Are the economic sanctions against Russia really the strongest ever taken against a State?

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Has Russia been punished harsher than any other country before, in reaction to its invasion of Ukraine? In any case, this is what the French government maintains. We took massive, historic, unprecedented sanctions.said his spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, on March 8 on France Inter. “We have decided on a set of sanctions which, I remind you, is the most vigorous that has ever been decided against another State”added the Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, Wednesday March 30 on 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 must be validated by European foreign ministers on Monday April 11) in response to the abuses discovered in Boutcha, in particular. However, are these sanctions really unprecedented?

International sanctions against Russia began in 2014, in 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 master of the Kremlin ordered his army to invade the ‘Ukraine. Since then, five sets of sanctions have been adopted by the European Union: measures targeting individuals and companies, economic and also diplomatic sanctions.

On an individual level, “877 people and 62 entities are subject to an asset freeze and a ban on entering EU territory”, counts the European Council. This list of individuals includes the Russian President himself, its head of diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, but also Russian deputies and senior civil servants, or businessmen, like Roman Abramovich. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have also hit oligarchs and personalities close to Russian power in the pocketbook.

On the economic level, international sanctions have been even stronger, with the aim of hampering the Russian economy. The financial sector in particular has been targeted, with, among other things, the prohibition of all new investment in Russia, the prohibition of transactions with the Russian Central Bank and the immobilization of its assets, and above all the exclusion of the main Russian banks from the Swift interbank platform, an essential cog in global finance that allows fast and secure money exchanges.

Other sectors of the Russian economy were also punished: EU airspace was closed to all Russian aircraft. Russian ships also no longer have the right to anchor in European ports. Russian road hauliers are banned from operating in the Union. Bans on exports to Russia have also been enacted. As for the list of Russian products banned from importing to the European Union or the United States in particular, it continues to grow.

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

These sanctions had a rapid 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 key rate and restrict the purchase of foreign currencies. Vladimir Putin was forced to attempt a coup to raise the price of his currency: he threatened to cut the valves if the buyers of Russian gas did not pay their bills in rubles.

The Minister of the Economy affirmed on March 1 on franceinfo that “the sanctions are of a frightening effectiveness”. Adding: “We are going to wage an all-out economic and financial war on Russia.” Bruno Le Maire then returned to his remarks, which he judged “inappropriate”. From there to say that Russia is sanctioned like no country before it?

Where Bruno Le Maire is right is that these sanctions are unprecedented in the speed at which they were applied, and in the power of the targeted country, a member of the G20 very integrated in the world economy.analyzes Erica Moret, researcher at the University of Geneva and 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 targets of heavy reprisals, North Korea and Iran are still a notch above on the scale of restrictions.

During Donald Trump’s mandate, the United States decided in 2018 to go back on the Iranian nuclear agreement and to restore drastic sanctions against the Tehran regime, while forcing the international community to apply them, under penalty of in turn sanction the companies present on the American market. Result: a total embargo on Iranian oil, a financial embargo with an exclusion of Iranian banks from the Swift system and a ban on trade with Iran in many sectors for companies that carry out transactions in dollars.

Iran and Russia are two oil economies, but an embargo has been put in place against Iran, while we have not gone so far for Russia“, underlines Thierry Coville, researcher at Iris and specialist in Iran. According to this expert, the sale of black gold has increased 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, researcher at Iris and specialist in Iran

at 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 those ifapply on North Korea, it’s a joke“, says Théo Clément, 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 nations. “The North Korean financial system has been almost cut off from the world for a long time, the country is isolated internationally”, adds the expert.

If Russia is therefore far from being the most sanctioned country, things could however change. “We haven’t reached the extent of the sanctions against Iran or North Korea, but I think that if Vladimir Putin continues on 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 shift in policy desired by the international community has not taken place, 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 sensation of an internationally orchestrated strangulation“, 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 became more radical and moderates were discredited”analyzes Thierry Coville.

The sanction mechanism is therefore far from unanimous among the researchers questioned. “Historically, there are almost no cases where they have had the desired effect. 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.

“Overall, there is a consensus on the lack of effect of sanctions, even on their counter-productivity.”

Théo Clément, specialist in North Korea

at franceinfo

While Erica Moret confirms that the 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 works and the military option is excluded.

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