freezing innocent accounts is a lot lower than potential punishment for not freezing sanctioned assets (which are often hard to identify).

A good example of extraterritorial or indirect sanctioning is furnished by Belarus. Belarus was first sanctioned in 2020 for human rights violations, when 88 Belarussian officials and 7 Belarussian companies were ‘designated’ for ‘violence, repression, and election fraud’ in connection with Presidential elections of 9 August 2020 which returned Lukashenko to power with an 80% majority.

An international incident in 2021 led to the widening of the sanctions net. On 23 May 2021, Ryanair passenger flight FR 4978 on a non-stop flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Minsk Airport after a bomb scare. Two passengers, opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapaga, were detained, before the flight was allowed to continue to Vilnius. No bomb had been found. The US accused Belarus of ‘air piracy’, the general (though unproved) assumption being that it was officials of the Belarus government itself who had engineered the scare, seeing their chance to arrest two opposition figures. 

Following the aeroplane diversion, the UK froze the assets of, and imposed travel bans on, an additional 20 individuals who were deemed to have ‘undermined democracy and the rule of law’ in Belarus. Included in this list were non-Belarussian individuals said to be ‘associated with’ the Lukashenko regime.

To sum up: the current sanctions regime has been extended beyond the original objective of sanctioning states for breaching or threatening to breach the peace to (a) sanctioning terrorist groups and their supporters operating in or out of ‘rogue’ or ‘failed’ states, (b) sanctioning officials of states for breaches of human rights, (c) sanctioning third parties associated with such states or sub-state entities. At present the vast majority of sanctions in force are imposed not by the United Nations, but by the US and its allies. Such sanctions have been made feasible by digital technology and the financialisation of the global economic system. 

While supposedly based on universally accepted values such as keeping the peace, much sanctioning reflects the values of only one segment of the international community. Specifically, while there is universal agreement that states attacking others or being torn apart by civil wars are a threat to world peace, there is no universal agreement about which stable states are good or bad.

V. The Democratic Peace Theory 

The current sanctions regime asserts the view of the West about how the world should be run, and seeks to impose that view by punishing all those who disagree with it. An implicit aim of economic sanctions since the fall of communism has been regime change. This goes all the way back to Woodrow Wilson. As Mulder writes: ‘Wilson was the first statesman to cast the economic weapon as an instrument of democratization. He thereby added an internal political rationale for economic sanctions – spreading democracy – to the external political goal that […] European advocates of sanctions have aimed at: inter-state peace’. Thus when UK Prime Minister Tony Blair argued in a 1999 speech in Chicago that “the spread of our values makes us safer,” he was not introducing a new principle of policy to his American audience. Where the opportunity offers, military and non-military measures should be used to topple ‘malign’ regimes. The underlying belief of democratic peace theory is that democracies do not start wars; only dictatorships do. Therefore a wholly democratic world will be a world without war. Removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power was thus the undeclared purpose of maintaining economic sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. According to Americans, dictators are by definition malign: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” was the politest thing President Biden has said about Putin.

A key expectation of the 1990s was that, with the end of communism, the most important parts of the world would become democratic. This was the premise of Francis Fukuyama’s article ‘The End of History?’. Its implicit assumption was that US supremacy would ensure that democracy became the universal political norm. This has been shown to be false. Russia and China, the two most important communist states of the Cold War era, have not embraced democracy; other centres of world affairs, especially in the Middle East, are not democracies in any form western countries would recognise: Farid Zakaria has spoken of the rise of ‘illiberal’ democracies like Iran, captured by nationalism or religious fanaticism. Fukuyama has recently acknowledged that if Russia and China were driven together, that really would be the ‘end of the end of history’. 

The argument that democracy is the ‘peaceful’ form of the state, and dictatorship or autocracy its ‘warlike’ form, and that therefore a wholly democratic world would be a peaceful one, is intuitively attractive. It does not deny that states pursue their own interests, but claims that the interests of democratic states are likely to be defined in terms of acceptable common values like human rights, and are far less likely to be pursued in a bellicose manner, since democratic habits require the negotiation of differences. Ultimately, the argument boils down to the claim that in democracies governments are accountable to their people, and that the people’s interest is in peace, not war. By contrast, in dictatorships or autocracies, rulers and elites are illegitimate, and to that extent insecure, and consequently seek legitimacy by whipping up popular feeling against foreigners. Thus the solution to the problem of war is to establish democracies all over the world, and peace will follow without the need for extensive international organisations to ‘keep the peace’. However, Rousseau, from whom this idea ultimately stems, thought it ‘not impossible, that a Republic, though in itself well-governed, should enter upon an unjust war’. 

