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US - Russia Sanctions: Opportunities to Strengthen and Deter the Continued Russian War in Ukraine

I had the pleasure of teaching a class this summer on money laundering, terrorism, and corruption for the GMU Schar School of Policy and Government. Several of our students did exemplary work on their final papers, and we are publishing some of those. Here is the third, which is on the US sanctions of Russia.

- John Byrne



After over a year and a half of sustained combat in Ukraine, the economic state of the Russian Federation is fragile but not broken. This paper intends to explore how Russia has been able to circumvent previous sanctions against it despite the historic and concerted efforts to stymie its economy and military-industrial complex with sanctions. Russia has managed to maintain its war in Ukraine despite multiple failed and costly offensives, economic isolation, and the most dramatic and violent conventional combat in Europe since the end of World War II. The United States, the European Union (EU), NATO, and other allied nations have stalled Russia from fully mobilizing its economy against Ukraine. Still, the sanctions since 2022 can be expanded upon to ensure Russia does not recover its means to geopolitical ends in Ukraine. Sanctions are a policy tool meant to avoid armed conflict by imposing a financial burden and punishment on a nation or to send a message in response to a geopolitical action. Additionally, sanctions can be imposed not just at the macro-level of a country but at the micro-level as well and targeted against an individual person, business, entity, or asset. Multilateral sanctions are historically the most effective in accomplishing diplomatic and geopolitical goals.

The U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 included sanctions based on four main Executive Orders (E.O.) issued under President Barack Obama in 2014 and framed in several key pieces of legislation that facilitated sanctions against Russia in 2015.[1] The 2014 U.S. Russian sanctions led to the coordination and implementation of EU sanctions as the Obama administration leveraged multilateral support against Russian violation of international law. The U.S., EU, and other countries coordinated their independent sanctioning efforts to target Russian interests, which increased the effectiveness of sanctions and lowered the Russian GDP growth from 2014-2015.[2] Despite the concerted efforts, however, the 2014 sanctions failed to dissuade Russia from its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Russia subsequently used 2014 as a model for expected international reaction and planned for its economic isolation for the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.[3] Russia further used the 2014 sanctions as one of the justifications for its invasion of Ukraine as it exclaimed Western interference in its affairs and alleged threats to Russian sovereignty. The continuation of the Russian invasion now has far-reaching economic impacts not just on Ukraine but also on Russia and the world, as the failures of their military and government have caused a repositioning of billions of dollars of illicit funds to maintain the war effort. The United States and its allies continue providing enormous military and economic aid to Ukraine. While Russian sanctions have limited the availability of funds to finance the war in Ukraine, it has not been as effective as previously expected.


The unified efforts of the United States and EU have messaged clear and distinct repercussions for the continued Russian war but failed to cripple the Russian economy and military-industrial complex.[4] The necessity for continued and innovative sanctions targeting Russian interests is of the utmost importance as the U.S. and allied nations must carry through election cycles and changing governments. Unity of effort in our alliances will ensure Russian aggression is checked, and their ability to conduct war is diminished. This paper intends to provide a review of the current processes for multilateral sanctions against Russia since its 2022 invasion of Ukraine and highlight opportunities for improving sanctions as they are “the most effective policy tool of choice” to the United States and its allies.[5] Russian sanctions must continue with a more targeted focus and renewed efforts to mitigate the Russian Federation’s ability to conduct war in Ukraine.


Analysis of Current Sanctions Targeting Russia

U.S. sanctions are the most powerful in the world and are an aggressive policy tool that allows the United States to be financially and politically punitive short of going to war with a foreign nation.[6] The 2008 Russian invasion of South Ossetia, Georgia, began a period of continued Russian Federation disregard for international law and flagrant violation of the national sovereignty of former Soviet Union countries.[7] Because of the limited international reaction to Russia’s 2008 invasion, President Putin was emboldened in plans of expansion and the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.[8] The U.S. and European Union (EU) responded to the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula with sanctions targeting Russian economic interests. The results of these sanctions were effective as they contracted the Russian GDP by over 2% in 2015, instigating a recession in the Russian economy.[9] Since 2014, the number of sanctions against Russia has steadily increased but is dwarfed by the number of sanctions imposed after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The number of sanctions against Russia since February 2022 is more than any sanctions against North Korea, Iran, and other states combined, as depicted in Figure 2.[10] Now, over a year and a half of their continued war in Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain combat operations despite the obstacles imposed on their economy, military, and industrial complex. The Russian state is largely funded through illicit activity, arms and energy sales, and investments from oligarchs. The levels of corruption, money laundering, and trade-based money laundering allow Russia to circumvent many of the sanctions in place with impunity. Within the last year, Russian oligarchs have made back some $152 billion of frozen assets sanctioned in 2022.[11]

