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Will the West’s sanctions against Russia prove effective?

A new briefing paper from FOI describes the sanctions against Russia, their history and the debate about the ability of sanctions to affect states’ actions through political and economic pressure.

The EU, the United States and other global actors have introduced travel restrictions and economic sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials as a consequence of the crisis in Ukraine. During spring 2014 the content of the sanctions was changed. Initially the sanctions covered freezing the assets of individuals who were involved in the misappropriation of Ukrainian state funds or were responsible for human rights violations in Ukraine. At a later stage the sanctions were widened to include persons responsible for actions which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.

In the briefing paper “West’s Sanctions against Russia: Grand Strategy in the Making?”, Mikael Eriksson, a security policy analyst at FOI and an expert on sanctions, describes the problems of imposing sanctions on Russia.
“Sanctions have a peculiar history which shows that they constitute a considerably more important tool than simply a means of sending a symbolic signal. Sanctions as a tool have a long history in a variety of judicial systems and as an instrument in economic warfare.”

In the debate concerning the effectiveness of sanctions, there are critics who say that they are unlikely to have any immediate effect. In the case of Russia, for example, there are those who point out that the negative trend for Russia’s economy started before the imposition of sanctions and not as a result of the decision to impose them. They also point out that many western companies act as if there were no sanctions in place, thus indicating that they have an insignificant effect. Those in favour of sanctions assert that correctly designed sanctions create political and economic pressure. They also point towards the falling Moscow stock market as evidence that that the sanctions are already affecting the confidence of companies doing business in Russia, thus leading to the desired economic pressure.

“Targeted sanctions need to be taken seriously and are designed to have the desired effect,” says Mikael Eriksson. If sanctions are only used symbolically, this will undermine the historical foundations on which the sanctions are based, so negating their effectiveness.  

FOI, Swedish Defence Research Agency

Swedish Defence Research Agency
SE-164 90 Stockholm

Phone +46 8 555 030 00
Fax +46 8 555 031 00

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