Effectiveness of the economic sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia since March 2014

Essay, 2017

12 Pages







First round of sanctions
Second round of sanctions
Third round of sanctions
The political nature of the target country’s government




“A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender: Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. […] It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted but it brings a pressure upon the nation which […] no modern nation could resist.”

Woodrow Wilson, 1919 (Padover, 1942, p. 108)

The debate about the effectiveness of sanctions is not new, but was started at a high political level by the United States’ (US) President Wilson in 1919, when he discussed the utility of sanctions as a foreign policy (FP) instrument which he viewed as an alternative to war. Almost a century later, the debate about the effectiveness of sanctions still lives on.

While the US has been a frequent sender of sanctions since WWI, the European Union (EU) has emerged as a new sender of sanctions on the international stage since the 1990s (Hufbauer et al, 2007b). For this paper, the sanctions imposed by the EU on the Russian Federation (Russia) starting in March 2014 were selected as a case study to investigate the effectiveness of sanctions.

This paper applies the framework developed by Hufbauer et al. (2007a) to analyse the effectiveness of sanctions, which points out that their effectiveness depends on the extent to which the policy objectives by the sender were achieved and the contribution to success that was made by the sanctions. To explain the influence of sanctions on Russia, special emphasis is laid on the political character of the target’s country’s government, which is one of the political variables outlined by Hufbauer et al. (2007a).

The hypothesis is that one can overall call the policy results a failed outcome with little or no contribution by the sanctions, as the FP objectives behind the EU sanctions have not been achieved. While a signal was given that the EU stands up for its values and principles, the EU has so far been unsuccessful in convincing and coercing the Russian political elite into changing their political course with regard to Ukraine. One of the major reasons for the ineffectiveness of sanctions is the nature of the Russia’s political regime which is centred on an inner circle which insulates itself from critical political discourse as well as opposition and imposes its own interpretation of events on society.

This paper is structured as follows: firstly, a background is given on sanctions. Secondly, the methodology used to examine the effectiveness of the EU sanctions is explained. Thirdly, the case selection is presented, followed by the analysis.


The most influential work on the question of effectiveness of sanctions is ‘Economic Sanctions Reconsidered’ by Hufbauer et al. (2007a). Their definition of a sanction is widely used in literature. They define economic sanctions as ‘deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade or financial relations […] to achieve foreign policy goals’ (Ibid, p. 3).

There are two main types of economic sanctions possible, by which the sender country can harm the target country: 1) with trade sanctions that restrain the target country’s imports or exports and 2) with financial sanctions, which includes freezing or seizing target-country assets within the sender’s control (Ibid, pp. 44-45). Since the 1990s, ‘targeted sanctions’ have been increasingly used which work at a level of discrimination, focusing on specific groups and individuals in the target country, instead of perceiving the state as a unitary actor (Hufbauer et al, 2007b).

There are several limitations to the effectiveness of sanctions. Firstly, they might be inadequate for the task; secondly, sanctions might create their own ‘antidote’, meaning that they might provoke the target country to find commercial alternatives; thirdly, allies of the target country could take on the role of ‘black knights’ which balance out the effects of sanctions; and fourthly, sanctions can alienate foreign allies and domestic business interests (Hufbauer et al, 2007a, pp. 7-8).

While policymakers employ sanctions with an increasing frequency, there is an ongoing debate in academia on the effectiveness of sanctions, with most calling the effectiveness of sanctions into question (Shojai & Root, 2013; Baldwin, 1999). While proponents of sanctions claim sanctions to be an important FP instrument, in particular with reference to their signalling role, opponents doubt the effectiveness of sanctions and if the sanctions are worth their costs (Hufbauer et al., 2007a, p. 3). Moreover, Petrescu (2010) points out that sanctions may fail in one episode but succeed indirectly in the longer term, as countries that were sanctioned before, are less likely to engage in military disputes again.


