Addressing Errors and Inconsistencies in Russia-Related Sanctions Declarations

Addressing Errors and Inconsistencies in Russia-Related Sanctions Declarations
Photo by Michael Mráz on Unsplash.

Western countries have repeatedly deployed sanctions against Russia, targeting its activities and seeking to punish individuals and organisations. However, profiles of key security actors reveal three recurring issues with sanctions declarations: basic factual errors; the neglect of key actors; and a failure by Western countries to coordinate. Addressing these issues is relatively easy and would strengthen the normative signal that sanctions send.


The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (EU) have all made extensive use of sanctions in responding to Russia’s actions at home and abroad. Major developments that have been met by sanctions include the death of tax lawyer Sergey Magnitsky in 2009; the annexation of Crimea in 2014; the persecution of LGBTQ communities in Chechnya since 2017; the use of private military companies (PMCs) around the globe; and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. As explained by the EU, sanctions are intended “to impose severe consequences,” “effectively thwart” further action, and “target people responsible.”

Three issues with sanctions declarations

Such commendable goals notwithstanding, the regular production of in-depth profiles of Russian security actors reveals three recurring issues with sanctions declarations.

Issue one: Factual errors

Some biographical information accompanying designations is factually incorrect. The UK, for example, designated Chechen parliamentary speaker Magomed Daudov for his role in the persecution of LGBTQ communities, but identifies his date of birth as 5 October 1973; Russian-language sources routinely identify it as 26 February 1980. The EU and UK both identified the date of birth of Andrey Troshev, a commander of Russian PMC Wagner, as 5 April 1953; other sources, however, give the date as 5 April 1962. Indicative of the care with which information is sometimes compiled, the EU’s own sanction map identifies two different birthday’s for Troshev on the same page. Dates are not the only fields where such errors occur.

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Issue two: The neglect of key actors

The West has identified Wagner as a key security threat in multiple conflict zones. The Group is led by a Council of Commanders, the members of which are likely to play a key role in determining its future following the death of Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023. The application of sanctions to members, however, is highly inconsistent and, when they are imposed, there can be a considerable gap between activities and punishment. Mikhail Vatanin, for example, is currently missing from any sanctions lists, whereas Anton Yelizarov was only sanctioned in 2023, despite being active with Wagner across conflict zones since 2016. The same is true in other cases: The first sanctions against Daudov came in 2014, a decade after his first involvement with the repressive Chechen regime.

Issue three: Lack of coordination among Western partners

Closely linked to the second issue, and far more prevalent, is the apparent failure of Western partners to coordinate their sanctions efforts. Troshev, for example, has been sanctioned by the UK and EU, but not the US or Canada. Yelizarov and fellow Wagner commander Aleksandr Kuznetsov have been sanctioned by the EU, but not the UK, US, or Canada. Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Abuzayd Vismuradov – along with Daudov, a key figure in the Chechen regime – has been sanctioned by the US and EU, but not the UK or Canada. Underlying legislative differences explain some differences, but not all of them – and none of those identified here. All four countries have aligned policy goals towards Wagner and Chechnya, and all four have sanctioned other individuals for near-identical behaviours.

Consequences and remedies

Each of the issues pinpointed have identifiable consequences. Incorrect information could in theory inhibit the practical application of sanctions: Anyone relying on the information could conclude, on the basis of non-matching biographical data, that there are two individuals with the same name. More fundamentally, however, errors have a corrosive effect on public knowledge, since journalists, academics, and others routinely cite official sources, presuming them to be reliable. Meanwhile, omissions, delays, and gaps in the application of sanctions allow individuals responsible for policies to avoid punishment. Vismuradov, for example, was able to travel to the Netherlands in 2017, despite occupying a key security service position since 2012 – because the EU did not sanction him until 2021.

Sanctions, however, are also intended to send a normative signal about which behaviours are unacceptable. This signal is significantly weakened when there is a lack of attention to detail – either to facts or comprehensiveness – in the design of sanctions designations.

 

At the same time, each of the issues also has a relatively simple solution. Basic factual errors can be resolved by more diligent fact checking and by providing open-source evidence to support claims. Building stronger connections with experts on topics and areas could help identify gaps in sanctions coverage – any regional expert could pinpoint Daudov and Vismuradov as key regime figures, and there is no shortage of information available about their involvement in systematic human rights violations. Improved coordination among Western partners likely poses the greatest challenge, and some inconsistency is inevitable. However, where legislation is in place and policy goals are aligned, pooling bureaucratic resources used to identify individuals and report information would be a relatively low-cost endeavour – indeed, it would reduce duplication.

Why improving sanctions declarations is worth the effort

Debates over the effectiveness of sanctions have a long history, and the accuracy of declarations may appear a relatively trivial issue. Sanctions, however, are also intended to send a normative signal about which behaviours are unacceptable. This signal is significantly weakened when there is a lack of attention to detail – either to facts or comprehensiveness – in the design of sanctions designations. If Western countries are to employ sanctions as part of their policy responses to Russia, the least they can do is to do it right – especially when it would require so little extra effort.

 

Mark Youngman is an independent researcher and executive director of Threatologist, a consultancy that supports evidence-based research into domestic, foreign, and security issues in Russia and Eurasia. Each week he publishes a free, in-depth profile of a regional security actor, analysing open-source information to explain their role and relevance to the security landscape. Mark presented during the two-day CIPS conference titled “Foreign Fighters in the Former Soviet Union“, which was held on October 18th and 19th.

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