Protest against sanctions at US embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe October 25, 2022. (Photo: Innocent Makawa)
The U.S. imposes unilateral coercive measures, sanctions, against millions of people around the world. Sanctions are war by other means, creating as much damage as bombs and bullets do.
This article was originally published in Covert Action Magazine.
On November 14, the Biden administration announced yet another round of sanctions on Russia, targeting this time Russia’s military supply chains by imposing sanctions on 14 individuals and 28 entities that it said were part of a transnational network that procured technology to support Moscow in its invasion of Ukraine.
One of the companies blacklisted was Milandr, a Russian microelectronics company that Washington says is part of Moscow’s military research and development structure.
The sanctions additionally targeted several aviation-related companies and two individuals—Abbas Djuma and Tigran Khristoforovich Srabionov—who facilitated the Russian mercenary Wagner Group’s acquisition of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from Iran, which have been used in the Ukraine War.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that “the United States will continue to disrupt Russia’s military supply chains and impose high costs on President Putin’s enablers, as well as all those who support Russia’s brutality against its neighbor.”
According to Statistica.com, the U.S. has imposed 1,683 separate sanctions on Russia since the war with Ukraine broke out in February 2022, and 2,634 since February 2014, when the U.S. supported the Maidan coup overthrowing the democratically elected pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych. Canada has followed suit by imposing 1,418 sanctions on Russia since February 2022, and 1,872 since February 2014, while the UK has imposed 1,381 since February 2022, and 1,617 since February 2014.
The purpose behind the sanctions was outlined in a 2019 report issued by the RAND Corporation, the leading Pentagon think tank, entitled “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia,” which openly advocated for destabilizing and weakening Russia by undermining its economy.
The ultimate goal was to facilitate regime change and replace the nationalist Vladimir Putin with a puppet of the West like Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin rapidly privatized Russia’s economy in the 1990s and enabled Western corporate penetration of Russia while acquiescing to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion toward Russia’s border—something Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov likened to a “Versailles for Russia.”
While the U.S. sanctions on Russia have caused hardship for Russians, Putin’s government has been effective in counteracting them by a) adopting import-substitution policies and subsidizing domestic Russian industry in order to reduce Russia’s dependence on exports; b) accelerating measures to forge a Eurasian Union resulting in expanded trade networks between Russia and its neighbors; and c) forging stronger trading ties with China which has expanded by 50% since 2014, by an additional 36% in 2021, and an additional 28% in 2022.
Other countries that are dependent on trade with Russia have adapted to the sanctions by opening new forms of currency exchange to carry out trade, contributing to an erosion of U.S. dollar supremacy—a bedrock of U.S. global economic supremacy.
President Joe Biden admitted on March 24 that the price of the sanctions was being borne increasingly by European countries facing food and energy shortages resulting from diminished trade capacity with Russia.
Sanctions were also causing supply chain disruptions that was one of the key factors driving crippling inflation, which was undermining Western economies, whereas the conservative Economist magazine had admitted that Russian had gotten back on its feet.
A Wrecking Ball in the Global Economy
A new anthology edited by CAM contributor Sara Flounders entitled Sanctions: A Wrecking Ball of the Global Economy (New York: World View Forum, 2022) shows the deleterious consequences of Washington’s sanctions, which have targeted 44 countries representing one-third of the global population.
Flounders wrote, in the introduction, that “U.S. government strategists are using sanctions as a wrecking ball to demolish the globalized economy. It is a desperate struggle to preserve their global hegemony and a unipolar world. The policy of consciously demolishing supply chains of essential products amounts to a reckless war on defenseless civilian populations. Sanctions disrupt trade worldwide and send shockwaves far beyond the countries directly impacted, [which is] well understood by financial planners.”
Flounders and other contributors to the volume point out that sanctions—unilateral coercive economic measures that block financial transactions—are widely applied against countries like Russia under Putin that “resist” the U.S. imperial agenda.
They are a “tool to overthrow governments,” and often result in severe economic hardship by depriving populations of vital medicines and food and because of the seizure of government assets.