The Russian economy has had many contractions due to crisis and sanctioning since 1990. Figure 1 shows the percentage of annual GDP growth in Russia during the period 1990-2022.[12] The obvious points in negative GDP growth are shown from the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, with a -14.5% GDP growth. The next notable period was 1998, as Russia experienced an economic crisis after it was unable to pay its debts from the previous years of negative GDP growth. The next largest drop in GDP was a 7.8% GDP growth in 2009, as the Russian recession led to the collapse of many of its exports and oil economy. In retrospect, the 2014 U.S. and EU sanctions merely caused a contraction of the Russian economy and a drop to -2% GDP growth in 2015.[13] The global economic crisis imposed by COVID-19 in 2020 caused a larger drop in GDP growth, as depicted in Figure 1, with -2.7%.[14] Since the 2022 Russian sanctions, the GDP growth is only -2.1%. When compared to the previous growth of GDP in 2021 of 5.6%, Figure 1 visualizes the economic impact sanctions have had on Russia but only provides minimal insight. The Russian Federation has, since its economic downturn in 2009 and the 2014 sanctions, attempted to shelter its economy and worked to tie in European energy needs to prevent further blows from its geopolitical goals.


The Nord Stream Pipeline is one of the largest and most notable examples of Russian attempts to entangle European energy reliance on Russian oil and hold the energy sector hostage.[15] By utilizing the $11 billion pipeline, Russia would have been able to secure revenue and have leverage against European actions supporting Ukraine had the EU and U.S. maintained the deal. The rapid and coordinated ability of Europe to pivot from Russian oil dependence in 2022 stymied Russian funding, but it has since recovered some losses by circumventing sanctions and selling to other sanctioned nations, such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).


The 2022 Russian sanctions have successfully limited Russian imports and caused the military and industrial complex to acquire alternate suppliers abroad, which has been inefficient and expensive to replenish weapons and equipment lost in Ukraine.[16] The means for limiting Russian war power and funding, however, is complicated due to several factors. The sanctions themselves have focused heavily on targeting personal assets and oligarchs by name, as well as the scale of who and what to target is a complicated effort that is exacerbated by the scale of unilateral response to the Russian invasion. The number of sanctions imposed against Russia since February 2022 has surpassed all other sanctions on countries combined, as depicted in Figure 2. Pre-2022, the number of sanctions imposed on Russia was 2,695, whereas there have been 13,840 sanctions imposed on Russia since February 2022. The types of sanctions imposed since 2022 differ from the 2014 packages by targeting a vast majority of known individuals and assets of Russia. Figure 3 depicts the number of sanctions imposed on Russia by the country, which further details the scale of allied efforts. The U.S. has imposed the most sanctions since 2014 as it continues to lead our partners in multilateral efforts.[17]



Synopsis of U.S. and EU Sanctioning Processes 

The U.S. process for imposing sanctions is overseen by the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). OFAC is the leading authority on sanctions as they are charged with enforcing them on behalf of the United States Government.[18] The EU Council is responsible for the adoption, amendment, lifting, or renewal of sanctions for the EU.[19] The U.S. Department of State (DoS) Office of Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation is responsible for developing and implementing sanctions to counter threats to national security and works with Congress to draft legislation advancing U.S. foreign policy goals.[20] The U.S. Treasury Department utilizes OFAC to both administer and enforce economic and trade sanctions.[21] OFAC sanctions do not only apply to financial institutions but to all U.S. persons and legal entities as well.[22] Persons, places, organizations, and entities can be sanctioned by OFAC and monitored to ensure prohibited transactions are denied. OFAC has domain over the sanctions imposed and ensures compliance in conjunction with the other functions of the DoS, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Justice (DOJ).[23] As the enforcement arm, OFAC maintains a list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) on its website and updates the list every several days. Businesses filter through the data for information pertaining to SDNs and other tags for sanctions customers, IP addresses, aircraft tail numbers, vessel numbers, and locations of transactions to comply with OFAC sanctioning information.[24]


