On September 12, 2023, two of the most sanctioned leaders in the world met for bilateral talks. Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un met in Vladivostok, Russia’s far eastern city, for the highly anticipated meeting.
As the meeting edged closer, voices of speculation and desperation, mostly from Western media and politicians, got louder.
Speaking at a press conference, Matthew Miller, US Department of State Spokesperson, consoled the allies by arguing that having Putin travel the length of his country for help is a sign of weakness, a statement cut short by a reporter who insisted “…but it’s still his country.”
Even Miller himself looked helpless, pointing to Putin’s travel over Russia’s vast territory length as a punishment – the sanctions haven’t worked as expected. These events remind us of one fundamental question: Who is the real victim of sanctions?
North Korea is probably the most isolated state in the world, owing to the multilateral sanctions imposed on the far eastern state. The main reason for the sanctions was the nuclear and ballistic missile programmes the country wanted to embark on.
Ironically, to the dismay of many Western politicians, Putin and Kim met and toured Russia’s test station for space rockets and ballistic missiles. Sanctions do not threaten Kim Jong Un; they did not threaten his father and grandfather before him. They continued their plans, and now North Korea is a nuclear power.
The real losers in the country’s battle for military supremacy are the civilians who struggle to get needs as basic as food. North Korea is a giant prison stocked with nuclear weapons and stockpiles of missiles and rockets – precisely what they were sanctioned for.
Despite living under sanctions for decades, the North Korean political class rarely feels the pinch. Of course, they might miss international conferences and associated glamour, but they don’t suffer overall.
On the other hand, the public suffers the most, living in extreme poverty and food shortages, while the Kim family leads a monarch-style life.
Most media reports about the meeting between Putin and Kim suggested North Korea would most likely offer artillery shells and missiles in exchange for food and advanced military technology. The poor North Koreans are starving; they are the losers in the Kim family’s defiance against the global order.
Russia is the latest country to fall prey to economic and political sanctions. Before Vladimir Putin ordered his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, the US warned there would be sanctions. Russia invaded, nonetheless.
More than a year later, Russia continues to fight, and the economy hasn’t suffered as much as promised by Western political figures. Unlike North Korea, Russia has vast oil, gas, and food reserves that the world needs. Countries continue to buy Russian resources, including Western countries.
Whether the trade is done directly or through third-party states, that doesn’t really matter. Again, sanctions have only impacted the citizens with inflation and a mass exodus of foreign businesses from Russia.
Undeterred by sanctions
Like Kim’s North Korea, Russia is seemingly undeterred by sanctions. It continues its assault on Ukraine and has annexed Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson to the Russian Federation.
The country’s military strength continues to grow with improved weaponry, such as the advanced Su57 fifth-generation stealth fighters, hypersonic missiles, and the latest induction of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile into service.
If sanctions continue tightening, regular Russian citizens will suffer, but Putin and his inner circle won’t, and Ukraine will continue to suffer.
The basic truth about sanctions is that they target citizens, albeit indirectly. However, some sanctions directly targeted ordinary civilians within Russia, moving away from the conventional approach.
While athletes from other sanctioned countries can compete in international games, Russians can’t. There is a lot more energy in limiting everything Russian to access global platforms.
However, how does Putin or Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu suffer when CSKA Moscow is banned from the UEFA Champions League? Perhaps the plan is to force the public to rise up and fight their governments, but how did it work in Libya? Sanctions target innocent civilians and leave the would-be targets free!
When Zimbabwe was sanctioned, the civilians suffered while Robert Mugabe held to his political stand. The same goes for Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, etcetera.
New approach needed
The US imposes sanctions in collaboration with the United Nations and other international bodies, the civilians suffer while politicians continue to pursue the very policies their states are punished for. Is it not time to rethink this style?
When Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin shook hands upon Kim’s arrival in Russia, the media speculated about weapons and war in Ukraine. Weapons and war, the outcomes the world wanted to avoid, became key bilateral deals.
Had sanctions worked, Russia would have withdrawn to its pre-2014 borders, North Korea would have refrained from missiles and nukes, or Iran would have abandoned uranium enrichment.
When this sanction mistake eventually touches economic powerhouses like China, the world will suffer, including the US, China’s biggest trade partner.
It’s high time global authorities thought out a more effective way to fight international irregularities. First-grade victims of sanctions are civilians. A new architecture for global order policing is needed urgently to save innocent lives.
For the time being, cruise missiles will continue to fly over Ukraine, and Kim will test fire more rockets while civilians suffer new blows from Biden and company!
Festo Mulinda teaches political and strategic communications at the University of Dar es Salaam. He’s available at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.