In October 2018, Iran won a case against the U.S. in the UN International Court of Justice over U.S.-imposed sanctions but the U.S. refused to comply with the ruling.
Iran has had between $100 and $120 billion in assets frozen in foreign banks and lost a huge amount of oil revenue as a result of sanctions, which were first applied following the 1979 Iranian Revolution overthrowing the Shah, a U.S. client.
Sanctions on North Korea—Imperial Tools of Control
A country even more hard hit than Iran has been North Korea, which is one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, having been subject to sanctions since the Korean War.
According to Erica Jung, author of the chapter “Korea: DPRK: Surviving U.S./UN Sanctions and Military Threats,” “U.S. sanctions…serve as imperial tools of control, seeking to undermine the existence of a socialist state that poses a direct threat to its hegemonic power.”
In 2016, the Obama administration issued an executive order freezing any property belonging to the North Korean government’s Workers’ Party, which constitutes 6.5 million people, or one fourth of the North Korean population. It also prohibited exports from North Korea to the U.S.
North Korea has since been blocked from engaging in the U.S. financial system and any dollar-based transactions, with the country’s seafood, textile and agricultural industries being specially targeted.
In 2018, 3,968 North Koreans died from preventable deaths due to severe malnutrition caused by a lack of access to Vitamin A. A shortage of medical equipment bred by sanctions further undermined North Korea’s ability to provide comprehensive health care for all its citizens.
North Korea’s ingenuity nevertheless has offset many negative consequences of U.S. and international sanctions.
Because of an intensive drive for scientific and high-yield farming, North Korea, for example, was able to produce 6.65 million tons of cereal in 2019, and has come to specialize in the production of vinalon, a synthetic fiber used to produce clothing and shoes.
Syria—A Fraudulent Pretext
In Syria, a cruel U.S. sanctions policy has compounded the humanitarian crisis bred by the country’s civil war—which was provoked and prolonged by the U.S. backing of jihadist rebels bent on overthrowing the secular nationalist regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In December 2019, Donald Trump signed into law the Caesar Act expanding sanctions. The Caesar Act was named after a Syrian government defector who presented to Congress 50,000 photos of Syrians who had allegedly been tortured to death by the Syrian government.
Careful scrutiny of the photos, however, found that they appeared to include the dead from both sides of the conflict, and were taken from the morgue of a hospital in the war zone, as Judy Bello points out in her essay “Deadly New Sanctions on Syria.”
Journalist Rick Sterling wrote:
“The photos and the deceased are real. But how they died and the circumstances are unclear. There is strong evidence some died in conflict. Others died in the hospital. Others died and their bodies were decomposing before they were picked up. The photographs seem to document a war time situation where many combatants and civilians are killed. It seems the military hospital was doing what it had always done: maintaining a photographic and documentary record of the deceased. Bodies were picked up by different military or intelligence branches. While some may have died in detention, the big majority probably died in the conflict zones. The accusation by ‘Caesar,’ the Carter Ruck Report and HRW that these are really victims of ‘death in detention’ or ‘death by torture’ or death in ‘government custody’ are almost certainly false.”
Based on this fraudulent pretext, the Caesar Act sanctions have completely isolated the Central Bank of Syria, while imposing secondary sanctions on any country or corporation that trades with Syria or even provides aid to Syria.
They attack Lebanese banks that supported Syrian trade, causing economic mayhem in that small and largely impoverished country.
Class Warfare and Socialist Resistance
Besides Syria, Iran and North Korea, one of the country’s worst hit by U.S. sanctions has been Venezuela, which was punished for electing socialist leaders (Hugo Chávez 1998-2013; Nicolás Maduro 2013-2022), who have used the country’s oil wealth to provide affordable housing, health care and education to its citizens and cut extreme poverty considerably.
With a drop in oil revenues from $42 billion in 2013 to just $4 billion in 2018, the Maduro government has been forced to cut funding for social programs while one third of the population has become food insecure. Between 2017 and 2018, 40,000 Venezuelans are estimated to have been killed by the sanctions—100,000 are estimated to have been killed in the last decade.
