News | EN - Die Waffen nieder What Do Sanctions Actually Do?

An overview of the goals and forms of sanctions as an alternative to arms deliveries and military operations



Jan van Aken,

Two women hold up a sign calling for a gas embargo against Russia.
Several hundred people gathered in Munich, Germany on Ukrainian Independence Day to demand heavy weapons shipments to the country. Foto: IMAGO/

Some celebrate them as the continuation of politics by peaceful means, others denounce them as economic warfare. Opinions differ on the issue of sanctions, particularly today, in the context of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine.

The last decades have shown that the various forms of sanctions have had very different outcomes. The success or failure of sanctions is difficult to measure and depends on various factors. This article provides a brief overview of the goals, forms, and assessment of sanctions as possible alternatives to arms deliveries and military operations.

Jan van Aken served as an MP for Die Linke in the German parliament from 2009 to 2017. He currently works for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on peace and security policy.

Translated by Juan Diego Otero and Hunter Bolin for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

General and “Targeted” Sanctions

A definition of the term “sanctions” can be found in a 2019 report by the Scientific Service of the German Bundestag.

Broadly speaking, a distinction is made between general economic sanctions and targeted sanctions (“smart sanctions”), although this is not always so clear-cut. A classic example of general sanctions is UN Security Council Resolution 661 of 1990, which imposed a complete trade embargo on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The consequences for the civilian population were horrendous — it is estimated that at least half-a-million Iraqis died in the 1990s because of these sanctions.

As a result of this devastating outcome, strategies for more targeted sanctions were developed. Such sanctions are “targeted” either at specific sectors of the economy or at specific individuals or companies, such as:

  • Arms embargoes, the classic form of targeted sanction designed to limit the target country’s ability to wage war.
  • Personal sanctions against individual members or supporters of the regime, identified by name, such as travel bans or the freezing of foreign assets. In the past, these mostly affected individuals who belonged to the regime’s inner circle of power, including the financial elite. In some cases, however, individuals of strategic importance were also impacted, such as engineers and scientists involved in a certain weapons programme.
  • Sanctions against a defined sector of the economy, specifically targeting the regime’s political and/or economic power base. An example of this would be the Russian sanctions against Turkey in 2015, when Russia (among others) banned all charter flights to Turkey, which targeted the tourism sector in Turkey in particular — and with great success.

The concept of “targeted sanctions” can therefore be understood quite broadly and is not limited to single individuals. In March 2022, for example, the French economist Thomas Piketty proposed a sophisticated plan of targeted sanctions distributed broadly throughout different sectors for the Ukraine war.

According to Piketty, Russia’s 20,000 or so multimillionaires should be put on a sanctions list because, as the core of Russia’s economic elite, they are a central pillar of the Putin regime and most likely to be hit hard enough by sanctions to be dissuaded from backing the Kremlin.

In theory, targeted sanctions can thus — if the target groups and the respective measures are chosen wisely — achieve their desired goal without driving broad sections of the population into poverty. However, even with very targeted sanctions, indirect and unwanted effects cannot be avoided.

For example, the aforementioned Russian sanctions against Turkey left workers in the tourism industry unemployed, deprived of income, and thus impoverished. On the other hand, they also were quick to achieve the desired impact on behalf of the Turkish state. In this respect, the sanctions have been quite successful, and the risk for the broader population has proven to be manageable.

Multilateral or Unilateral?

The UN Security Council is entitled to impose sanctions in the case of “any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”. Such multilateral sanctions have already been adopted by the UN Security Council about 30 times. Article 41 of the UN Charter reads:

The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.

On the other hand, there are unilateral sanctions that were not decided by the Security Council or that go beyond its decisions. The EU, for example, has adopted a number of sanctions regimes that are not based on a UN Security Council resolution. Other groups of countries (such as the boycott of Israel by the Arab League) or individual states have also adopted so-called unilateral[1] sanctions in the past.

The literature points out that UN sanctions are generally adopted much later than unilateral ones, because UN diplomacy must consider the various interests of the individual member states, which slows down all processes considerably. On the other hand, the downside to most unilateral sanctions is that they only have the support of some of the nations, which makes it much easier to circumvent the sanctions.