To rate the effectiveness of sanctions, different approaches exist, one that dominates the debate is the one used by Hufbauer et al. (2007a). Hufbauer et al. claim that there are two parts that determine the ‘success’ of economic sanctions: firstly, the extent to which the FP goal was achieved, and secondly the contribution to success that was made by sanctions (2007a, p. 49). Pape (1997) criticised the approach by Hufbauer et al., pointing out that out of the claimed 40 successes of economic sanctions in the time frame from 1914 to 1990 only 5 very actually solved successfully by sanctions. Further, Pape claims that sanctions are useless, unless to achieve non-economic goals (p. 93). The foreign policy objectives by the EU concerning the sanctions on Russia do however not identify as economic goals, thus the approach by Hufbauer et al. still offers a valuable insight into the effectiveness of those sanctions, as this approach is widely recognised and ensures validity and reliability as official declarations by the governments are taken as groundwork. To broaden the approach, Fischer’s division into three different intentions behind the imposition of sanctions is additionally taken into account, which she divides into coercing, convincing and sending a signal (2017, p. 5).

Hufbauer et al. identify five broad categories of FP goals which are 1) change target-country policies in a relatively modest and limited way, 2) change the target’s regime 3) disrupt a military adventure 4) impair the target country’s military potential and 5) change target-country’s policies in another major way (pp. 52-53). Those categories will be used when analysing the official statements of the EU to determine the objectives of the sanctions. To rate the effectiveness of sanctions, Hufbauer et al. constructed a system to categorise the policy result and sanctions contribution (2007a). After assessing the FP objective of the sanctions, it is examined if those goals were fulfilled. Based on the results of this investigation, the effectiveness of the sanctions will be rated in line with the table below, outlining if the policy result was achieved and to what extent sanctions contributed to this result.

Figure 1: Analysing sanctions

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Based on Hufbauer et al. (2007a, pp. 49-50)

As the scope of this paper is limited, it is not possible to include all six economic and six political variables into the analysis which are put forward by Hufbauer et al. to explain which factors influenced the results. Considering the idiosyncratic political system of Russia, this paper concentrates on the 6th political variable outlined by Hufbauer et al. which is the political nature of the target’s country’s government (2007a, p. 65). Here, both quantitative and qualitative sources such as public opinion polls but also the opinions of scholars from the field of sanctions are taken into account to limit bias.


The focus of this paper lays on the EU sanctions on Russia as the EU as a new and distinctive actor ‘sui generis’ is of special interest in field of sanctions. The EU’s self-conception as a normative actor is mirrored in the official definition of the EU’s sanction’s policy as “tools to promote the objectives of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP): peace, democracy and the respect for the rule of law, human rights and international law” (EEAS, 2016). Furthermore, the EU sanctions can be termed as targeted sanctions, which is a relatively new type of sanctions. Finally, the sanctions imposed on Russia represent a timely and relevant case to be studied, as the sanctions have yet to be lifted and may still be adjusted.


The EU did not impose sanctions all at once, but adopted them on a step to step basis, starting in March 2014. For the clarity of this paper, the sanctions imposed by the EU have been divided into three rounds, depending on their FP objectives.

First round of sanctions

The first round of sanctions started on the 17th of March 2014 in response to Russian actions in Ukraine. It included mainly diplomatic and “targeted measures” against individuals, legal entities and organisations in the form of visa bans and asset freezes (Fischer, 2017, p. 1). The policy objective was the strong condemnation by the EU of the measures taken by Russia in Ukraine which can be construed as a symbolic intention. Furthermore, it called for the withdrawal of Russian armed forces and access for international monitors, as a FP objective one can identify the disruption of a military adventure (Council, 2014). The first round of sanctions can be seen as a failure, with the sanctions failed to result in Russia changing its position, whilst military clashes in Ukraine even worsened. However, a signal had been given to European citizens that the EU would not tolerate the actions by Russia in Ukraine, different than in the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, during and after which no sanctions were imposed on Russia by the EU (Forsberg, 2010, p. 6).