Underlying the belief that the world would be peaceful if only all, or at least the important, countries were democratic are two propositions that, while extremely influential in international relations theory, are poorly grounded both theoretically and empirically. The first is that the external behaviour of states is determined by their domestic constitutions. This ignores the influence of a country’s location in the international system on its domestic political organisation; a point to which Kenneth Waltz, in particular, has drawn attention. His contention is that the ‘international anarchy’ conditions the behaviour of states more than the behaviour of states creates the international anarchy. This ‘world system theory’ approach to international relations is particularly useful in the period of globalisation, which can be defined in terms of the growing impact of the whole on the parts. 

Waltz’s argument, in a nutshell, is that you need to look to the whole system of inter-state relations to ‘predict’ how individual states will behave, regardless of their domestic constitutions. The structure of the international system affects the characteristics of states which comprise it –their aspirations, their choice of means, their forms of government. ‘If each state, being stable, strove only for security, and had no designs on its neighbours, all states would nevertheless remain insecure; for the means of security for one state are, in their very existence, the means by which other states are threatened’. It is the ‘enduring anarchic character of international politics [which] accounts for the striking [frequency of war in] international life through the millenia’, despite the huge variety of domestic political regimes. Waltz offers a bracing antidote to the easy assumption that democratic habits are easily transferable from one state location to another.

That there is some correlation between democratic institutions and peaceful habits is undeniable. But the causation is disputable. Was it democracy which has made Europe peaceful since 1945? Or did the US nuclear guarantee, the fixing of borders by the war victors, and Marshall-Aid fuelled economic growth after 1945 make it finally possible for non-communist Europe to accept democracy as its political norm? One analyst suggests that ‘Only states which are relatively secure–politically, militarily, economically–can afford to have free, pluralistic societies; in the absence of this security, states are much more likely to adopt, maintain, or even revert to centralized, coercive authority structures’. 

The second proposition is that democracy is the natural form of the state, the form a people will spontaneously adopt if allowed to. This serves to make regime change seem easy, because the sanctioning powers can rely on a welcoming support from those whose freedom has been repressed and whose rights have been trampled underfoot. Because of the misconception that western democracy is the ‘natural’ form of government, and through drawing superficial comparisons with the success of enforced democratisation in post-war Germany and Japan, the apostles of democratisation grossly underestimate the difficulties of installing democracies in societies which lack western constitutional traditions. The results of their handiwork can be seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and many states in Africa.

Democratic peace theory is above all lazy theory. It provides an easy explanation–dictatorship–for ‘warlike’ behaviour, without considering the location and history of states. Its very shallowness feeds the confidence that some mix of economic sanctions and ‘special operations’ is  all that is required to turn dictatorships into democracies.. The idea that democracy is ‘portable’ leads to a gross underestimation of the military, economic, and humanitarian costs of trying to establish democracies in troubled areas of the world.

VI. The Question of Efficacy 

Economic sanctions are a means to an end. What is the end? If the end is punishment, they have had considerable success in inflicting harm on the populations of the sanctioned states.If their purpose is to change state behaviour, their success has been minimal. A recent article in Foreign Affairs noted that: 

The United States has imposed decades-long sanctions on Belarus, Cuba, Russia, Syria, and Zimbabwe with little to show in the way of tangible results. The Trump administration ratcheted up U.S. economic pressure against Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela as part of its “maximum pressure” campaigns to block even minor evasions of economic restrictions. The efforts also relied on what are known as “secondary sanctions,” whereby third-party countries and companies are threatened with economic coercion if they do not agree to participate in sanctioning the initial target. In every case, the target suffered severe economic costs yet made no concessions. 

One obvious reason for this lack of success is that sanctions have not turned the people of sanctioned states against their rulers. Rather they blame the sanctioners for their hardships, not their governments. This is true in Russia today. 

More ominously, the gap between the promise of economic sanctions and their results carries a clear risk that they will escalate into war. President Zelensky has appealed repeatedly for weapons from NATO countries. The UK has sent Ukraine anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Calling for even more military assistance, The Times declared that ‘the best way of defeating [the bully Vladimir Putin] is to confront him with force’. Boris Johnson now promises Ukraine tanks. It is almost inconceivable that the authors of this editorial did not realise that they were calling for a NATO war against Russia.

It is not surprising to find thoughtful analysts questioning sanctions creep. For example, the US Treasury’s recent Sanctions Review challenges their efficacy as a national security tool. Technological innovation: e.g. ‘digital currencies, alternative payment platforms, and new ways of hiding cross-border transactions’ give ‘malign actors’ the opportunity to ‘bypass’ the current dollar-based financial framework in holding or transferring funds’. This has started to happen as China and others have started to set up payment alternatives to the SWIFT system. A new framework, argued the Treasury, was needed that asks whether a sanctions action ’supports a clear policy objective’, whether it ‘has been assessed to be the right tool for the circumstances’, whether their ‘costs fall on intended targets’, whether they are part of a ‘multilateral coordination and engagement strategy’, and whether they will be ‘easily understood, enforceable, and, where possible reversible’. 

