Sanctions and their Unintended Effects on Civilians

Photo by Pavel Pavlov/Getty

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Following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) immediately placed extensive sanctions on Russia. This method of diplomacy has been a popular instrument of the United States and other nations given its purported ability to significantly harm the government but not its citizens. However, the evidence suggests that the opposite is the case–sanctions can end up strengthening authoritarian rule rather than harming it.

Among the sanctions imposed on Russia, 1800 individuals and entities are being targeted with trade prohibitions, travel bans, and asset freezes. Companies in the machine-building sector, media organizations, political parties, banks, and other financial institutions are some of the entities being sanctioned. This has resulted in the banning of 49% of exports to Russia and 58% of its imports to the EU. Though not exhaustive, some of the EU’s exports include technology, transportation equipment, luxury, and dual-use goods (vehicle parts, firearms, etc.). The EU has similarly banned imports of petroleum products, crude oil, coal, steel, and gold. 

These sanctions have been designed to limit the impact on the Russian population as it does not sanction health, pharma, food, and agriculture products; however, inflation and the marked reduction of imports have caused citizens’ incomes and living standards to sharply decrease. The Russian Labour Ministry has cited that 40,000 Russian organizations employing 9 million people have reported what they call a “change of employment mode.” Interest rates have skyrocketed as Russia’s central bank increased rates from 9.5% to 20% in order to revitalize the rubble, which had at one point fallen to 0.88 US cents, leaving citizens struggling. 

North Korea is a prime example of the failure and damage that sanctions can cause to civilians. It’s one of the United Nation’s most severely and extensively sanctioned regimes. Astonishingly, these sanctions had not merely been ineffective in dismantling its nuclear weapon armament but had in fact strengthened its regime. The use of sanctions redirected North Korea to intensify and concentrate on its trade relations with China, an economic superpower. North Korean citizens bear the brunt of the sanctions while Kim Jung Un is able to spend $600 million annually on luxury goods. Kim Jung Un remained unaffected while ordinary citizens suffered the brunt of the sanctions which resulted in skyrocketing poverty rates and an increased reliance on their government. By targeting the government itself, the sanctions are indirectly targeting its citizens through a spillover effect.

Though sanctions can backfire, that does not mean they should never be used; they merely need to be constructed differently. They must be targeted, proportional, and reversible if they are to be utilized with minimal damage to civilians. The full effects of the sanctions on Russia cannot be comprehensively observed since it has been less than a year since they were first imposed, but it is already apparent that they have harmed its civilians. 

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This article was edited by Zachary Bader and Katherine Hohman