Were Sanctions by the EU the Right Move?

Were Sanctions by the EU the Right Move?

On 2nd March 2021, the EU announced sanctions on four Russian citizens for human rights violations. The continuing saga of Navalny’s imprisonment and the treatment of protestors by the Russian government has forced the international community to respond, but are sanctions the right response? 

Sanctions: A Difficult Choice

The recent decision by the EU to impose sanctions on four Russian individuals implicated in human rights violations surrounding the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the ensuing protests, raises fresh questions over the efficacy of this tool of statecraft. Indeed, the debate that David Baldwin taps into over why sanctions are used when they do not seem to have any great impact on their target is particularly relevant here. Why would the EU place sanctions on Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, Viktor Zolotov, the Head of the National Guard, Igor Krasnov, the Prosecutor-General and Alexander Kalashnikov, the Head of the Federal Prison Service when the individuals themselves may not feel the intended impact? Despite the doubts surrounding the effectiveness of using sanctions, the decision by the EU to introduce them is a significant one that sends the right signal to Moscow. 

What Brought About the Need for Sanctions?

The EU decided to impose sanctions on Bastrykin, Krasnov, Zolotov and Kalashnikov for the significant human rights violations they committed when they arbitrarily arrested and sentenced Alexei Navalny, following his return to Moscow after being treated in Germany for the nerve agent attack in the summer of 2020. Another reason for the imposition of sanctions is their involvement in the repression of protests by Navalny’s supporters. The sanctions include asset freezes and a travel ban to all EU countries, as well as a ban on any EU actor or entity providing funds to the four individuals, directly or indirectly. It is the first time that the EU has imposed sanctions under its new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

Are Sanctions Effective?

Yet again, the use of sanctions by an international actor raises the debate around whether sanctions are a useful or effective tool. In the case of these EU sanctions, it may well be the case that they will not have a significant impact on the individuals themselves. Such high profile members of Russian society will simply forgo travel plans until the sanctions are lifted. It is also relatively unlikely that being denied their EU assets or funds will have a particularly detrimental impact on these figures. Some might say that the choice to impose sanctions shows the weakness of the EU: they are unable to  come up with a ‘stronger’ and more ‘decisive’ response, such as wider and harsher sanctions or a show of military force. They might argue that the institutional memory of such a large organisation means that the pathways and chains of command are fixed in place, unable to move quickly enough to accommodate new ways of thinking or decisions beyond the often called upon sanctions. However, this pessimistic outlook does not tell the whole story.

David Baldwin writes about how even when sanctions are not anticipated to be particularly successful, they can be the best choice because they are more successful than any of the other existing policy choices in obliging a target to change their policy or behaviour. He describes them as one of several options open to policy makers, alongside such measures as diplomacy, propaganda and military action and explains that as success should in part be measured in terms of effectiveness and cost to the policy maker, often sanctions present as the best choice: they are more effective and less costly to the policy maker than the others available. Thus, sanctions may well have been the most promising policy option on the table for the EU.

Broadening the definition of success further to include the ability to send a strong signal to those suffering as a result of the target’s actions, it then  becomes clear that these EU sanctions are successful. The use of sanctions by an actor external to Russia is a message which declares unambiguously that although there may not be recourse to justice inside Russia for Navalny and the protestors, there are international actors who are deeply concerned about what is going on and who are keen to show solidarity with the protestors and the opposition movement. The message is clear: they have not been forgotten by those elsewhere. This is the point the US wants to drive home with the sanctions that they have implemented alongside those of the EU: other countries are rooting for those who are suffering. Equally as crucial is the signal that the sanctions send to the Russian leadership: they show a consistency and clarity to the norms and values of the EU and proclaim that the EU does not give up on beliefs about human rights, even in the face of great pressure from outside. Thus, although Bastrykin, Krasnov, Zolotov and Kalashnikov may not be greatly impacted by these sanctions directly, the EU sanctions are effective in a broader humanitarian sense in encouraging both Navalny and the protestors and were absolutely the right step for the EU to take. 

Outlook – What Next?

There is a realistic chance that these sanctions could worsen EU-Russia relations. The Russian government has expressed their grievance with the EU’s decision and has made this evident, feeling that it encroaches on their sovereignty and territory. It adds to the sense in Russia that Europe does not understand them or the way that things are done there. Unlike previous sanctions on Russia by the EU, however, there will not be a wider economic impact on the country because the sanctions only target certain individuals. Therefore, there are no trade repercussions typically associated with wider sanctions. 

This feeling of European interference that has so dismayed the Russian government will, however, embolden the opposition movement and the protestors. The power of knowing that someone has taken up your cause cannot be underestimated. These sanctions are a powerful symbol of international solidarity and a reminder that what is taking place on the ground in Russia is being carefully watched.


Categories: Eurasia, Europe, Politics

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