TRUE OR FALSE. Are the economic sanctions against Russia really the strongest ever taken against a state?

Has Russia been punished more harshly than any other country before, in reaction to its invasion of Ukraine? In any case, this is what the French government maintains. We take massive, historic and unprecedented sanctions.said its spokesman, Gabriel Attal, on March 8 about France Inter. “We have decided on a set of sanctions that, I remind you, is the strongest that has ever been issued against another State”added the Minister of Economy, Bruno Le Maire, on Wednesday, March 30 in Europe 1.

Even before the Russian offensive in Ukraine began, the international community cracked down on the Kremlin, particularly financially. New retaliatory measures were decided this week (and are due to be validated by European foreign ministers on Monday, April 11) in response to the abuses uncovered in Boutcha, in particular. Nevertheless, Are these sanctions really unprecedented?

The international sanctions against Russia began in 2014, as a response to the annexation of Crimea, as recalled by the European Council in a chronology of the decisions taken by the Twenty-seven. New measures were imposed, in retaliation for Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on February 21, three days before the Kremlin’s master ordered his army to invade Ukraine. Since then, the European Union has adopted five sets of sanctions: measures directed at individuals and companies, economic sanctions and also diplomatic ones.

At the individual level, “877 people and 62 entities are subject to asset freezing and a ban on entering EU territory”says the European Council. This list of people includes the Russian president himself, his head of diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, but also deputies and senior Russian officials, or businessmen, such as Roman Abramovich. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have also hit oligarchs and personalities close to Russian power in the pocket.

On the economic front, international sanctions have been even stronger, with the aim of hampering the Russian economy. The financial sector in particular has come under attack, inter alia, with a ban on all new investment in Russia, a ban on transactions with the Russian Central Bank and the freezing of its assets, and above all the exclusion of the main Russian banks from the Swift interbank platform, an essential gear in global finance that allows fast and secure money exchanges.

Other sectors of the Russian economy have also been punished: EU airspace has been closed to all Russian planes. Russian ships no longer have the right to anchor in European ports. Russian road carriers are prohibited from operating in the Union. Bans on exports to Russia have also been enacted. As for the list of Russian products whose importation is prohibited, to the European Union or the United States in particular, it continues to grow.

Although some of its members are highly dependent on it, the EU ended up deciding in August to stop buying Russian coal, which accounts for 45% of its coal imports. The EU27 has also planned to cut its Russian gas imports by two-thirds by the end of the year. The United States has also announced an embargo on Russian imports of oil and gas.

These sanctions had a quick effect on the Russian economy. Four days after the start of the war, the ruble fell more than 40% against the dollar, forcing the Russian Central Bank to raise its reference rate and restrict the purchase of foreign currency. Vladimir Putin was forced to stage a coup to raise the price of his currency: he threatened to cut the valves if buyers of Russian gas did not pay their bills in rubles.

The Minister of the Economy stated on March 1 on franceinfo that “Sanctions are terrifyingly effective.” Adding: “We are going to wage an all-out economic and financial war against Russia.” Bruno Le Maire then returned to his comments, which he judged “inappropriate”. From there to say that Russia is sanctioned like no country before?

Bruno Le Maire is correct that these sanctions are unprecedented in the speed at which they were applied and in the power of the target country, a G20 member highly integrated into the world economy.analyzes Erica Moret, a researcher at the University of Geneva and a specialist in international sanctions. “However, they are not yet at the level of the sanctions that have been taken against Iran or North Korea.” An analysis shared by all the experts interviewed by franceinfo. Because if Venezuela, Cuba or Syria have also been the target of strong reprisals, North Korea and Iran continue to be one step above the scale of restrictions.

During Donald Trump’s mandate, the United States decided in 2018 to backtrack on the Iranian nuclear agreement and reestablish drastic sanctions against the Tehran regime, while forcing the international community to apply them, under penalty of sanctioning the companies present in the American market. The result: a total embargo on Iranian oil, a financial embargo excluding Iranian banks from the Swift system, and a ban on trading with Iran in many sectors for companies that transact in dollars.

Iran and Russia are two oil economies, but an embargo has been put in place against Iran, while we haven’t gone that far with Russia.“, emphasizes Thierry Coville, Iris researcher and specialist in Iran. According to this expert, the sale of black gold has gone from 2 million barrels per day in 2018 to 150,000 in 2020. “The Americans drained Iran. There was a 15% collapse in GDP in two years and an explosion in inflation.”

“We often forget that Iran was sanctioned much more than Russia.”

Thierry Coville, Iris researcher and Iran specialist

in franceinfo

As for North Korea, it is by far the most sanctioned country in the world, and has been for nearly 70 years. “If we compare the sanctions against Russia with the YesApply about north korea, it’s a joke“, says Théo Clément, an independent consultant specializing in North Korea. “Since 2016, between 95 and 97% of trade is sanctioned.” An almost total embargo, which has the effect of banishing the country from the nations. “North Korea’s financial system has been almost isolated from the world for a long time, the country is isolated internationally.” adds the expert.

So if Russia is far from the most sanctioned country, things could change. “We have not come to the extent of sanctions against Iran or North Korea, but I think if Vladimir Putin continues down the same path, we could get closer.“, says Erica Moret. According to the researcher, the effect of a similar series of sanctions would almost completely isolate the country, causing a much greater impact on the population.

However, in the countries that are subject to very severe sanctions, the policy change desired by the international community has not occurred, quite the contrary. “In North Korea, the political impact of sanctions has been counterproductive. One of the reasons for the country’s nuclear expansion has been the sense of an internationally orchestrated stranglehold.“, explains Théo Clément. Same situation in Iran: “The sanctions did not influence Iranian policy and none of the twelve conditions for their lifting were met. On the contrary, Iran was radicalized and the moderates were discredited”analyzes Thierry Coville.

Therefore, the sanction mechanism is far from being unanimous among the researchers questioned. “Historically, there are hardly any cases where they have had the desired effect. The sanctions are put in place to reassure the population and show that we are acting without having to go to war.”says Thierry Coville. “They have a role of political communication”adds Théo Clément.

“In general, there is a consensus on the lack of effect of the sanctions, even on their counterproductiveness.”

Théo Clément, North Korea specialist

in france info

While Erica Moret confirms that sanctions have worked very little for twenty years, she nevertheless recalls that they allowed Russia to return to the negotiating table in 2015 after the annexation of Crimea, and that they remain one of the only tools available when diplomacy no longer exists. works and the military option is excluded.

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