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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

The COVID-19 epidemic has sparked a discussion about the possible suspension of economic sanctions. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is among those calling for such a step to be taken.

Indeed, the virus is now spreading globally, and developed countries are suffering tremendous losses. States placed under sanctions face even greater risks. Thus far, Iran has suffered the most. The large-scale sanctions imposed against Iran are extraterritorial in nature, meaning that many companies from third states avoid cooperating with the country as well.

The greatest effect could be achieved by general licenses for key U.S. sanctions programmes, or even by relaxing the sanctions through an executive order or congressional act. The Council of the European Union in Brussels might make a prompt decision on the matter. As for the United Nations, instead of the empty declarations of the Secretary-General and individual countries, concrete Security Council resolutions are needed.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia could spearhead the process. It has at least submitted a draft COVID-19 resolution to the UN General Assembly. However, the General Assembly’s resolutions are only recommendations, while clear and binding decisions on specific sanctions regimes are required. These issues must be linked to human rights. Previously, the UN Human Rights Council was concerned with the impact the sanctions had on economic rights and freedoms. Now we are talking about the key human right, the right to life. The price of sanctions is human lives.


The COVID-19 epidemic has sparked a discussion about the possible suspension of economic sanctions. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is among those calling for such a step to be taken.

Indeed, the virus is now spreading globally, and developed countries are suffering tremendous losses. States placed under sanctions face even greater risks. Thus far, Iran has suffered the most. The large-scale sanctions imposed against Iran are extraterritorial in nature, meaning that many companies from third states avoid cooperating with the country as well.

The sanctions combine several problems and bring them into sharp focus. Iranian exports have been significantly curtailed, which, in turn, reduces the resource base for maintaining the country’s stability during the epidemic. Financial sanctions restrict deliveries of medical supplies and other humanitarian goods. Major companies avoid making such deliveries while banks refuse to service these transactions because they fear subsequent fines from the United States. INSTEX and other humanitarian aid support mechanisms are still in their infancy. And those who still want to help, even gratis, will have to apply for special licences and wait for the approval of regulators. Even NGOs can be hit by sanctions. The alternative is smuggling and semi-legal schemes, which increase costs several times over, and are fraught with the danger of criminal prosecution.

Other countries face a similar situation. The first COVID-19 cases have been registered in Syria, a country that is in a state of war. The strict oil embargo has resulted in a shortage of petrol, which is needed by both the military and medics. Cuba has faced fuel shortages as a result of a U.S.-led embargo for years now. Venezuela and a number of other countries have yet to feel the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic, but doctors and the population will likewise be hit hard. The most stable situation right now is in Russia, where the safety margin is greater, and sanctions are not yet that extensive. The principal danger lies in the sanctions blockade of Crimea. However, Moscow has sufficient resources to offset the sanctions against the peninsula.

In the meantime, the United States and the European Union, the most trigger happy when it comes to imposing sanctions, have failed to provide a clear response to Mr Guterres' call to suspend the current restrictive measures. Washington introduces sanctions more frequently than all other parties combined. It is highly likely that there will be no major exemptions. Western capitals seem to believe that “authoritarian regimes” will take advantage of this relaxation of sanctions, especially since the parties willing to help will be able to apply for licences for humanitarian aid. However, these applications take time to consider. What is more, the possibility of obtaining such a licence is not itself a solution to the problem. This much was clear before the pandemic began with the case of North Korea. Even though the UN Sanctions Committee approved applications for humanitarian exemptions, a host of problems arose—bank refusals, supplier delays, delays at customs, etc.

Individual exemptions will have no effect without significant systemic changes introduced at least for the period of the pandemic.

The greatest effect could be achieved by general licenses for key U.S. sanctions programmes, or even by relaxing the sanctions through an executive order or congressional act. The Council of the European Union in Brussels might make a prompt decision on the matter. As for the United Nations, instead of the empty declarations of the Secretary-General and individual countries, concrete Security Council resolutions are needed.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia could spearhead the process. It has at least submitted a draft COVID-19 resolution to the UN General Assembly. However, the General Assembly’s resolutions are only recommendations, while clear and binding decisions on specific sanctions regimes are required. These issues must be linked to human rights. Previously, the UN Human Rights Council was concerned with the impact the sanctions had on economic rights and freedoms. Now we are talking about the key human right, the right to life. The price of sanctions is human lives.

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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  
     21 (19%)
 
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