(Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s Symposium, International Law in the Face of Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine: The View from Lviv.)

With global stability at risk in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a coalition of countries around the globe imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia and its supporters. But two years later, Western technologies and military and dual-use goods continue to fuel Russia’s war machine arrayed against Ukraine. The West can do better, and it has the tools at its disposal. Certainly sanctions are not a substitute for a wider, decisive strategy of forcing Russia to comply with its international obligations and restore international peace and security, but they must remain part of it. The international community must strengthen and expand its sanctions on Russia to achieve the intended aims of curbing its assault on Ukraine and on the international order.

Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine and accompanying annihilation of the fundamentals of international law are challenges of top magnitude that threaten the existing international legal order and global security. The situation is aggravated by the readiness of other actors to assist Russia and, by doing so, gain economic or political power, make bloody money, or otherwise benefit from the situation (e.g., by trading favors with Russia). Sanctions, import and export controls, and other economic measures (for convenience, I will refer to all of these types of measures as “sanctions” throughout) are important instruments to reduce Russia’s ability to wage its aggressive war. Such penalties and restrictions reduce revenues that the Russian government can use to finance its war machine and impede Russia’s access to components and technologies for its weaponry.

Without the sanctions already put in place by a coalition of States, including the United States, the European Union and its individual members, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and others (the “sanctions coalition”), the situation on the ground in Ukraine would have been even worse. However, there is a pressing need for improvement. The coalition must urgently take certain specific steps to strengthen the sanctions regime.

Russia’s Access to Foreign Military Components: Improving Export Controls

In a January 2024 joint study, “Challenges of Export Controls Enforcement: How Russia Continues to Import Components for its Military Production,” the Yermak-McFaul International Working Group on Russian Sanctions (“Working Group”) together with the KSE Institute at the Kyiv School of Economics analyzed Russia’s access to components for military production as found in Russian military equipment destroyed or captured on the battlefield in Ukraine. The study concluded that export controls remain a powerful instrument able to prevent Russia’s access to many high-tech products from coalition countries. But the researchers also found that Russia has adjusted its supply chains and continues to have access to military inputs in significant volumes, and that it continues to rely significantly on foreign components for its military production. In 2023, almost half of all of Russia’s imports of the goods in question was sourced from sanctions coalition countries’ producers.

The Ukrainian National Agency on Corruption Prevention has documented close to 3,000 components from nearly 400 manufacturers in 32 countries that have been found in Russian weapons used in Ukraine, with more than 2,000 parts originating from U.S.-headquartered producers. These figures are sobering, as they show that Russia is using Western goods to kill Ukrainians. But they also demonstrate a significant potential for making sanctions more effective.

According to the Working Group-KSE study, export control loopholes are encountered at various stages of international supply chains leading to Russia. The loopholes include unsanctioned goods, misclassified goods, unsanctioned recipients of goods that end up in Russia or unsanctioned third-country intermediaries, fake transit routes through Russia, and deliberate or negligent non-compliance with the relevant restrictions. These loopholes need to be closed by a combination of systemic measures and – most immediately – extension of sanctions to those goods, recipients, and intermediaries that are not yet covered.

The Working Group and KSE Institute recommend specific steps with respect to export controls to (1) close policy gaps in the existing export control regime, (2) strengthen government institutions tasked with its implementation and enforcement, (3) bolster corporate responsibility by incentivizing and empowering the private sector to step-up compliance, (4) target third-country circumvention schemes, including by the wider use of secondary sanctions, and (5) improve multilateral cooperation (improved exchange of information, joint investigations and new multilateral treaties). Separately, the Working Group in January issued recommendations to prevent Russia’s war machine from using Western software products.

Restricting Russia’s Access to Funds: Energy Sanctions

Energy sanctions, including the “price cap” (i.e., measures that aim to reduce Russia’s profits while not entirely halting Russia’s oil trade, by permitting the provision of services for the maritime transport of Russian seaborne crude oil and petroleum products to third countries if sold at or below a certain price cap), need maintenance and improvements to remain effective.