Other than SDNs, OFAC maintains Consolidated Sanctions Lists and Country Sanctions Programs. Each sanction program is unique, as each country and economic embargo is different. The system for program tagging sanction information is inundated with data. As depicted by Figure 5, the number of sanctions against Russia since 2022 alone is immense and shows the number of individuals, aircraft, ships, and entities sanctioned by each country. While the tagging of accounts, businesses, individuals, and assets is updated and tracked by OFAC systems, the EU and UN systems for sanctioning are different and not in line with U.S. law, as all nations have different geopolitical goals and enforcement measures for sanctions. The amount of data to track is a gap in missing or “things” already sanctioned.


Regarding the EU process, sanctions are forwarded for approval by either the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR) of the EU Council or by member states.[25] The process usually takes twelve months for adoption, but the restrictive measures would take less time until adoption is approved. It is incumbent on the EU member states to implement and enforce restrictive measures or sanctions when they are approved.[26] The speed and coordination between the EU, the U.S., and the U.S. to impose sanctions against Russia is a testament to the partnership and history of NATO and the Western European alliances. While the EU sanction process is usually at least six months after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the EU and the U.S. were already coordinated and implementing their sanctioning efforts. The EU can complement UN sanctions or impose stricter and more targeted measures to make sanctions more effective and aggressive.[27] It is this vital relationship and coordinated effort that allows for truly effective sanctions.


Synopsis of Current Sanction Focuses

While the sanctions against Russia have been larger than those against other nations in history combined, Russia has not experienced the economic collapse expected by many nations that imposed sanctions and is still able to maintain war funding. Figure 4 depicts the increase in the number of sanctions after February 2022 against Russia, while Figure 5 shows the type of sanctions by country against Russia. While the U.S. has significantly outpaced all other nations in sanctions against Russia, the Russian economy and ability to conduct war has maintained a steady, albeit fragile, state.


The EU has approved sanctions against many individuals and assets in line with the U.S. and imposed a SWIFT ban on 10 Russian banks, limiting their immediate access to funds and transactions.[28] EU sanctions have blocked €300 billion of assets from the Russian Central Bank reserves, along with some €20 billion of assets for 1,500 sanctioned persons by the EU.[29] The EU, NATO, and other nations have limited Russian access to energy and transportation, along with placing caps on the amount of crude oil exported at a price of $60 a barrel, well below the international cost.[30] Russia has mitigated the oil gap by selling well in excess of its export cap to the DPRK in exchange for munitions, to China for microchips and electronics for missiles, and to India for cash. Russian sanctions on drones and munitions have failed to prevent their sourcing of Turkish and Iranian drones and munitions from the DPRK, China, Iran, and other former Soviet nations.


Russian Sanction Recommendations

There is a plethora of opportunities to expand upon current sanctions to include more refined and targeted measures against areas circumvented by Russia. The oil cap has provided Russia with revenue and goods to trade with foreign nations in exchange for vital war materials and components. Russia has been able to sell above the previously mentioned cost and amount of the oil cap to receive munitions and vital components for military technologies from China, DPRK, and Turkey. Any nation found illicitly trading sanctioned goods from Russia in exchange for arms or critical technology (i.e., microchips and missile or communications components) should, in turn, have sanctions imposed for their actions. Iran has been effectively tied to violating Russia-Belarus sanctions in exchange for drones and weapon systems, but it has not stopped the import/export circumvention and smuggling.


The U.S., EU, and allied nations have taken some of the most aggressive actions, sanctioning individuals to target Russian oligarchs that hold much of the wealth of the Russian government. This seizure of wealth has not prevented oligarchs from circumventing and gaining back much of their lost profits in 2022.[31] To prevent sanctions from falling short, those targeted individuals should also have their families and those complicit in completing their transactions sanctioned to prevent bypassing their SDNs if they are not tied to an account by name. While sanctions since 2014 have fallen short of such aggressive measures, it has also prevented sanctions from profoundly affecting the Russian economy and its ability to wage war. Punishing Belarus for its direct involvement in the Ukrainian invasion would further isolate it from the rest of the world as there is no expectation of their cooperation due to the explicit support they have provided Russian forces, and now Wagner.