Goals of Sanctions

Probably the biggest unanswered question in the debate on sanctions concerns their goals, and this in two respects:

  1. In sanctions resolutions, the goals are sometimes only vaguely specified or not specified at all, which means that even when a resolution on sanctions is passed, the question of what exactly is to be achieved remains open.
  2. An evaluation of sanctions regimes — both in politics and in public debate — is often performed without a nuanced view of the actual intended goals. The focus is often exclusively placed on the broader context (“the military continues to attack”, “the sanctions do not lead to the population turning away from the regime”), without relating the concrete measures to a concrete goal.

In the left-wing political debate on sanctions, it is commonly assumed that the main goal of sanctions is to create a severe economic emergency in a country so as to turn the population against the regime and thus initiate a change of policy or even regime. Similarly, many discussions are based on the premise that sanctions must directly affect the target country’s means of waging war, such as the arms industry or the financing of the military.

Both are very limited views of the different goals of sanctions in concrete political contexts. The literature mentions many different (possible) goals of sanctions:

  • to change the behaviour of the target state;
  • to obstruct access to critical materials (for nuclear programmes or weapons, for instance);
  • to impair the military capabilities of the target country;
  • to stigmatize and politically ostracize the target state so that, after a violation of international law or human rights, it cannot simply go back to business as usual and easily redeem itself internationally;
  • to deter other states from committing similar acts;
  • to simply punish the target country;
  • to mobilize the target country’s population against the regime through economic hardship;
  • to effect a change of regime;
  • to demonstrate resolve and the ability to act — the focus is not on bringing about an actual change in the target country, but exclusively on the sanctioning state’s domestic political goals (or on simulating the ability to act).

The issue here is not whether these possible goals are politically sensible at all (some most certainly are not), but rather that the efficacy of sanctions can only be measured if there are very clearly defined political goals that are understood by all parties involved. This also includes clearly stipulating (and communicating) that the sanctions will be lifted again when these goals are achieved.

Success or Failure?

To date, not even the academic literature can provide a clear picture of whether and how sanctions work. For a long time, it was widely believed that sanctions are ineffective, but for the past two to three decades scholars have been increasingly interested in determining the conditions under which certain types of sanctions can be said to either succeed or fail.

The comprehensive study Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, a revised edition of which appeared in 2009, is widely regarded as the definitive source on this issue. The authors examined the effects of a total of around 200 sanctions cases, and concluded that sanctions were successful (in terms of meeting the intended political goals) in about one third of cases. That said, the academic literature on the subject is of course highly critical of both their methodology and conclusions. A good summary and critical discussion of the study can be found in a 2006 SWP paper on sanctions.

The first question is how “success” is defined to begin with, since sanctions work in at least two stages: first, the achievement of concrete (economic) goals, and then the intended political transformation. There are a number of historical examples of instances in which sanctions were “successful” on the economic level — in the sense that a corresponding and demonstrable effect was achieved, such as a drop in economic output or a recession in the target country — but no change was observable on the political level.

Since sanctions regimes are always about political goals, these should also be the only relevant benchmark for an assessment of their success or failure. Economic goals are only a means to an end.

A second aspect to consider when assessing the success of sanctions is that all sanctions regimes are already a negative selection, because in the “simple” cases the threat of sanctions already has an effect. It is only when the threat is not effective that sanctions are actually implemented, and these are usually situations in which the target country cannot easily be persuaded to act in a certain way. In this respect, it must be assumed that the “success rates” are always underrepresented in empirical studies, since the simpler cases (which have already been successfully concluded with a threat) are not even included.

The third factor in assessing success or failure results from the complexity of international relations: was the observed success achieved solely or primarily by the sanctions, or did other factors contribute to it? Would the country perhaps have gone into recession anyway? To what extent do the course of the war, other diplomatic initiatives, or global fluctuations in commodity prices play a role?

From an analytical perspective, the various influences on certain economic indicators or political changes can hardly be separated from each other, so a clear attribution of certain political “successes” to specific sanctions is seldom possible.