The Working Group in February proposed several steps, including the upgrade of measures against the Russian “shadow fleet” (i.e., a fleet of underinsured old tankers used by Russia to bypass the price cap) by sanctioning individual vessels), as well as stepping up investigations and imposing penalties and sanctions on shadow-market intermediaries. Further, coastal States (especially in the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean) can and should exercise their rights to prevent the passage of tankers with inadequate mandatory spill insurance, which will not only hinder shadow fleet operation but also decrease the environmental risk posed by it.

Price cap compliance is a must. It was especially weak in the fourth quarter of 2023, with about 95% of Russia’s seaborne oil traded above the $60/barrel cap. The Working Group’s February recommendations noted that additional economic pressure on Russia could be achieved by lowering the price cap to $50/barrel, completing the ban on Russian hydrocarbons by the coalition States, and further limiting Russia’s access to the efficiency offered by Western oil and gas services.

Sanctions Over Russia’s Forcible Deportation of Ukrainian Children

The forcible transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children is a systematic and extensive practice that violates various provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. As argued by University College London Law Lecturer Yulia Ioffe in her briefing “Accountability measures for the forcible transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children” presented at a November 2023 workshop, these acts may qualify as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and form an element of the crime of genocide. Swedish analyst Andreas Umland said in his Briefing “Russia’s forcible transfers of unaccompanied Ukrainian children: responses from Ukraine, the EU and beyond” presented at the same forum that part a wider response to this practice should include strengthening sanctions against Russian individuals or organizations involved. In addition, in my view, the list of those sanctioned on this basis should be extended to include Belarusian persons involved in this practice.

Widening the Sanctions Coalition

Widening the sanctions coalition through greater multilateral cooperation may prove to be another fruitful approach: 141 states voted for the U.N. General Assembly Resolution deploring Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the aftermath of the February 2022 full-scale invasion (A/RES/ES‑11/1 dated 2 March 2022), but the number of states in the sanctions coalition is more modest (the core coalition consists of about 30 countries, while the number of States that have taken some “unfriendly” actions against Russia is approximately 50, including the core 30). There may be political, economic, moral, and legal arguments for States to expand on sanctions against Russia, or for new States to join the sanctions coalition or otherwise ensure that persons under their jurisdiction do not assist Russia in its illegal war.

Systemic Measures Alongside Sanctions

The U.S. Department of State in its recent business advisory, “Risks and Considerations for Doing Business in the Russian Federation and Russia-Occupied Territories of Ukraine,” warned that businesses and individuals that operate in or have value chains linked to Russia or the areas it occupies in Ukraine should be aware of the risk of being implicated in Russia’s violations of international law. This includes the risk of being implicated in Russia’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights violations, as well as being perceived as directly or indirectly supporting Russia’s aggressive war.

As part of a systemic approach, due diligence must be undertaken – on national and international levels – to ensure effective mechanisms of prevention and prosecution of negligent or intentional assistance in waging illegal war, commission of crimes of universal jurisdiction, and human rights violations abroad.

Ukraine’s Access to Assets for Reconstruction

Sanctions also play a role in preparing for Ukraine’s future recovery. Two main sources of assets potentially available to finance the reconstruction of Ukraine are frozen assets of sanctioned Russian persons and immobilized Russian sovereign assets. The topic of legal options for the confiscation of Russian State assets is a separate issue, but sanctions can play a certain practical role in seizing Russian persons’ frozen assets.

In most jurisdictions, sanctions are not grounds for seizing assets, but they serve, effectively, as a freezing injunction. Freezing sanctions offer the benefit of additional time to take necessary legal steps to seize and repurpose those assets. The appropriate mechanisms allowing seizure need to be developed. In this context, Public International Law & Policy Group recently published a white paper “Seizure of Russian Corporate Assets,” offering a legal framework whereby foreign courts may satisfy financial awards by Ukrainian courts against Russian corporations for their support of, complicity in, or aiding and abetting the commission of war crimes or other atrocities in Ukraine.

