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How to Sanction a Country: The Basics, EU Edition

In the realm of international relations, sanctions have emerged as a potent tool, touted as a substitute for military confrontation, particularly when dealing with nations possessing nuclear capabilities. 

Sanctions, defined as diplomatic measures enacted by governments or multilateral bodies to uphold international law and safeguard security threats, are adopted in the European Union through a unanimous decision from all members. 

Sanctions can take many forms. Military sanctions, for example, range from expelling foreign military bases to restricting international travel for military personnel.

Diplomatic sanctions involve the expulsion of foreign dignitaries and embassies, while sports sanctions can restrict a nation's participation in international sporting events like the Olympics.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2022 announcing economic sanctions against Russia, including blocking of Russian bank payment processing systems.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2022 announcing economic sanctions against Russia, including blocking of Russian bank payment processing systems. Photo Credit: Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool.

However, the most pervasive and impactful are economic sanctions, encompassing bans on trade, currency flows, investments, corporate governance, or a combination of these measures.

Why are sanctions put into place?

Sanctions are placed onto nations with one of three goals in mind. To stop international crimes, to stop weapons development, or to force a regime change. 

Recently, Russia has become the epicenter of an intense sanctions regime, unprecedented in its severity against any other major global economy. This aggressive approach includes blocking Russia from procuring high-tech goods, military equipment purchases, freezing assets, and imposing travel restrictions on specific individuals associated with the Putin regime. Additionally, major Russian banks face blockades on international transfers.

Ukrainians demonstrate in London against the invasion of Ukraine and for sanctions against Russia, on February 24, 2022. Photo Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Russia's pivotal position as a key oil producer raises concerns about the unintended consequences of sanctions, such as escalating oil prices worldwide.

Even 10% of the United States’ oil was imported from Russia prior to the sanctions. This is due to sanctions placed on Venezuela. Russia can still technically sell oil and gas internationally because of what is known as a carve-out. A carve out is an exception to sanction for goods that are identified as essential. Although, massive social pressure remains for western gas companies to pull out of Russia. 
The Gremikhinskoye oil field, east of Izhevsk near the Ural mountains in Russia.

This goal to isolate Russia from the global economy is a key reason for the EU reluctance to sanction Azerbaijan as a gas-abundant nation.  

In the wake of Azerbaijan's military offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave, the European Union faces mounting pressure to reevaluate its controversial gas deal with Azerbaijan. The EU has condemned Azerbaijan's actions but has yet to take any consequential actions towards the oil-rich country. 

The EU's significant gas deal with Azerbaijan, championed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as a crucial step toward diversifying energy sources and reducing dependence on Russian fuel, now stands under intensified scrutiny.

Destroyed residential area of Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan is gearing up to fulfill a vital role in the European Union's quest for energy diversification. In a deal championed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Azerbaijan has set forth plans to deliver approximately 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas to the EU by 2027. 

Petroleum industry in Azerbaijan.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev shake hands after signing a memorandum of understanding on increased gas deliveries in Baku, Azerbaijan.

A joint statement issued on Tuesday, from four members of the European Parliament implored for an immediate cessation of hostilities, expressing deep concern that Azerbaijan could employ military escalation to force the local population's exodus. 

The statement read, "In the absence of an immediate halt to the ongoing attack, we call on the Council to fundamentally reconsider the EU's relations with Azerbaijan in this light, and consider imposing sanctions against responsible Azerbaijani authorities." 

Additionally, more than 60 parliamentarians asked for sanctions in a separate statement. This call for a reassessment of ties with Azerbaijan highlights the gravity of the situation and Azerbaijan's violation of international norms.

French MEP and member of the energy committee, François-Xavier Bellamy, echoed the urgency saying, “we have to react now with immediate sanctions. We do not have the right to threaten, in exchange for a small gas supply, the rules of international law and the principles on which the Union has been founded.”

Similarly, Dutch MEP Thijs Reuten, a member of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, urged European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to take robust measures calling to, “ suspend [the] Azerbaijan energy deal and put President Aliyev under full sanctions.”

These statements underscore the growing sentiment among EU lawmakers to prioritize ethical considerations over energy agreements, especially in the face of escalating conflict and potential humanitarian consequences.

However, an EU-27 statement, made up as a jointed statement from all 27 EU countries, was set to be released condemning Azerbaijan on Friday. Europe Editor Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty Rikard Jozwiak reported Hungary's MEPs blocked the statement, and the statement fell to be European External Action Service. Little follow up reporting or direct statements from Hungary officials have been published.

Reflecting on historical experiences, sanctions can be more effective as a threat than a standalone weapon. Persistent sanctions against Iran and North Korea have not diminished their formidable military capacities.

The Iraq case stands as a dire example of sanctions failing to curtail a dictator's aggression, leading to profound humanitarian suffering and a stark reminder that, when isolated and authoritarian, some regimes may endure despite international pressure.

As the crisis unfolds, the European Union faces a crucial decision that will shape its stance on human rights, international law, and its commitment to maintaining a principled approach in its partnerships. The EU's response in the aftermath of this conflict will undoubtedly reverberate across the geopolitical landscape, impacting the Union's standing and relationships with key energy partners.

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