The Symbolic Value of Sanctions Against Russia is Key to Upholding the Rule of International Law

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As the first-year anniversary of the historic sanctions imposed on Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine is approaching, the coalition of sanctioning states faces a question: are the measures working? Answering this question involves engaging in a host of economic debates.

How can we measure the sanctions’ direct versus indirect effects? Should they be considered as a whole or examined by sub-type, such as sanctions on energy or measures imposed against Russian financial institutions? How can we evaluate the costs they have exacted on sanctioning powers and third-party states, including higher energy prices and global food shortages? There is also the question of timing. At this point, whether the sanctions are effective is necessarily a question of whether they are working so far.  

Leaving to the side the economic calculus, these sanctions implemented by the E.U., the U.K., the U.S., and others serve a major, non-economic purpose: to affirm their commitment to the rule of law in light of the assault on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As the sanctioning powers weigh the economic effects of sanctions against Russia, they must also recognize their measures’ symbolic value and global meaning.

Sanctions Send a Powerful Message to Russia

The language used by the E.U., the U.S., and other sanctioning actors at the time the first set of these sanctions was enacted leaves no doubt as to the importance attributed to sending a powerful symbolic message to Russia. As President Joe Biden stated, Vladimir Putin had “committed an assault on the very principles that uphold global peace”, and “betray[ed] his sinister vision for the future of our world—one where nations take what they want by force”.

Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, commented, “The behaviour of the Russian leadership constitutes a major threat to international peace and security. Today, we are replying with the strongest possible restrictive measures”. The E.U., Borrell said, was “united in its resolve…to defend the peace order, international law and rules based system”.  

The symbolic value has always been part of the intent behind implementing the sanctions. But what have been the effects of the sanctions in this regard? The sanctions imposed against Russian oligarchs individually have stigmatized them socially. Restrictive measures have isolated Russia from its relationships with the sanctioning powers. Most notably, Russia’s ability to access the global financial system has been severely restricted. Disconnection of major Russian financial institutions from the SWIFT messaging system stymied the ability of those banks to carry out cross-border transactions. The sanctions also restricted Russian parties from using the U.S. dollar, euro, pound, and other currencies in global trade.

Apart from the massive economic impact such restrictions have, they carry a reputational harm. Indeed, numerous companies have ceased doing business with Russia entirely, whether from fear of inadvertently incurring a sanctions violation, worries about facing popular retribution, or other factors. Economically and politically, Russia has become isolated on the world stage. Sanctions and other economic measures have been a key symbol in showing that Moscow stands alone.

Russia’s Isolation Serves as an Example to Others

Does Russia care about this symbolic stigmatization? Perhaps not. And perhaps the sanctions even fuel Putin’s paranoia. But the symbolic value of the sanctions may nonetheless serve as a useful signaling mechanism to other would-be invaders, especially China. Sanctions are often instituted with the intent to deter certain actions by targeted states and similar actions by third parties (though of course, more limited economic sanctions imposed after the Russian annexation of Crimea did not deter Putin from the wider invasion of Ukraine).

Taiwan, like Ukraine, is a smaller nation whose continued territorial integrity may be uncertain. The sanctions imposed against Russia are unlikely to be implemented in similar fashion against China, which is far more integral to the global economic system. But China is on notice that E.U. member states and the U.S., as well as other states, care about the principles of territorial sovereignty and self-determination—and are willing to endure some economic pain to uphold them. 

While Russia does not care about the preservation of the international order, the sanctioning powers should, and do. Sanctions are an imperfect defense to maintaining the rule of law, but they are the tools that are at hand. They must always be weighed against their economic consequences; indeed, too often sanctions have triggered humanitarian crisis, as was the case in Iraq in the 1990s.

But the symbolic value of sanctions must not be discounted. For in this instance, a refusal to deploy more measures as warranted or to maintain current sanctions would be to desert Ukraine, other potential victims of violation of sovereignty, and the hard-won international legal order itself.  

Christine Abely is an Assistant Professor at New England Law | Boston. She is currently writing a book about the economic response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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