Further expanding targeted Russian banks expelled from SWIFT would prevent Russian businesses and industry from receiving payments for goods and services and access to the international banking system. [32] Such isolation would send a clear and aggressive message to Russia that violations will not stand. Additionally, due to the expected backlash that Russia could claim is justified at expanded removal from SWIFT, they should be removed from the UN Security Council for their continued violations.


Many opportunities exist to enhance and refine the sanctions currently imposed against Russia and its allies. Still, it is incumbent on the U.S. to maintain the stamina and direction of those sanctions. While sanctions are the “policy tool of choice,” they have clearly fallen short of deterring Russia from continued warfare. By maintaining the coordination and impact of sanctions, the U.S. can hopefully bring nations that have yet to join existing sanctions into an agreement to act. With an expanded and renewed multilateral approach to sanctions, Russia can be prevented from continuing its unjust war in Ukraine or face a more accelerated economic collapse. While there are many ramifications for targeting Russia to ensure their economic depression, the alternatives to allowing them to exist as the “near-peer adversary” they see themselves to be threatens not only European security but U.S. national security and interests as well. In the current state of our international security and global affairs, the U.S. cannot afford to let Russia win in Ukraine, nor can we continue aimlessly spending money to ensure it does not. There must be a balanced, coordinated effort targeting Russian assets and wealth, ensuring those responsible for the decision-making are held accountable or bankrupted in the process.






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[1] Congressional Research Service, U.S. Sanctions on Russia, R45415, 2022. The legislation was based on the following: the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-208, Title IV; 22 U.S.C. 5811 note); the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, as amended (UFSA; P.L. 113-272; 22 U.S.C. 8921 et seq.); the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014, as amended (SSIDES; P.L. 113-95; 22 U.S.C. 8901 et seq.); the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act of 2019, as amended (PEESA; P.L. 116-92, Title LXXV; 22 U.S.C. 9526 note); the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017, as amended (CRIEEA; P.L. 115-44); and the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act [CAATSA], Title II; 22 U.S.C. 9501 et seq.)

[2] Stanford University, The International Working Group on Russian Sanctions, 2023.

[3] Dickinson, The 2008 Russo-Georgian War: Putin’s Green Light, 2021.

[4] Berman, One Year of War in Ukraine: Are Sanctions Against Russia Making a Difference?, 2023.

[5] United States Department of State, Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation, 2023.

[6] White, Financial Sanctions: The Foreign Policy Tool of Choice, 2023.

[7] Dickinson, The 2008 Russo-Georgian War: Putin’s Green Light, 2021.

[8] Ibid, 2021.

[9] World Bank, GDP Growth (annual %) - Russian Federation, 2023.

[10] All figures listed in the appendix at the end of this paper. These figures were created by the author utilizing different datasets also listed in the Bibliography section.

[11] Bychkovska, Mikadze and Saionz, The Hill. 2023. “How to Make Sanctions on Russia More Effective, 2023.

[12] World Bank, GDP Growth (annual %) - Russian Federation, 2023.

[13] Christie, NATO Review - Sanctions after Crimea, 2015

[14] Congressional Research Service, U.S. Sanctions on Russia, R45415, 2022.

[15] Simon and Shalal, Reuters, 2021.

[16] Schott, Economic sanctions against Russia, PIIE 2023.

[17] White, Financial Sanctions: The Foreign Policy Tool of Choice, 2023.

[18] White, Financial Sanctions: The Foreign Policy Tool of Choice, 2023

[19] European Union External Actions, European Union Sanctions, 2021

[20] U.S. Department of State, Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation, 2023.

[21] White, Financial Sanctions: The Foreign Policy Tool of Choice, 2023.

[22] Ibid, 2023.

[23] U.S. Department of State, Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation, 2023.

[24] White, Financial Sanctions: The Foreign Policy Tool of Choice, 2023.

[25] European Council of the EU, How and When the EU Adopts Sanctions, 2023.

[26] EEAS, European Union Sanctions, 2021.

[27] EEAS, European Union Sanctions, 2021

[28] EU Council, EU Sanctions in Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, 2023.

[29] EU Council, Impact of Sanctions on the Russian Economy, 2023.

[30] The Hill, How to Make Sanctions on Russia More Effective, 2023.

[31] U.S. Department of State, Imposing Additional Sanctions on Those Supporting Russia’s War against Ukraine, 2023.

[32] European Council of the EU, EU Sanctions in Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, 2023.