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Chokehold: Are the sanctions on Russia really as effective as the West claims?

Western media and governments are fond of claiming that their dynamic economic sanctions against Russia following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine are a warning to similarly aggressive states and have seriously impacted Russia’s function. But is the notion that sanctions have even made Putin think twice foolish?

One of the conditions of successful sanctions is that they must be universally upheld. For a while, this was true – almost every country experienced a significant drop in its exports to Russia in early 2022, with this being greater in the West. However, a steady increase in exports to Russia can be seen in many parts of the world; in some cases, exports have risen to a level comparable to, or even above, their 2021 levels. This is mostly true of developing states, in particular those geographically and politically closer to Russia. India, for example, restarted trade with Russia as early as April 2022 and bucked the so-called universal economic condemnation of Russia to the extent that its imports from Russia grew five times compared to 2021 by the beginning of 2023. Discounted oil and gas from Russia, in particular, pushed up India’s total Russian imports to over $29bn, compared with $6bn in 2021. The most significant increase of over 1000% is in petroleum, but significant increases in products such as fertilisers are also increasing significantly. Despite this, India has been exporting very little to Russia, perhaps because of hesitancy over the stigma, which may give some hope to those who praise sanctions as the answer to the problem of global aggression.

The same is not true of other great powers that are perhaps less friendly with the West, for instance, China’s 40% growth in exports to Russia, including weapons and technology that Russia can no longer access from the West.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend for the supporters of sanctions is the possibility that even Western states are circumventing their own rules. According to the UK government’s own figures, UK exports to Kyrgyzstan jumped over 4000% in 2022 following the comprehensive direct sanctions. They again grew 264% in 2023, prompting a curious, and by some accounts suspicious, unexpected partnership with the Central Asian country. Kyrgyzstan has seen a spike in its imports from all over the world, not just the UK, but considering the spike comes so soon after the initial invasion of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan’s close partnership with Russia, it could be seen by many to be extraordinarily suspicious.

But what is the significance of a few rogue companies bending the rules?

The phenomenon is hardly a new one – it is not uncommon to see Western, including American, technologies and software in Iran, which are often not just sourced through piracy and smuggling but also legally through third-party ‘mule countries’, which import and re-export goods to sanctioned countries. This necessitates the universality of sanctions for them to be effective.

The difficulty with this is that universality can never be achieved, even in circumstances such as the Russia-Ukraine war, which prompted almost a global outcry. While verbal condemnation can be almost universal, on occasion, as illustrated by the overwhelming vote in the UN General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, divisions begin to arise over how best to punish an offending party. Certain states will always disagree on the severity, means, and length of the punishment, even if they agree that punishment should occur, and often disagreement on the reasons can contribute to this. In the EU, for instance, some states such as Hungary and Germany found it much harder to cut off the Russian gas and so were more reluctant to impose heavier restrictions, particularly in later rounds of sanctions. Furthermore, states more closely aligned with Russia prior to the invasion, which often means states geographically closer too, started to question the sanctions policy sooner. Going back to the example of India, both geographically, economically and geopolitically closer to Russia than the UK, for example – it was much easier for India to question why they ought to bother with sanctions and much faster for it to buck the trend. This is exacerbated, too, by India’s economic development and resilience when such policies are utilised. While developed economies such as Germany may well have found sanctions difficult, India relies on cheap fertiliser and energy far more to sustain its rapidly growing economy.

So, what is the outlook for the efficacy of sanctions? In reality, sanctions will only be effective if they are universal. And, in reality, no decision other than verbal condemnation will ever be universal. When states need to make sacrifices to prove a point, states very quickly start to question whether the action is worth the sacrifice. Therefore, sanctions can never extend indefinitely, and individual companies and states will always find a way to circumvent them if it seems as though they will last forever. This can be very beneficial for states like India and Kyrgyzstan – cheap fertiliser and a trade boom have no doubt proven miraculous for some economies. Still, this success comes at the cost of proving that sanctions will never be the threat that Western leaders pretend they are. Too often, tools of economic diplomacy are used as the easy option, even if they aren’t an option at all. It is time for some states to stop using the easy option to shirk their responsibilities.

Image: Kremlin Pool Photo/via AP

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