In an essay entitled “Class Warfare and Socialist Resistance in Latin America,” Ajamu Baraka, the Green Party nominee for Vice President in 2016, wrote that Venezuela was a target of sanctions along with Cuba and Nicaragua because they were all “trying to build independent, self-determining projects that center the material needs and interests of the people over those of capital.”
In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform Act (RENACER), which was intended to punish alleged acts of corruption and human rights violations by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whom Biden claimed was “no different from the Somoza family that Ortega and the Sandinistas fought decades ago.”
Ortega had led the socialist Sandinista revolution against the Somoza dictatorship and Reagan-backed counter-revolutionaries (Contras) in the 1980s and was re-elected Nicaraguan President in numerous elections since 2007, affecting positive social advances since that time.
Baraka called the RENACER Act a “vicious piece of legislation meant to undermine the ability of the Nicaraguan government to protect the human rights of its people and to punish the people for having the temerity to support their government and their anti-colonial project.”
Biden followed it up by signing an executive order in October 2022 that made it all but illegal for Americans to do business with Nicaragua’s gold industry (gold was Nicaragua’s largest export in 2020).
Baraka writes that the U.S. government “wants to turn Nicaragua into Haiti; Cuba [which has been subjected to a near total economic embargo since 1962] into Honduras, and Venezuela, which is key for liberation movements in the region, into Libya.”
That is a failed state which was balkanized and destroyed by a combination of sanctions and U.S.-NATO military intervention and regime change.
The Big Heist
In an article entitled “U.S. Imposed Economic Sanctions: The Big Heist,” CAM contributor Lauren Smith details how economic sanctions are frequently adopted to justify and conceal outright theft—through asset freezes and seizures—at a rate only previously accomplished through invasion and occupation.
In 2019, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza—who was under sanctions himself—said sanctions imposed by the U.S. had left more than $3 billion of its assets frozen in the global financial system. The Bank of England blocked Venezuela’s attempt to retrieve $1.2 billion worth of gold, while the U.S. froze all assets of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) in the U.S.
Libya announced in 2015 that $67 billion in its assets had remained frozen since 2011 when the Muammar Qaddafi regime was overthrown. In 2018, Libya’s assets had decreased to $34 billion; a disappearance of $33 billion in foreign assets which appear to have been stolen.
According to Smith, the New York Federal Reserve—the bank that the U.S. government uses to administer 250 foreign government accounts—serves as the non-black market conduit for the transfer of wealth from targeted countries and entities into the coffers of select U.S. banks and hedge funds through the repo market, which functions as a trillion dollar a day credit machine.
In Afghanistan, after the humiliating U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, the Biden administration blocked Afghanistan’s central bank from accessing roughly $7 billion in its foreign reserves held in the U.S., resulting in the virtual collapse of the country’s economy.
On February 28, 2022, the U.S. Treasury also froze Russia’s foreign currency assets—seizing $500 billion in Russian funds held in U.S. and other Western banks in another criminal theft.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote in the Russian Federation newspaper on December 25 that Western politicians were “seeking to seize Russian assets without charge or trial, or simply steal them” through the imposition of sanctions that were “undermining confidence throughout the world in themselves and their legal institutions,” and blocking the prospects for healthy diplomacy. “As with a thief, a swindler, a card sharper, from whom you can expect anything,” Medvedev emphasized.
The Horn of Africa
The politicized nature of U.S. sanctions was apparent in the Horn of Africa where the Biden administration imposed them on both Ethiopia and Eritrea, the “Cuba of Africa.”
In 2018, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia formed a regional alliance which is what the Biden administration took aim at. On January 1, 2022, Biden’s trade representative, Katherine Tai, imposed trade sanctions on Ethiopia by eliminating its eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allowed for exports to the U.S. tariff-free.
A pending sanctions bill in Congress states that sanctions against Ethiopia will only be lifted after the government of Ethiopia ceases all military operations.
However, these operations have been directed at terrorist activities carried out by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has for decades carried out massacres and atrocities, with U.S. backing, against Ethiopia’s Amhara people.
