Give It Some Time: EU Sanctions Against Russia

As a result of Brussels’ extraordinarily tough sanctions package in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the issue of how to assess sanctions’ effectiveness has grown more important for the European Union. In addition to the limitations put in place in 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of the Donbas, these sanctions have now been added to the package. Although a turning point in EU sanctions policy was noted in 2014, a sanctions “revolution” has been dubbed as a result of the waves of sanctions regimes that have been implemented in quick succession since February 2022.

The sanctions regime is often portrayed as ineffective in mainstream analysis. The majority of analyses, however, are based on the observation that Moscow has continued its military operations in the rest of Ukraine and has not changed its direction in terms of foreign policy or withdrew from Crimea. Instead, it is important to understand the purposes pursued by sanctions and the rationales that guide them. To generate a more accurate image of the success of the sanctions, a wider range of criteria should be used rather than “withdrawing from Crimea and stopping its military actions in the rest of Ukraine.”

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU imposed a set of sanctions that combined three different justifications: A normative logic of strengthening the EU’s presence globally, the conventional justification of sapping economic vitality and exerting pressure on state coffers, and a more targeted justification aimed at the nation’s elites.[1]

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Ursula von der Leyen initially announced sanctions, claiming they were intended to “cripple Putin’s ability to finance his war machine, further isolate Russia and drain the resources it uses to finance this barbaric war, pressure Russian elites close to Putin, hit a central sector of Russia’s system and deprive it of billions in export revenues.” [2] The sanctions serve a symbolic purpose by signaling the unacceptableness of Russia’s behavior in addition to restricting the target nation’s economic resources. Furthermore, the sanctions serve a normative purpose intended at audiences outside of the targeted leadership. In the case of the EU, the imposition of joint sanctions under the Common Foreign Security Policy strengthened its position as a supporter of international law, democracy, and human rights on the global stage. The European Union, as they have stated, “stood firmly with the brace people of Ukraine.”[3]

Second, the fall of imports during the first six months of the new sanctions regime caused a significant disruption in the Russian industrial sector. Instead of official restrictions, a large portion of this decline in imports was caused by unintentional disruptions of trade relationships, high unpredictability, and reputational concerns of multinational corporations. After February 2022, Russia’s exports took off in contrast to imports. High energy prices, the postponed implementation of the EU oil embargo, and a drop in imports all contributed to an extraordinary $127 billion current account surplus from March to July 2022.[4] In the early weeks of the sanctions, the Russian leadership was able to stabilize the economy thanks to the spike in exports. The Central Bank was able to strengthen the ruble thanks to the current account surplus and the implementation of stringent capital controls, which reduced the cost of imports. As a result, inflation was gradually reduced, easing some of the burden on Russians’ real incomes. Russia’s economic crisis is anticipated to worsen as a result of the oil and oil product embargo, which will go into effect in December 2022 and February 2023. It will particularly affect exports and government revenues.

The Kremlin’s financial flexibility has been severely constrained by sanctions, forcing it to make difficult decisions on whether to pay for the war, social services, domestic repression, or elite’s interests. However, the financial picture was favorable for Moscow before the 2022 sanctions, and the budgetary situation is not expected to become critical for the next one or two years. If the crisis persists, the Kremlin may still be able to raise more funds by rerouting spending within the budget, turning to the National Welfare Fund, expanding domestic borrowing, and printing money—at least temporarily.

Finally, one of the goals of the sanctions is to isolate the elites and compel them to renounce their support for Putin. Economic elites with connections to the West have been severely hurt by sanctions, which has resulted in enormous wealth loss for them. Under Putin, nevertheless, their political clout had significantly declined. Although some of the wealthiest businessmen initially opposed the war, as the state came down on them, they ceased to speak out. Many growth-oriented government technocrats observed that their work was in ruins, which led to obvious resentment.[5] However, there haven’t been any resignations from important government positions. Elites who oppose the war must be concerned about attacks from other elites vying for power as well as repressions planned by the Kremlin. Visible power transfers within the regime have effectively been suppressed by the fear of retaliation. At the same time, the conflict has increased the security apparatus’s importance at the expense of other organizations. There are no apparent rivalries or alternative power centers among Russia’s top elites.

At the end of the day, it is clear that the EU’s sanctions regime against Russia sought to combine three different justifications: the normative justification of enhancing the EU’s influence on a global scale; the conventional justification of weakening the economy and decreasing the amount of money available to fund the war; and a more specialized justification aimed at elites in an effort to dissuade them from supporting the regime. While sanctions have caused an economic slump, the loss in living standards is not felt equally by the Russian public and elites, and the budget situation is not severe. This paints a mixed picture of the economic effects of the sanctions.

But some sanctions are already having an effect more than others, including export restrictions that are leading to a lack of microelectronics for manufacturing, including the defense industry. Regarding the political effects, there are few indications that influential elites or the general populace are challenging the Kremlin’s policies as a result of the sanctions.

Sanctions are taking time to cause effect, but once they do, they will have permanent and difficult-to-reverse effects.


[2] European Commission, ‘Statement by President von der Leyen on the fourth package of restrictive measures against Russia’, 11 March 2022 ( statement_22_1724).

[3] Borrell, J., ‘Beyond sanctions: what future for Russia?’, Working Paper 6/22, Instituto Complutense de Estudios Internacionales, 2022 (https://

[4] Central Bank of Russia, ‘Estimate of Key Aggregates of the Balance of Payments of the Russian Federation’, 2022.

[5] Farida Rustamova, ‘“They’re carefully enunciating the word clusterf*ck” – How Russian officials and members of parliament really feel about Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine’, Faridaily, 6 March 2022 (

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