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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

When experts and media publications discuss the issue of sanctions, they often say that they are against a particular country. We often hear about sanctions against Russia, Iran, China, or retaliatory measures against the US, EU and other countries. At the same time, given the specifics of modern sanctions, there is an increasingly widespread use of so-called “pin-point”, “targeted” or “smart” sanctions.

The largest initiator of “targeted” sanctions is the United States. In the American political discourse, the trend was also established in order to separate persons under sanctions from their states. This is largely due to the specifics of the American foreign policy ideology; it’s based on the idea of promoting democracy throughout the world. Americans assume that one of the reasons for the hostile behaviour of states towards the United States and other countries, as well as domestic violations of human rights, is the autocratic nature of the political system. US policymakers contend that the state’s political regime, and not the state as a whole, is to blame for the viciousness of the state’s behaviour. In this way, Americans separate the government from society. In the foreign policy statements of officials, you can often find passages that the United States opposes the Chinese Communist Party, but supports the creative Chinese people. That they hope to bleed the Iranian theocratic regime, but desire the liberation of Iranian society. That they oppose the “authoritarian Putin regime”, but strive for friendship with the Russian people, and so on.

Modern international relations are still relations between nation-states. They pursue their political goals and interests, and vie with each other for power and influence. Therefore, formally, “pin-point” sanctions should be considered in the context of the agenda of relations between specific states.

First, the damage from sanctions imposed on sectors of the economy, organisations, enterprises and even individual citizens usually isn’t limited exclusively to them, but has a wider effect. US sanctions against Iran’s oil or financial sectors can nominally be considered “smart” and “pin-point”. However, the damage from them affects wide strata of the population. For example, sanctions against banks has make it difficult for Iran to obtain medical equipment supplies, which in turn affects the quality of life. Blacklisting the owner or top manager of a large enterprise affects all its activities, and also affects suppliers and consumers.

Second, the state cannot abstract itself from hostile measures against its citizens or organisations that are in its jurisdiction. For example, Article 2 of the Constitution of Russia states that “The recognition, observance and protection of human and civil rights and freedoms shall be an obligation of the State.” The use of “pin-point” restrictive measures by a foreign state is an obvious violation of such rights. To some extent, such a norm is universal for a modern nation state.

When experts and media publications discuss the issue of sanctions, they often say that they are against a particular country. We often hear about sanctions against Russia, Iran, China, or retaliatory measures against the US, EU and other countries. At the same time, given the specifics of modern sanctions, there is an increasingly widespread use of so-called “pin-point”, “targeted” or “smart” sanctions. If in the twentieth century, sanctions often meant trade bans against certain countries, then in the twenty-first century they are widely used against individuals and organisations: starting from drug dealers and terrorists, and ending with officials, businessmen, ministries, departments, companies or sectors of the economy, associated with certain “political regimes”.

This situation raised the question of what the purpose of modern sanctions is exactly, and whether it is correct to talk about sanctions against certain states. For example, should sanctions against individual Russian citizens be considered anti-Russian? The same goes for any other country. A decisive answer to this question remains elusive. The source of scepticism, on the one hand, emanates from legal experts, and on the other, some states initiating the sanctions, for which the separation of persons under sanctions from the state to which they belong is an element of political doctrine and a way of legitimising political decisions.

Legal experts reasonably point out that, from a formal point of view, modern sanctions are increasingly restricting the rights of certain individuals and legal entities, and not the state as a whole. Moreover, the citizens of the initiating countries also see their rights curtailed. After all, they are instructed, for example, not to enter into economic transactions with persons involved in the sanctions lists. In the case of extraterritorial sanctions, such restrictions also apply to foreigners. So, it is technically correct to talk about sanctions against citizen X, department Y or company Z, and not about sanctions against the country in which they may reside.

The largest initiator of “targeted” sanctions is the United States. In the American political discourse, the trend was also established in order to separate persons under sanctions from their states. This is largely due to the specifics of the American foreign policy ideology; it’s based on the idea of promoting democracy throughout the world. Americans assume that one of the reasons for the hostile behaviour of states towards the United States and other countries, as well as domestic violations of human rights, is the autocratic nature of the political system. US policymakers contend that the state’s political regime, and not the state as a whole, is to blame for the viciousness of the state’s behaviour. In this way, Americans separate the government from society. In the foreign policy statements of officials, you can often find passages that the United States opposes the Chinese Communist Party, but supports the creative Chinese people. That they hope to bleed the Iranian theocratic regime, but desire the liberation of Iranian society. That they oppose the “authoritarian Putin regime”, but strive for friendship with the Russian people, and so on. In the context of such a doctrine, sanctions are a political technique aimed at both the foreign policy and internal political processes of the targeted country. The separation of the regime, individuals and organisations from the state itself is an important source of legitimisation of sanctions (in the sense in which Max Weber understood it, that is, in terms of politics, not law). One way or another, a similar approach is manifested in the practice of sanctions by the European Union and other initiators.