Second round of sanctions

The second round of sanctions started in summer 2014, when the EU tightened its sanctions in response to the escalation of the fighting in Ukraine (Fischer, 2015, p. 2). Another factor which sped up the adoption of new measures was the downing of the Malaysian plane MH17 on July 17, 2014. The sanctions mechanism was widened with economic sanctions being activated (Fischer, 2017, p. 1). An arms embargo was imposed and exports of “dual-use” goods and equipment needed for oil exploration and production was limited. Moreover, the access to EU capital markets was restricted for several banks and companies (Council, 2014b). FP objectives can be found in the Council Decisions. Here, the EU once again “strongly condemned” the Russian actions in Ukraine. Further, the EU demanded that Russia withdraw its armed forces from Ukraine and “stop […] flow of weapons, equipment and militants across the border in order to achieve rapid and tangible results in de-escalation” (Council, 2014c). Moreover, the EU asked Russia for the reversal of the annexation of Crimea (Fisher, 2017, p. 2).

Taking into account the categorisation of FP objectives of Hufbauer et al., one can state that the FP objectives of the second phase were threefold: firstly, the EU aimed to disrupt the military adventure of Russia in Ukraine; the second objective was to impair Russia’s military potential; thirdly, the EU aimed to change Russia’s policies in another major way as the reversal of the annexation was a great demand. Concerning the first goal, the disruption of a military adventure, one can say that this objective was partly fulfilled as armed conflict decreased in Eastern Ukraine in the summer/ autumn of 2014 and spring of 2015 (Fischer, 2017, p. 6). Further, the war has not expanded. However, it is unclear if sanctions were the cause of this. Regarding the second aim, impairing Russia’s military potential, one can say that the EU had some success, as in the short-term, Russia was not able to substitute its imports from the EU countries (Tofall, 2015, p. 7). In fact, the import substitution took longer than expected, with only 7 important imports being replaced by mid-2015 out of the 127 scheduled (European Parliament, 2016, p. 7). However, one cannot really say that Russia’s military potential was seriously impaired, considering Russia’s parallel military operation in Syria. The third goal, the reversal of the annexation, was not achieved; while additional fighters and supplies continued to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border, and an escalation occurred in January 2015 (Fischer, 2015, p. 5). Overall, one can arguably say that the policy results of the second round of sanctions were a failure as none of the FP objectives were completely fulfilled. Further, it is questionable whether sanctions contributed to this policy result, thus it could be argued that sanctions had little or no contribution.

Third round of sanctions

The third round of sanctions which was initiated in response to the escalating War in Donbass, can be traced back to July 2015. In March 2015, the EU leaders had linked the duration of sanctions to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements by the 31st December 2015, which was activated in July 2015. On the 14th of September the EU voted to prolong sanctions until the 15th of March 2018, a decision which is taken every six months (Council, 2017). The same FP objectives apply to the third round of sanctions as they do to the second round, while the duration of the sanctions was additionally linked with the implementation of the Minsk agreement. On the 5th September 2017, President Putin said that Russia would ask the UN to send its peacekeepers to Donbass to secure the ceasefire, which was perceived at first as a move into the right direction by the German Foreign Minister Gabriel (“German top diplomat”, 2017). However, no progress has been made so far due to disagreements with Ukraine. At the time of writing, the Minsk agreement has not been fully implemented, thus the policy results of the third round of sanctions can be seen as a failed outcome, with sanctions having had no contribution.

Overall, it would appear that the policy resulted in a failed outcome with the sanctions having little or no contribution, thus the intention of the EU to coerce and convince the Russian political leaders into changing their course has not been fulfilled. Still, the sanctions have not been completely ineffective considering that the intention to send a signal was achieved as the EU sent a signal to both its member states’ populations, the Russian political elite, Ukraine and EU neighbourhood as well as its partners overseas. The sanctions conformed to the EU’s self-perception as a normative actor that deploys non-military instruments to stand up for its values and principles. Taking into account Petrescu’s argument, it might be possible that even though the sanctions have not been effective concerning the Ukraine crisis, they might prevent Russia from engaging in aggressive behaviour in the future.


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Effectiveness of the economic sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia since March 2014
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
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ISBN (Book)
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sanctions, Russia, European Union, Effectiveness of sanctions, Political economy, Hufbauer
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Inga von der Stein (Author), 2017, Effectiveness of the economic sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia since March 2014, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/386968


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