1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Opinion: Sharpening the sword of sanctions

Kommentarbild Oliver Rolofs
Oliver Rolofs
November 13, 2022

Sanctions have become the foreign policy tool of preference for the US and Europe in recent years. Beyond their symbolic value, they create domestic pressures and can help to limit military conflict, says Oliver Rolofs.

The flags of the US and Iran with a radioactive warning sign imposed on the flags
Sanctions clearly have an important role to play in restraining the excesses of global bad actorsImage: Ohde/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

As we've seen in the cases of North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and now Russia, the regimes in question have not been toppled as a result of sanctions, but they have been severely affected in their armed capabilities, forced to choose between economic survival and maintaining their military objectives. 

In the United States in particular, the use of sanctions has become increasingly popular as a high-impact, non-kinetic approach to intervention, with their number increasing by over 1000% over the last 22 years. There is a tacit understanding that sanctions may not always achieve their primary goal, but will at least force the sanctioned party into talks, where compromises can be agreed.

Between nuclear powers especially, conflict must be shaped by sanctions and proxies, as direct military action could have devastating consequences. They also have a role to play in preventing nuclear proliferation in the first place. In Iran they have previously helped bring the regime to the negotiating table, and while the JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, now feels a long way away, the economic challenges in Iran are contributing to the pressures we now see on the streets from a large, increasingly young and disenchanted population. 

Sanctions do have an impact

The threats of sanctions and ultimately political pressure from Washington, for example, were one of the main reasons behind Taiwan abandoning its own pursuit of nuclear weapons in the late 1980s.

Oliver Rolofs
Security expert Oliver RolofsImage: Privat

Likewise, sanctions were successful in the late 1980s in drawing a red line to Libya's then ruler Moammar Gadhafi and getting him to turn away from international terrorism. And even Britain backed down in the face of Washington's sanctions policy against its ally Israel and settled the Suez conflict with Egypt in 1956. 

Amid all these examples of — sometimes qualified — successes, it is of course just as easy to point to failures. What becomes clear when examining both is a need to be realistic and clear about objectives. When sanctions have failed to achieve their objective, it has been mainly because the scale of the sanctions was not significant enough or correctly targeted to achieve policy change. 

Many of these lessons have clearly been learned in the case of Russia and its war of aggression against Ukraine. The sanctions placed on that country in the past eight months are the most coordinated and comprehensive action of their kind ever recorded. Having recognized that the sanctions applied in 2014 over the occupation of Crimea were insufficient for the task, the US, EU, and UK have worked hard to improve their cooperation with each other, ensuring that Russia's Achilles' heels are being targeted. 

The real impact will be years in the making, but the sanctions have significantly reduced Russia's ability to make up for materiel losses, to the point that they are now increasingly relying on early Soviet arms, armor, and munitions.

How effective are sanctions?

Work to do to avoid mistakes

Other mistakes are still made, especially when we move from state level sanctions to look at individuals. A lack of clear strategy, or limited capacity of sanctions teams sometimes means that such key individuals or entities are missed, or conversely caught up in sanctions arbitrarily. There have been regular reports that the departments in Western countries responsible for identifying who to sanction are severely understaffed and simply lack sufficient data to always make appropriate decisions.

Despite the overall severity of the sanctions against Russia for example, numerous key businesses and leaders in Russia remain untouched. This includes the arms industry, with reports showing that nearly 50 arms and defense companies have not been included in US or European sanctions. Vladimir Potanin, Russia's second richest man, is also yet to be sanctioned by the EU and US, and was only sanctioned by the UK at the end of June.

There are plenty of examples beyond the current conflict. An Italian restaurant owner from Verona was accidentally included on a US sanctions list against Venezuela's state oil company during the Trump administration in a case of mistaken identity. More seriously, several innocent individuals were falsely placed on an al Qaeda sanctions lists in 2001, including the Saudi businessman and philanthropist Sheikh Yassin Abdullah Kadi, who only achieved his delisting after 13 years.

A chart showing the ranking of the world's most sanctioned countries

Making sanctions more effective

In some cases, governments are able to instrumentalize this capacity shortage by having domestic political opponents taken out. This occurred in the case of Bulgarian opposition MP and former media owner Delyan Peevski, who is currently challenging his apparently evidence-free appearance on the US Magnitsky sanctions list. (The Global Magnitsky act of 2016 authorizes the US government to sanction foreign government officials — the ed.) 

Sanctions clearly have an important role to play in restraining the excesses of global bad actors. Rather than rejecting sanctions out of hand because they occasionally fall short of overly ambitious targets, we need to focus on learning from mistakes to build them into a truly effective tool. 

As they become the priority foreign policy tool for many western countries, we can expect a greater investment in working out the kinks in the process, ensuring that sanctions are appropriately and effectively targeted. 

Oliver Rolofs is a strategic security and communication expert. He was previously the Head of Communications at the Munich Security Conference, where he established the Cybersecurity and Energy Security Program.

Iran's elites still lead 'lavish lifstyles'