In its 2007 report on sanctions, the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords concluded that ‘economic sanctions used in isolation from other policy instruments are extremely unlikely to force a target to make major policy changes, especially where relations between the states involved are hostile more generally’. It is the very inefficacy of economic sanctions on their own which carries the risk of their escalation into open war. The conclusion of the EAC Report is worth quoting:

Even when economic sanctions are combined effectively with other foreign policy instruments, on most occasions they play a subordinate role to those other instruments. Economic sanctions can be counter-productive in a variety of ways, including when more vigorous coercion in the form of force is needed but is forestalled by those making inflated claims for the value of sanctions as an alternative. Sanctions may also be counter-productive when what is required is a much greater emphasis on economic, diplomatic and security incentives. When the Government’s goal is to symbolise disapproval, measures other than economic sanctions should be used wherever possible. Furthermore, when the use of economic sanctions for this purpose is proposed, serious consideration should be given to the possibility that their overall effect will be counter-productive, even in symbolic terms.

To summarise: current sanctions policy is a mess. First, the fact that sanctions, once imposed are rarely reversed, only intensified, undermines their purported value as ‘leverage’ for changed behaviour by the target. Second, the behavioural changes required are rarely specified with adequate precision to create an incentive. For example, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the Trump administration in April 2018 cited as a reason Russia’s generally ‘malign behaviour’. Russian and (Chinese) officials naturally concluded that their real ‘crime’ was simply to exist as powers capable of promoting agendas that the US disliked. Third, the lack of ‘clear policy objectives’ makes it impossible to assess the success or failure of any sanctions policy. At what point is the economy of the sanctioned entity sufficiently ‘degraded’ for sanctions to be called off? The answer seems to be when regime change occurs and democracy is installed. But such benign outcomes have resulted in the past only from occupying utterly defeated powers like Germany and Japan and then supporting them. Fourth, continuing sanctions indefinitely without a clearly defined object wrecks the chance of a compromise settlement even if the military belligerents are inclined to call off the war. Fifth, by cutting off parts of the world from international commerce, economic sanctions promote the formation of antagonistic economic and cultural blocs, and contradict the liberal policy goal of a single world polity and a single trading and payments system. Finally, aiming to inflict non-lethal pain on a lethally-armed adversary risks a lethal response. 

VII. The Question of Justice

While economic embargoes on states inevitably impose collateral damage on individuals and businesses in those states, it is a different matter when the prime targets of economic measures are individuals and companies whose only offence is to be ‘deemed’, often on the basis of newspaper reports, to have been doing business with sanctioned entities. Such sanctions seem to be targeted and specific with wording like ‘Nine names were added to the sanctions list’. In reality, there are hundreds or thousands of people affected by ‘association’, whose accounts or assets get blocked. There are cases of totally random people being affected who have the misfortune to have similar sounding names to those of sanctioned persons. Many such designations are automatic effects of electronic algorithms, as few organisations have sufficient personnel to undertake due diligence before blocking accounts. 

No international legal authority exists for imposing such punishments, they are arbitrary acts of state. Challenges against freezing orders in UK domestic courts are possible, but it is far from clear that a decision of the courts in favour of the sanctioned person (i.e. to release funds or pay costs) can be enforced while he or she remains sanctioned by the government. The question, therefore, is whether the practice of punishing individuals purely on the grounds of their business or cultural association with undemocratic systems does not amount to a denial of natural justice.

VIII. Conclusion

This survey of the history, philosophy, and practice of sanctions leads me to the conclusion that one should never be trigger-happy with economic sanctions. They have uncontrollable consequences. They should come into play only after diplomacy has been exhausted, never as an alternative to it. This has not been the case in the present conflict. Early in 2015 a conflict resolution process (the Minsk agreement settling the Donbas conflict) was agreed by Russia and Ukraine, and endorsed by the Security Council. Ukraine failed to implement it, but not only were the 2014 sanctions against Russia not removed, but no further diplomacy was attempted before the Russian invasion. 

Some ancillary conclusions follow.

1. Economic sanctions regimes should be strictly time-limited. This is possible only if they support clear policy objectives, whose success or failure can be properly assessed. 

2. These policy objectives should be no broader than diplomacy might hope to achieve. Punitive objectives exclude negotiation and can only be imposed by force.

