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Sanctions: An Effective Tool for Justice Delivery

By Eleonora Mongelli
November 24, 2022
By Kyle Matthews and Marie Lamensch

This op-ed written by Eleonora Mongelli is part of MIGS' Global Parliamentary Alliance Against Atrocity Crimes (GPAAAC) initiative supported by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Canada. Eleonora Mongelli is the Vice President of the Italian Federation for Human Rights.


Since the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine began, many countries around the world have imposed a flood of sanctions on Russian politicians, government officials, companies, banks, and private individuals, under various sanction regimes and following different criteria. In addition, over 1,000 foreign companies have suspended operations in Russia. These sanctions have been led by the U.S., E.U and U.K., working jointly with the goal of limiting Russia's ability to continue its war against Ukraine and punishing those who finance it.  Such scenario represents an unprecedented level in the use of sanctions: many countries, including the EU, for the first time targeted members of Putin’s inner circle, because of their direct or un-direct relation to the war crimes in Ukraine.

We are witnessing a growing awareness, especially following the adoption in many countries of the Magnitsky-style sanctions (sanctions that target individuals and entities responsible for or involved in serious human rights violations and grand corruption crimes), that sanctions can actually provide an efficacious tool for promoting global justice and accountability. More and more human rights experts and activists all over the world agree that sanctions, if used in a well targeted manner, can significantly strengthen the toolbox for human rights policies and help deliver justice and accountability, also when it comes to the long list of international crimes committed in Ukraine.  If criminal justice is crucial to persecute the perpetrators of the crimes and secure justice for the victims, sanctions are the rapid and effective response of the international community to those crimes, if implemented with determination and coordination. In the case of Ukraine, where the large number of documented international crimes revealed the need for activating all possible mechanisms, the restrictive measures against Russia, which involve both economic and individual sanctions, have been adopted in parallel with the activation of international and domestic criminal justice mechanisms: the International Criminal Court commenced an investigation on the Ukrainian territory for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and a number of countries opened investigations under the universal jurisdiction. In this unusual framework for approaching justice, sanctions play a critical role.

The measures – such as financial sanctions, import and export restrictions, restrictions on banking, travel bans and asset freezes have been imposed in order to affect in a short- and medium-term Russian war machine in its operation against Ukraine and to increase the cost of the invasion.


The answer is yes. Sanctioning countries agree that the impact of the restrictive measures against Russia is real and that sanctions are weakening Russia’s ability to fund the war.

Recently, the US Deputy Treasury Secretary, Wally Adeyemo, during an interview on France 24 discussed the sanctions imposed on Moscow in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine saying that the sanctions are working, there are less money to fund the war and that's why Russia is working so hard to evade them. On November 10, the UK government published new figures, which reveals the full effect of UK sanctions on Russia imposed in conjunction with its allies and reiterates its commitment in crippling Russia’s war machine. Specifically, the report by the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation shows the scale of UK sanctions, freezing over £18 billion of Russian assets. In parallel, also The European Council provided a number of info-graphics related to the impact on the Russian economy of the eight packages of sanctions adopted since February 2022 with the aim to weakening Russia’s ability to finance the war without targeting Russian society (that is why areas such as food, agriculture, health and pharma are excluded from the imposed restrictive measures). In such figures published by the European Council, according which the Russian economy is shrinking, it is clearly evident that the restrictive measures are working as expected, and the results are visible through economic indicators. In addition, one of the most important points is represented by the EU’s Russian oil ban. The significant reduction of the EU structural energy dependence on Russia, stopping buying 90% of EU oil supplies from Russia by the end of 2022, will deprive Russia government of large revenues. Of course, this manoeuvre involves costs for many EU countries. However, the EU knows that its energy dependence on Russia has been an obstacle to developing a strong European policy towards the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine and that this is the price to pay to defend human rights and international law.

In parallel, the Russia’s propaganda machine is working overtime to paint an untrue picture of Russian economic stability. We often hear that sanctions do not work or hurt the people but this is part of the most persistent disinformation narratives spread by the Russian regime.

A comprehensive economic analysis published in July from Yale University’s School of Management and Chief Executive Leadership Institute, 5 months into the invasion, shows the real economic toll of international sanctions (incl. business withdrawals) and debunks a number of Kremlin’s false narratives according to which sanctions would be ineffective and would only hurt sanctioning countries economies. Specifically, the analysis shows how sanctions and business retreats are catastrophically affecting the Russian economy, tackling at the same time a wide range of common misperceptions generated by the attitude of the Russian Federation to release only those metrics that are more favourable. These selected statistics, as stated in the analysis, are then disseminated through the media and often used by careless experts in building out forecasts, which are unrealistically favourable to the Kremlin. After all, it is well-known that the spread of false narratives is part of the hybrid war and that Russia’s information machine plays a crucial role in the war.


The effectiveness of sanctions, both economic and individual, depends on how they are used. Of course, there are a number of limitations that the governments jointly with experts and stakeholders have to work on. Firstly, when it comes to Russia’s information war against Ukraine, a key element is represented by the information technology and how it is used to commit crimes in Ukraine. As reported in a recent paper by the international working group on Russian sanctions, information technology allows, among other things, to track and target individuals, to attack digital infrastructure of social, industrial, and government services, to wage broad information wars and targeted propaganda efforts; to guide missiles, and to funnel funds to Russians fighting in Ukraine. In such paper it is stated that compared to other nations, Russia has largely been a laggard in IT and therefore relies on foreign IT to command and control its military, fire its weapons, perform reconnaissance, control the information space, attack Ukrainian cyber and civilian infrastructure, and protect its own infrastructure. Foreign technology used by Russia includes everything from advanced email servers to robotic components and device controllers. That is why the group of experts is calling for sanctions including specific IT categories, which provide technologies support Russia’s war infrastructure and military operations in Ukraine. Secondly, another major challenge for the sanctioning countries is represented by the violations of sanctions, including the prevention of sanctions-evasion by third parties, which can undermine the efficacious of sanctions. That is the reason why some members of the US Congress have pressed the administration to consider the introduction of secondary sanctions that target commercial activity involving a party under primary sanctions. In addition, there are other proposals, which would help improve the effectiveness of the restrictive measures, such as the activation of domestic and international mechanisms to monitor their implementation, as well as an accurate dissemination of data by experts, journalists and analysts, especially when reporting official Kremlin statistics. This will significantly help raise the level of the public debate on the impact of sanctions and reduce the spread of disinformation by Russian and other malign actors decreasing the Kremlin’s power in promoting its information war against Ukraine and sanctioning countries.



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