In this respect, it will always be difficult to determine conclusively if sanctions have been successful, and therefore what the criteria for success is. It is thus not surprising that a wide range of criteria for success are mentioned in the academic literature. None of them can be empirically “proven” with certainty, but there are a few which are more frequently mentioned:[2]

  • The goals must be formulated very clearly, and they should be realistic: the more ambitious the goals, the harder it will be to achieve them.
  • Clear conditions for lifting sanctions should be stated: if the target country cannot be certain whether and which sanctions will be lifted after certain concessions, there will be little willingness for change in the target country.
  • Economic sanctions are much more effective if there is a close economic relationship with the target country.
  • Sanctions can only have an effect if the target country is economically vulnerable or is already in a difficult situation.
  • A slow, gradual toughening of sanctions (as in the example of the EU sanctions against Russia since 2014) is not very successful because the target country can prepare for them at its leisure. Quick and tough sanctions are much more likely to succeed.
  • It makes sense to combine sanctions with incentive systems and diplomatic complementary measures. These incentives should include more than just the lifting of sanctions. For example, there could be incentives for individuals on sanctions lists to turn themselves in as whistle-blowers against their own government.
  • In any case, the success of sanctions must be assessed based on two criteria:
    • How much do they “cost” compared to other measures, such as military intervention?
    • How much do they cost the country imposing the sanctions?
  • UN sanctions seem to be much more promising when regional organizations (such as the EU or the African Union) are involved in the design and implementation of sanctions that affect a country in their region.
  • There are examples of EU sanctions being more likely to work when aid deliveries to the target country were organized bypassing the sanctioned government. In most cases, aid deliveries are channelled through the regime, which is strengthened by this (because it can divert funds, but above all because it can appear in public as a benefactor and provider and thus secure support among the population).

Unintended Side Effects

The literature contains many examples of “unintended consequences” of sanctions. Some of them are due to poor implementation, others to deliberate inhumane policies of the respective rulers in the target countries, and others can hardly be avoided. Here are some examples:

  • In the worst cases, sanctions can lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in the target country, as happened in Iraq in the 1990s.
  • Sanctions usually strengthen the influence (and wealth) of entrepreneurs close to the regime and thus tend to stabilize it.
  • When the general population is affected — through increased poverty, food shortages or inflation — the result is often more solidarity with the regime (“us together against them out there”).
  • Neighbouring states are disproportionately affected because they lose an important trading partner, among other factors.
  • Corruption increases due to the increased need for circumvention, smuggling, and black-market sales.

In 2016, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a very detailed study on the international sanctions against North Korea, yielding some interesting results. The sanctions were supposed to prevent North Korea from buying materials to build nuclear weapons abroad. In fact, to some extent they have had the opposite effect.

Because North Korea was willing to pay a higher price in view of the sanctions, larger and more professional vendors have come forward for deals that circumvent these sanctions. Despite the rather critical assessment so far, the study concludes that improving the sanctions regime against North Korea could help achieve the declared goal of preventing the further development of nuclear weapons in the country.


Surveying the (academic) literature on sanctions yields three conclusions:

  • Sanctions can fail, but they can also be politically successful. History provides concrete examples of both cases.
  • It is perfectly clear that sanctions — especially general economic sanctions — can have massive unintended side effects, including humanitarian catastrophes resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Even with so-called targeted sanctions, unintended side effects must be taken into account.
  • There are no clear empirically proven criteria for the success and failure of sanctions: the literature — or rather, history — provides hints and circumstantial evidence, but due to the complexity of international relations and the often poorly defined goals of sanctions, nothing can be “proven” in this regard. Future discussions on how sensible certain sanctions are will therefore probably have to be guided more by logic-driven approaches, since clear scientific evidence is lacking.

Due to the disastrous experiences with the Iraq sanctions of the 1990s, nowadays mostly so-called targeted sanctions are imposed. However, in order for these to have any chance of being effective, we need a much better analysis of international financial flows. We need to deal with tax havens and letterbox companies to uncover sanctions evasion and truly hit the targeted individuals financially.

The question that remains is what alternative there is to sanctions in the cases of drastic violations of international and human rights. In the UN Charter, sanctions are introduced at the beginning of Chapter VII: if all efforts towards the “pacific settlement of disputes” (as in the title of Chapter VI) have failed, the coercive measures of Chapter VII follow. There, economic sanctions come first, followed by military measures.

Sanctions seem to be the last resort when diplomacy has failed, when incentive systems no longer work, and yet — with good reason — military intervention is nevertheless ruled out. This makes it all the more important to have a debate on how and under what conditions such sanctions can be used in the most targeted way possible and without unwanted side effects.

[1] “Unilateral” is to be understood here as “one-sided”. This does not mean the action of a single country, but the opposite of “multilateral”. Sanctions by several states or even groups of countries such as the EU are also considered “unilateral” in this debate because they were decided by a small portion of the community of states and not jointly by all.