3. Economic sanctions should always have in mind the importance of preserving economic and cultural links between different parts of the world and the danger of splitting the world into autarkic blocs.

4. Economic sanctions should be recognised as possible precursors to war between the sanctioner and the sanctioned. This is because they are the measure nearest to actual war. In particular, they excite war fever, leading to a distorted impression of the ‘enemy’. Western media reporting of the Russia-Ukraine war reads like press briefings from the Ukrainian government. It is a short step from killing an adversary in the mind to killing them on the ground. 

5. Heavy economic sanctions against heavily-armed states should be eschewed, because ultimately a state in a position to will go to war with the sanctioner rather than have its means of life cut off. When the US imposed an embargo on oil and gas exports to Japan in August 1941, following Japan’s seizure of oilfields in Indochina, the Japanese responded with their suicidal attack on Pearl Harbor. And after OPEC subjected the US to an oil embargo in 1973 in retaliation for American military assistance to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, President Richard Nixon’s administration threatened to invade and occupy OPEC member states’ oil fields. The embargo ended.

6. Unilateral (ie non-UN-mandated) economic sanctions are acts of state policy. They do not implement ‘international law’ , breaches of which can only be determined by the Security Council of the United Nations. Nor do they implement the ‘will of the international’ community, but only part of it. 

7. Moral repugnance alone should never be the basis of state policy in an international system bristling with lethal weapons. 

8. Economic sanctions should exclude the ‘guilt by association’ fallacy–that of assuming that those who do business with sanctioned entities share their aims. Only those ‘controlled by’ the sanctioned entity should themselves be sanctioned. Extraterritorial sanctions against individuals and entities on grounds of ‘reasonable suspicion’ of their ‘association’ with sanctioned states or sub-states are particularly egregious, because they can destroy thousands of businesses and livelihoods on the whim of governments. Nor is there any real redress. Provided the sanctioning state can claim justification and proportionality in the sanction taken and the target has the opportunity to challenge, the European Court of Human Rights would not uphold a challenge under the Convention nor would national courts. So there is in practice no redress and no compensation for loss. 

These propositions stem from my belief that there is no universally agreed set of values to justify the expansion of the sanctions system to its present extent; and that there is too much planetary business to attend to ostracise states of whose governments we disapprove. 


In December 2021, well before the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Suzanna receives a dividend from her company and signs a contract to buy a house. She pays a substantial deposit. The completion is agreed for March 2022. 

Suzanna is a British subject of Central Asian origin. She is not Russian and has never lived or worked in Russia. She has three children with Alex, who is of Russian origin but is a British citizen. 

On a Friday in mid-March Suzanna goes to a grocery store and discovers that her bank cards are not working. She goes to the nearest bank branch to report the fault only to be asked “are you sure that there are no criminal cases against you?” and overhears references to “Russian money”. She is told to go to a nearby court and is provided with an address. She calls Alex who checks his cards and none are working. Alex’s father, who is travelling abroad, soon calls to say that he is having troubles as none of his cards are operational. Alex’s company accounts also get frozen the same day. 

Suzanna and Alex borrow some cash from friends to survive the weekend. On Monday Suzanna hires a well-known (and expensive) law firm, which does a search and finds no publicly visible court orders. It urgently files an application with the court to check if there are any open cases. The law firm also writes to the banks, to the central bank and to various authorities. The court replies a few days later to say that there are no proceedings. Nobody else replies. The banks stop communicating. 

For almost two weeks Suzanna is totally in the dark. Nobody is communicating with her or her lawyers. Then, by a stroke of luck, her lawyers find a court that may have issued the freezing order and find a reference number. The lawyers confirm that a case exists and concerns “illegal funds” on the accounts. There is no other information as the order is under “judicial secrecy” while an investigation is going on. Suzanna writes to the court via her lawyers to say that she, Alex and her father-in-law are all ready to cooperate and provide any required information but that her family does not have access to funds to cover basic living expenses and that she is at risk of losing a substantial deposit she paid for the house if she does not complete in time. She is yet to receive any answer. In the meantime, direct debits keep bouncing off and medical insurance gets cancelled, fines for non-payment start coming in, the landlord starts chasing for the rent, and the school starts sending reminders that invoices for the children need to be urgently paid… 

Thus, the life of a British citizen who is not sanctioned and is not “Russian” gets turned upside down, her basic right to an adequate standard of living (using her own funds) is violated and she risks losing a large chunk of her capital. Instead of moving into a new house, she faces a possibility of being evicted from her rented accommodation and may never be able to afford to buy a house again. 


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Robert Skidelsky
Keynesian economist, crossbench peer in the House of Lords, author of Keynes: the Return of the Master and co-author of How Much Is Enough?

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