Steam rises from the cooling towers of the lignite-fired power plant in J'nschwalde, Germany, Tuesday, April 5, 2022. On Tuesday, the European Union’s executive branch proposed a ban on coal imports from Russia over its war in Ukraine. (Patrick Pleul/dpa via AP)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has wreaked havoc and devastation on Ukraine and its people, while also posing a major threat to wider European security and sovereignty. The international community’s response, and that of the West in particular, has centered first and foremost around the use of autonomous (or unilateral) sanctions. All the while, the United Nations Security Council, which counts on Russia as one of its five permanent members, sits redundantly in the face of the conflict, accentuating the crisis in global governance of recent years.

Concerns over international sanctions—imposed by the likes of the United States (US), the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Australia, Japan, and Switzerland against a growing range of Russian targets—centers around a set of key questions. Will they “work”?  What impacts will they have on the economies of Russia and others worldwide? Can they slow down, or halt, the Russian war machine? Can the more punitive aspects of these hard-hitting measures translate into concrete political change on the ground? Can their unintended consequences, such as those of a humanitarian nature, be mitigated?

Unprecedented Threat, Unprecedented Sanctions

While international sanctions against Russia have not quite (or yet) reached the breadth of some of the strictest contemporary sanctions regimes elsewhere in the world (think Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, or Venezuela), they are still unparalleled on a number of levels. 

First, an economy of the size of that of Russia—highly integrated into world markets, a G20 member, and a leading energy supplier—has not been targeted through sanctions to this extent before. Shockwaves are already being felt around the world in light of fuel, fertilizer, and food price rises linked to the combined impacts of sanctions and the war. Financial markets, industrial production, and supply chains have taken a severe hit. Costs are inevitable on all sides of the equation. Read more