Current Events: What Are Economic Sanctions?

In late February, 2024, President Joe Biden announced more than 500 additional sanctions on Russia, citing Russia’s continued war in Ukraine and the death of Alexei Navalny, a prominent leader in the Russian opposition to current Russian President, Vladimir Putin as motivation for the penalties. These sanctions are on top of those original levied by the U.S. following the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The economic penalties seek to target Russia’s financial sector, logistic networks, defense industry, and specific individuals within prominent Russian circles. In addition to the new U.S. sanctions, the European Union (EU) added sanctions on a number of companies, noting allegations that the companies have exported goods to Russia that could be used for military purposes.  

Economic sanctions are a diplomatic tool employed by nations or international bodies to influence the behavior of a targeted country. These sanctions involve the imposition of various economic restrictions, such as trade barriers, asset freezes, or financial penalties, with the aim of achieving specific political, economic, or social objectives. The underlying principle is to exert pressure on the targeted country by creating economic hardships, thereby compelling it to alter its policies or actions. Economic sanctions can be unilateral, where one country imposes restrictions independently, or multilateral, involving the collaboration of multiple nations to amplify the impact.

The objectives behind implementing economic sanctions are diverse and may include promoting human rights, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, addressing security concerns, or responding to violations of international law, such as with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. By restricting access to essential resources and markets, economic sanctions seek to convey a clear message and induce a change in behavior. However, the effectiveness of such measures is a subject of ongoing debate, as they often have unintended consequences, such as harming the civilian population or straining diplomatic relations. Striking a balance between achieving policy goals and minimizing collateral damage remains a critical challenge in the application of economic sanctions.

This week’s Current Events resources examines what economic sanctions are and how they are used in the current global environment. The resources shared provide information and context around the key elements of using sanctions as a tool for international power and their intended (and unintended) consequences.


Essential Questions:

  • What are economic sanctions, and how do they differ from other forms of international pressure?
  • Why do countries choose to levy economic sanctions instead of other forms of pressure or power?
  • Are the potential unintended consequences of economic sanctions, worth the strategic advantages they may have for a country?
  • What role does international cooperation play in the effectiveness of economic sanctions? 
  • How do economic sanctions impact the domestic political landscape of both the targeted country and the imposing nations? 
  • In your opinion, are economic sanctions a justifiable tool for addressing global issues, or do they raise ethical concerns? Explain.
  • In your opinion, should economic sanctions be used as a primary tool in response to human rights violations, or are there alternatives that may be more effective? Explain.





Do Sanctions Work?, Planet Money, NPR, January 17, 2012

Do economic sanctions work?, Freaknomics Radio, November 14, 2019

Biden announces over 500 new sanctions for Russia’s war in Ukraine and Navalny death, All Things Considered, NPR, February 23, 2024

Sanctions Against Russia Are a Form of War. It’s Time We Recognize That, The Ezra Klein Show, The New York Times, April 1, 2022

Background Resources:

Economic Sanctions, U.S. Government Accountability Office

How Economic Sanctions Work, Investopedia

What Are Economic Sanctions?, Council on Foreign Relations

Economic Sanctions Policy and Implementation, United States Department of State

What Are Economic Sanctions?, The Balance

Sanctions, United Nations Security Council

Recent Articles:

What are the sanctions on Russia and have they affected its economy?, BBC, February 23, 2024

The unprecedented American sanctions on Russia, explained, VOX, March 9, 2022

Biden Announces Sanctions on More Than 500 Russia Targets, The New York Times, February 22, 2024

EU agrees 13th round of Russia sanctions, Politico, February 21, 2024

Sanctions on Russia working, but more to do: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, ABC News, February 23, 2024

Recent Editorials:

Why sanctions don’t work — but could if done right, Planet Money, NPR, April 11, 2023

The West tried to crush Russia’s economy. Why hasn’t it worked?, Politico, February 24, 2024

The Risks of One of the Most Severe Tools in America’s Foreign Policy Arsenal, The New York Times, July 22, 2023

Lesson Plans:

Economic Sanctions, Model Diplomacy

Bell Ringer: What are Sanctions?, CSPAN-Classroom

Embargo: Let’s Not Trade, Academy4SC

Lesson Plan: Tools of Foreign Policy, CSPAN-Classroom

Bell Ringer: Economic Sanctions as a Tool for U.S. Foreign Policy, CSPAN-Classroom

How Russia views the situation in Ukraine and the price exacted by Western sanctions, PBS NewsHour Classroom

Resources for Younger Students:

Building Block Barter, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

Beaver Fur Trade, PBS Learning Media


Published in February, 2024