Naturally, this approach is not very encouraging for those who advocate the idea of sovereign equality of states. In terms of equality of sovereignty, the sanctions of the 20th century are quite acceptable; they were often a mechanism to contain and undermine military and economic potential. That is, they were part of the competition and rivalry of national states that recognised each other as equal players. The situation turns out quite different when one of the rivals questions the very legitimacy of the state structure of the other side or applies restrictive measures bypassing its sovereign rights. In such a situation, consolidated democracies with a high level of statehood and significant power potential gain noticeable advantages. It is difficult to shatter them by opposing the regime and society. Autocracies and unconsolidated democracies with weak and corrupt state institutions are in a much more difficult situation if they seek to resist such interference. Consolidated autocracies with a high level of statehood feel relatively protected. But they are also vulnerable in their own way, since even a stable “vertical system” can fail.

To an even greater extent, the advantages of consolidated democracies are multiplied by the global nature of the modern world economy, and the importance of markets and financial systems of such states, which are the most active initiators of sanctions. This is manifested in the fact that the citizens and organisations of the sanctions-targeted countries, which at the same time carry out this or that international economic activity, are forced to at least take into account, and, as maximum, to comply with the sanctions regimes of the country that is the enemy. Situations when, for example, Russian or Chinese exporting companies comply with US sanctions can be encountered quite often today.

In such a situation, it is important to understand that in addition to formal legal aspects, there are also political ones. Modern international relations are still relations between nation-states. They pursue their political goals and interests, and vie with each other for power and influence. Therefore, formally, “pin-point” sanctions should be considered in the context of the agenda of relations between specific states. Outside of such a context, we have the risk of falling into one of two pitfalls. First, we risk studying sanctions in purely laboratorial way, without “impurities”, as an ideal type. It is clear that such research is of little use when addressing real-life situations. Second, sanctions could be misconstrued to be thought of exclusively in the context of the political narrative of a particular country or group of countries (for example, the US and the EU). There is nothing wrong with understanding such a narrative. However, it should not be taken as a “self-sufficient value”.

It seems that “pin-point” or “smart sanctions” can be considered as directed against the state, for at least two reasons.

First, the damage from sanctions imposed on sectors of the economy, organisations, enterprises and even individual citizens usually isn’t limited exclusively to them, but has a wider effect. US sanctions against Iran’s oil or financial sectors can nominally be considered “smart” and “pin-point”. However, the damage from them affects wide strata of the population. For example, sanctions against banks has make it difficult for Iran to obtain medical equipment supplies, which in turn affects the quality of life. Blacklisting the owner or top manager of a large enterprise affects all its activities, and also affects suppliers and consumers. For example, US sanctions against Oleg Deripaska have threatened serious disruptions in the work of Rusal, an important enterprise for the Russian economy.

The same applies to sanctions against a political administration. It is difficult to separate it from the state. Yes, disgusting dictatorships and arrogant autocracies often crop up in the world. The question of their right to exist is not only a legal or political, but also an ethical problem. The question is: who exactly passes judgment on such a regime, and who exactly has the right to contain or change it, including via sanctions? A number of states reserve this right, using unilateral measures and bypassing the UN Security Council. Smart sanctions against individuals nominally target the regime. But in reality, they lead to shifts in domestic or foreign policy, that is, they change the structure and behaviour of the state as a whole.

Second, the state cannot abstract itself from hostile measures against its citizens or organisations that are in its jurisdiction. For example, Article 2 of the Constitution of Russia states that “The recognition, observance and protection of human and civil rights and freedoms shall be an obligation of the State.” The use of “pin-point” restrictive measures by a foreign state is an obvious violation of such rights. To some extent, such a norm is universal for a modern nation state. The question is, how exactly will the state react to restrictive measures? It can agree to the demands of the initiators or force its citizens to comply with these requirements (such cases are not uncommon). But it may well leave its course unchanged, introduce retaliatory restrictive measures or respond in any other way, including breaking ties with the state that initiated the sanctions.

Without a doubt, in the practice of applying sanctions, there are more cases where the nationality of the individuals fades into the background. This applies, for example, to sanctions against terrorists and drug dealers. Both problems are universal. However, universality does not exempt us from problems with the state. Human rights can be viewed universally. But for many states, this is already a sensitive political issue. Despite the fact that modern sanctions are increasingly targeted at individuals, organisations or structures, their ultimate goal is often altering the political course of a particular country. As long as the nation-state remains a key player in the international arena, even targeted sanctions will affect state interests. This means that it is too early to write off the concept of anti-Russian, anti-Chinese and any other anti-state sanctions.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.


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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
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