In the past two days, the United States, European Union, United Kingdom and Australia, among other countries, have imposed sanctions against Russia as it recognised the independence of territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists and attacked Ukraine.

Sanctions are policy measures intended to impose economic and diplomatic costs on a country for disturbing the global rules-based order or for committing human rights violations. As the conflict in Ukraine intensifies, the subject of imposing such costs is likely to be widely discussed.

Some countries have desisted from imposing sanctions even as they have criticised Moscow’s actions. As of now, the United States and the European Union have also refrained from imposing especially damaging sanctions on Russia, which has led to disenchantment from Ukraine. Questions have also been raised on the efficacy of the sanctions in deterring Russia from attacking its neighbour.

Hesitation on damaging sanctions

Moreover, the United States and the European Union have not yet chosen to cut Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication or SWIFT, the worldwide interbank payments system.

On Thursday, United States President Joe Biden said they may revisit the matter, Reuters reported.

“...Right now, that’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take,” Biden added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, too, opposed cutting off Russia from SWIFT, but said that the step could be taken at a later stage.

However, on Thursday, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged countries to go forward with the measure in an impassioned tweet. “I will not be diplomatic on this,” he said. “Everyone who now doubts whether Russia should be banned from SWIFT has to understand that the blood of innocent Ukrainian men, women and children will be on their hands too.”

Cutting Moscow off from SWIFT would make it nearly impossible for thousands of financial institutions to send money in and out of Russia, The Guardian reported. However, some have argued against doing so, stressing on the need to maintain leverage to persuade Russia to engage in a dialogue.

“You always need to have some doors open to be able to have a dialogue to stop a war,” the a diplomat from the European Union said.

Meanwhile, South Korea also said it will not impose its own sanctions on Russia, according to the Financial Times. It said it will only uphold such measures announced by other countries.

Current sanctions

Nevertheless, several countries have imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russian banks, political representatives and projects involving Russia.

On Thursday, Biden imposed sanctions aimed at five major Russian banks, including the government-backed Sberbank and VTB. Sberbank and VTB are the largest and second-largest banks in Russia.

The United States president also announced limitations on exports to Russia. These restrictions will apply to a range of items including electronics, semiconductors and aircraft components.

On Tuesday, Biden had also announced that the United States was implementing comprehensive sanctions on Moscow’s sovereign debt. A government issues sovereign debt in a foreign currency to finance the issuing country’s growth and development.

“That means we’ve cut off Russia’s government from Western financing,” he said. “It can no longer raise money from the West and cannot trade in its new debt on our markets or European markets either.”

The sanctions imposed on Tuesday constituted the first tranche of such measures by the United States, followed by the ones announced on Thursday.

The European Union also announced sanctions against the 351 legislators from the Duma, or the lower House of Russia’s parliament, who voted in favour of recognition to separatist regions in Ukraine. The bloc also imposed sanctions against 27 other Russian officials and institutions from the sectors of defence and banking.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Germany suspended the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.

The 1,200-kilometre pipeline, built to bring gas from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea, has been completed but is yet to get regulatory approval.

The United Kingdom’s sanctions are aimed against billionaires with alleged close links to Putin. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that the assets held by Gennady Timchenko, Igor Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg in the UK will be frozen and the billionaires will not be allowed to travel to the country.

Countries in other parts of the world have also announced similar measures. Australia’s sanctions target eight senior Russian security officials, as well as oil and gas sectors, according to The Guardian. Further, individuals and entities in Australia will be prohibited from conducting business transactions with Russia-based lenders Rossiya Bank, Promsvyazbank, IS Bank, Genbank and the Black Sea Bank for Development and Reconstruction.

Taiwan also said on Friday that it will join other democracies in imposing sanctions on Russia, the Financial Times reported.

Efficacy of the sanctions

Some of the sanctions perceived to be the most damaging for Moscow can also carry significant costs for the countries that impose them.

For example, cutting off Russia from SWIFT may lead to difficulties for European lenders to get their money back from Russia, Reuters reported. Banks in Austria, Italy and France are reportedly among the ones that have the highest levels of transactions with Russia.

As of 2021, Moscow had hard currency reserves of $635 billion and a low debt-to-Gross Domestic Product Ratio, Reuters reported. This would have a significant impact on its ability to absorb the financial costs imposed by the sanctions.

Sanctions were also imposed on Russia in 2014, when it annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea. But, as compared to that time, Asian countries now constitute a larger portion of Russia’s trade ties, Nicholas Mulder, a professor of modern European history at Cornell University, told AP.

He said that non-European countries are likely to maintain trade ties with Russia.