Interview & Opinion

“Researchers are pessimistic about the impact of sanctions”

Sanctions have developed into important tools in the external relations toolbox. The political scientist Katharina Meissner investigates why, how and which forms of sanctions are imposed by the European Union. Source: private

Ms Meissner, how do you define sanctions and what are they expected to achieve?

Katharina Meissner: This is not a trivial question, as there are different definitions in the scientific literature – I consider the one by Tostensen and Bull to be quite useful. These scholars define sanctions as any restriction imposed by states on other states to force them to adopt a specific behaviour or to achieve a change in behaviour. So you see it’s quite a broad notion. Any restriction of an economic or financial nature, but also relating to culture or sport, can be a sanction. On the other hand, the definition is also quite narrow. Sanctions can have different objectives. And this particular definition assumes that sanctions are intended to achieve the adoption or discontinuation of a specific type of behaviour. There are also approaches in the scholarly literature that have a different focus.

So what are these concerned with?

Meissner: With sanctions producing a signalling effect, for instance, or making the undesirable behaviour more costly. While this is related to the objective I mentioned earlier, the anticipated time-horizon is longer. In the case of the sanctions against North Korea there is the hope, of course, that something like an opening or a regime change will occur at some point. But even if one is aware that this change in behaviour is unlikely to occur, one can impose sanctions precisely because they increase costs and have a signalling effect.

Your research examines the EU’s sanctions regimes. What is the legal basis on which these are decided?

Meissner: In the EU, sanctions are predicated on the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and require a decision by the Council of the European Union. The threshold for this decision is relatively high: as they require unanimity in the Council, each member state has a right of veto. These are the “classic” sanctions that we are now talking about in connection with Russia. What makes the matter rather complicated is the fact that there are other measures the EU takes that are similar to sanctions, but have a completely different legal basis and are not usually perceived as sanctions by the public. These measures concern the areas of trade policy and development cooperation. There are, for instance, simplified customs regimes for developing countries, called GSP, which can be lifted. In that case, the procedure is quite different and is conducted via the supranational part of the EU, i.e. with the participation of the Commission, Parliament and Council. In these policy areas, the Council decision only needs a qualified majority, which lowers the threshold.

What types of classical sanctions are there?

Comprehensive economic sanctions wreak high collateral damage, also for the general population.

Katharina Meissner

Meissner: The majority of sanctions are so-called “smart sanctions” or “targeted sanctions”. They target individuals, individual companies or sectors and mainly involve entry restrictions and measures against assets located in the EU. This type corresponds to what has now been decided for some oligarchs, but also for Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In contrast there are more comprehensive economic sanctions, as for example restrictions in the area of import-export or large-scale financial sanctions. The absolute number of states on which the EU has imposed classic sanctions is relatively small – namely Russia and Sevastopol/Crimea, Syria, Iran, Myanmar and Venezuela. But we see that the broader sanctions have become more important, especially in the last ten years. That is interesting to note, because in the 1990s, the trend was more towards “smart sanctions”, because comprehensive economic sanctions wreak high collateral damage – in scholarly research we call that “unintended consequences” –, also for the general population.

Are you aware of any hypotheses as to why the comprehensive “sanctions packages” are gaining importance?

Meissner: Unfortunately, this turnaround has not yet been well researched. However, I have recently looked at what prerequisites must be fulfilled for such comprehensive sanctions to be adopted. The state to be sanctioned must be suspected of committing serious violations of human rights and also have the military capabilities to sustain them over a longer period of time. These two conditions must be coupled: either with a simultaneous US intervention or it must be a salient conflict, i.e. one that attracts high public attention.

You mentioned the USA. So, comprehensive sanctions regimes are usually imposed by the “Western community of states”?

Meissner: Yes. That is also because the decision-makers are aware, of course, that these economic sanctions will only take effect if they are supported by many allies. Otherwise, the state could simply circumvent them by switching to other trading partners. Also, it’s my hypothesis that when it comes to security issues the EU relies on the US, which is also a key player in NATO. Either the US is exerting pressure or the EU is latching on to an initiative of the US.

What makes sanctions effective?

Meissner: That is a hotly contested question, although the greater part of sanctions research has been dealing with it for decades. It’s interesting to note how broad the spectrum of assessments is. It ranges from “less than one third of sanctions are successful” to “two thirds of sanctions are successful”. For the most part, however, researchers are quite pessimistic, which also relates to the fact that it is not easy to define “success”. Let’s remind ourselves of the opening question: if I measure the success of sanctions by a very specific change in behaviour, the success rate will be low. Change rarely happens in such a clear-cut fashion. But if I measure it by factors such as whether the sanctions produce a signal effect or an increase in costs, I will naturally have a higher success rate. However, research has found some of the factors attributed to the sanctioned state that do increase the success rate.

What factors are those?

There is one factor that I consider under-researched: the implementation of sanctions.

Katharina Meissner

Meissner: Democracies are more vulnerable to sanctions than authoritarian regimes. But the main bulk of sanctions are imposed on authoritarian regimes, of course. Weak authoritarian regimes are more vulnerable than stable ones, because the latter are often able to control to some extent what is affected by the sanctions. In that case, costs are a decisive factor. The higher the cost to the state, the greater the chances that sanctions will be successful. And then there is one more factor that I consider under-researched: the implementation of sanctions. Think of it like this: the EU decides on sanctions, and the member states have to implement and control them. The level of rigour of such implementation can vary greatly, partly because sanctions naturally also affect businesses in the member states and thus provoke conflicts of distribution. The application and monitoring of these sanction regimes and the sanctioning of violations is subject to great variation.

So far we have talked about sanctions in the abstract, but the reason for this interview is the sanctions against Russia. Is the package that has now been adopted the toughest sanctions regime that the EU currently has at its disposal?

Meissner: I would think it is. Especially with the recent decision about the ban from Swift. After all, the media described that as a “nuclear option” in the financial sector. I see it in a more differentiated way. As of 1 March, the ban hits 70 percent of Russian banks, so it is more of a “targeted” approach. What is much tougher is the trade ban on reserves of the Russian Central Bank that are held in the EU. This has a massive impact on the Russian economy and on the entire financial sector.

Are sanctions more successful if they last longer? Or is it better to go in full throttle right away?

Meissner: Again, research is divided. There are indications that longer sanctions are more successful. But then again, some aspects can be interpreted in the opposite direction. This also relates to the unintended consequences I mentioned earlier. That can include the creation or strengthening of a shadow economy or consequences of a humanitarian nature. Even if these effects are not desirable, they represent an important part of the impact of sanctions. They will mainly occur in the case of comprehensive sanctions, as we will probably also see in the case of Russia. On the other hand, we must of course ask ourselves: what are the alternatives? There needs to be a clear signal that this invasion cannot be accepted under any circumstances.

Can sanctions also strengthen regimes?

Meissner: Yes, such cases exist. Research tells us what conditions can favour such negative “side effects”. One of them applies when an authoritarian regime has relatively large access to the media landscape and can thus control the narrative of the sanctions. In addition, there is the steering effect mentioned above: the ban from Swift affects not only groups loyal to the regime, but also opposition groups. Authoritarian regimes can use the shadow economy to control who can circumvent the sanctions and who cannot. I would definitely see this danger in Russia.


Katharina Meissner is a postdoc at the Centre for European Integration Research (EIF), Department of Political Science, University of Vienna. The research of this political scientist concerns the interface between international relations and EU research with a focus on the EU’s external relations. Her project “What determines EU sanctions? Design choice and exemptions” (2019–2023) is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.

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