The TPLF has been portrayed by the Biden administration and its media echo chamber as victims and USAID Administrator Samantha Power warned of an impending genocide, though the TPLF had ruled Ethiopia brutally as a U.S. client state from 1991 to 2018.
In 2006, when the Ethiopian Army, under TPLF command, invaded Somalia at U.S. behest and overthrew its government, there were no cries for sanctions, reflecting the political—rather than human rights—imperative underlying the sanctions policy.
That political imperative was seen also in Zimbabwe, which became a target for sanctions after its socialist leader, Robert Mugabe, enacted a land reform program that gave land back to the indigenous Black population from white settlers who had stolen it when Cecil Rhodes slaughtered the local population and Great Britain established the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia.
The All African People’s Revolutionary Party called Mugabe’s land reform a “monumental step forward in the struggle against imperialism in Africa,” though afterwards Mugabe was branded in the West as a “tyrannical terrorist and anti-white autocrat.”
The Bush administration imposed sanctions under the 2001 Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) which choked Zimbabwe’s economy, helping to provoke massive hyperinflation from 2007 to 2009 and again in 2020. Between 2017 and 2019, Zimbabweans nevertheless produced record corn and tobacco crops despite the sanctions.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has declared October 25 as a “Day of Solidarity to Lift Illegal Sanctions Imposed on Zimbabwe.” The sanctions are considered an abomination across the Sardic region, though have faced almost no opposition in the halls of Congress or outcry among the U.S. left.
China: Where the Uppity Communists Refused to Stay in Their Lane
Like with Russia, the U.S. sanctions imposed on China have a high risk of backfiring because of China’s importance to global supply chains and the interdependence of the U.S. and Chinese economies.
Carlos Martinez, in his chapter “Sanctions in the New Cold War on China,” argues that U.S. government leaders have imposed sanctions under the racist pretext that “the uppity Asian communists refused to stay in their lane…China was supposed to be the workshop, and the U.S. the technological leader.”
The U.S. has significantly imposed sanctions on the Chinese solar power industry under the debunked claims that it uses Uyghur forced labor.
The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has been another target of sanctions, which have impeded its ability to produce high-end smart phones because of restrictions on the import of semi-conductor chips.
SMIC, China’s biggest manufacturer of computer chips, can also no longer source supplies from U.S. companies and has been cut off from access to leading edge chip design tools.
The U.S. is concerned because China is on course to be a top-tier player in the semi-conductor industry by 2030. Semi-conductors are the linchpin of the modern age, which make innovations such as self-driving electric vehicles, fully automated AI production systems, and supercomputers possible.
Radhika Desai notes that “U.S. efforts to restrict chip supply to China will only increase its resolve to develop the necessary technology to produce the chips it needs domestically.” Meaning that the sanctions policy will not succeed—except as a propaganda tool to help whip up anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S.
Like the Knee of Derek Chauvin on George Floyd’s Neck
In her essay on Syria, Judy Bello wrote that the U.S. sanctions on Syria were “like the knee of Derek Chauvin on George Floyd’s neck. But the video isn’t playing on YouTube.”
The same activists protesting Floyd’s killing have been silent about the sanctions probably because they do not know enough about it—they have been anesthetized from the suffering and pain of the victims whose voices are never featured in popular or social media.
For U.S. policymakers, the sanctions thus provide the perfect foreign policy strategy in an era where the public has tired of endless military interventions and the draft could never be re-imposed.
By quietly trying to strangle the economies of defiant countries, Washington can advance its hegemonic interests in a politically risk-free way—on the cheap.
Change, however, appears imminent as the targeted countries have displayed great ingenuity, and are beginning to present a united front—while a growing boomerang effect is beginning to slowly wake people up in the motherland.
The repo market is a repurchase agreement, that is, a financial transaction in which one party sells an asset to another party with a promise to repurchase the asset at a pre-specified later date ↑
Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has also promoted these charges, which were designed to lay the groundwork for a U.S. military intervention/regime-change operation under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine. He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018). He can be reached at: [email protected].