Ukraine has introduced special legislation (effective during the martial law period) that allows the High Anticorruption Court of Ukraine, following (contentious) judicial review, to forfeit previously frozen assets of a sanctioned person provided the Court establishes that such a person has engaged in certain activity aimed at furthering Russia’s aggressive war. The proceeds from the sale of the seized assets are directed to the State budget’s special fund for addressing the consequences of Russia’s armed aggression.

Greater cooperation between Ukraine and coalition States may assist in minimizing the risk of dissipation of assets potentially subject to Ukraine’s forfeiture sanctions (e.g., through dilution of a sanctioned person’s share in Ukrainian assets via additional share issues at the parent company level, if located in the coalition country).

Russia’s Hybrid War on Coalition States

It is not a secret that Russia’s warfare does not end with hostilities in Ukraine. Russia is targeting States in the sanctions coalition with measures aimed at, among other things, sowing internal discord, weakening their cyber security, and even internal regime change.

Targeted States need stronger defenses against such “hybrid warfare,” and sanctions may be one of the tools to accomplish that. Measures could focus on limiting Russia’s access to Western software that can be used in cyberattacks (or other forms of disinformation and influence operations sometimes referred to as “hybrid war”); investigating and prosecuting or sanctioning Russian actors and their accomplices involved in interference with democratic governance and free elections; prohibit the key sources of Russia’s propaganda and disinformation; as well as enhancing control over the activities of domestic or international actors financed, directly or indirectly, by Russia.

Sanctions Must be Part of a Wider Strategy

Those who say that sanctions should be abandoned may be promoting Russia’s narrative. There is some truth to the critique that sanctions are expensive for the countries imposing them. It is also evident that sanctions have not prevented Russia from continuing its aggressive war: in the third year of its full-scale invasion, Russia is preparing for a summer offensive instead of preparing to withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s territory.

But it is wrong to compare the situation today to the pre-February 2022 (or in fact pre-2014) status quo. The costs of sanctions should be assessed in comparison with the costs and effectiveness of other ways to reach the desired objectives. Further, the assessment of the costs of reaching the necessary objectives should factor in the existential interests at stake for the States imposing sanctions — if Russia prevails, the costs of preserving the legal order and security it offers will be multiple times higher.

With Russia going for broke and also getting assistance from its supporters, it would have been wishful thinking that sanctions alone could force Russia to curtail its illegal war against Ukraine and relinquish its broader plans for domination. Sanctions are not a substitute for a well-designed, decisive, and multi-faceted strategy for restoring and preserving international peace and security. But they must be part of the strategy to ensure it achieves the greatest impact.

Such a strategy must include several components. First, timely military support for Ukraine is needed. Second, the international community should continue to work alongside Ukraine to develop mechanisms for holding Russia and its war criminals to account. And third, States must support other ways of pressuring Russia to comply with international law, including confiscation of Russia’s sovereign assets.

A Moral and Legal Duty

Sanctions against Russia should not be seen as only a reflection of political decisions —they also represent a moral and legal duty. There are not enough words to describe Russia’s terror, but the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” provides a glimpse at a fraction of the unimaginable violence and human suffering Russia inflicts on the Ukrainian people daily. The horrors of Russia’s war are on par with those of the Second World War, against which the international community vowed “never again.” Ukraine needs the resolve of its allies to turn “never again” into reality. In the third year of this ugly full-scale war, the Ukrainian people need the world to stand tall and strong with Ukraine, including by employing every available action and sanction against Russia’s ability to make war.

IMAGE: KHARKIV, UKRAINE – MARCH 27: Police officers and military experts operate at the site of a Russian aerial bombing of a high-rise residential building in the Shevchenkivskyi district on March 27, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The Russian military aircrafts, for the first time since 2022, dropped UMPB D-30 glide bombs on Kharkiv, hitting the central part of the city and damaging at least 14 multi-story residential buildings, as well as civil infrastructure objects – a medical institution, a preschool educational institution and school, administrative buildings. One person was killed and at least 19 others were injured, including three children and a 3-month-old baby. Russia continues to pound Ukraine’s Kharkiv Oblast bordering with it with missiles, drones and guided aerial bombs in an attempt to re-occupy it. (Photo by Ivan Samoilov/Gwara Media/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)