During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-day state visit to Singapore, where the two countries are marking 50 years of diplomatic ties, Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave an exclusive interview to Television Rain, in which he spoke about the need for the importance of maintaining trade ties with the United States.
When the topic turned to U.S. and Western sanctions against Russia, Peskov took issue with the word "sanctions."
"Sanctions conform to international law. In this case, we don’t recognize those unilateral restrictions as legitimate sanctions because we deem them to be illegal,” he said. “So it will probably be more correct to say ‘limitations’ or ‘restrictions,’ but not sanctions.”
Russia is currently facing a series of sanctions from the U.S. and its allies over the annexation of Crimea, military involvement in Eastern Ukraine, the death of Sergei Magnitsky, interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the deployment of a military grade nerve agent “Novichok”– in the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
Those sanctions target dozens of individuals and entities, taking aim at specific sectors of the Russian economy, including armaments and energy, with an eye towards restricting access to Western capital markets and dual-use and other sensitive technologies.
The sanctions effectively “freeze” financial assets of the sanctioned entities on U.S. territory and ban U.S. individuals and groups from engaging in business transactions with named Russian individuals and groups.
The European Union has currently enacted sanctions against 155 people from Russia and Ukraine as a result of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and military involvement in Eastern Ukraine, which the U.S. State Department calls “forcible control” by Russia.
The EU has also frozen the assets of 44 entities from both countries, with sources in Brussels telling Radio Free Europe five more individuals were set to be sanctioned over separatist-organized elections on November 11 in the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics,” which the United States, France and Germany have called a “sham” and “illegal.”
Peskov and other Russian officials have previously attempted to portray such sanctions as illegal.
As Polygraph.info reported in August 2017, Andrey Klimov, Deputy Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee, Federation Council, similarly argued the sanctions are illegal because the only sanctions recognized by international law are those of the UN Security Council.
Russia and other parties have also contested the use of unilateral sanctions, citing the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which, among other things, includes the right to trade without discrimination.
Bill Browder, the U.S. born British financer who spearheaded the Magnitsky Act, which bans Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses from stepping foot on U.S. soil, freezes their assets, and bars U.S. firms from carrying out financial transactions with them, told Polygraph.info there is “no truth” to Peskov’s statement.
“The sanctions that are currently in place are travel bans and asset freezes in the countries where this is happening and it’s not a function of international law, it’s a function of domestic law. The United States has a right to deny entry to anyone it wants – It’s a privilege to travel to the United States, not a right. And furthermore, it’s a privilege to use the U.S. banking system,” Browder said.
“The only thing he can say is the UN can’t sanction anybody but individual member states can do anything they want,” he added.
Ambassador Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council mirrored Browder’s comments.
“U.S. sanctions are legal under U.S. law because the U.S. jurisdiction over its own banking system and currency,” he said. “Any company or financial institution, U.S. or not, that seeks the benefits of or access to the U.S. financial system or U.S. markets needs to comply with US laws.”
He also noted that sanctions against Russia itself came as the result of violations of international law, noting the “invasion and occupation of Ukraine and annexation of its territory.
And, Moscow itself has been no stranger to imposing unilateral sanctions despite claims they must be sanctioned through the UN Security Council.
“As for Russian claims that sanctions are valid only with UN authorization, I don’t recall any such restraint when it came to Russia’s sanctions against imports from the EU, its sanctions against Ukraine, or its sanctions against Georgia,” Fried said.
In January 2009, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree banning exports of military and dual purpose products to Georgia in a bid to restrict military cooperation with the small Caucasian state following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
Countries or individuals found to be in breach of Russia’s unilaterally imposed regulations faced economic and financial sanctions, RIA Novosti reported at the time.
Earlier this month, Russia drew up counter sanctions against Ukraine, targeting 322 individuals and 68 businesses.
As a result of the Ukraine crisis, in 2014 Moscow announced counter sanctions against 10 American citizens, and banned 10 Canadian officials from entering Russia. Russia also recently “marked” the four-year anniversary of its import ban on certain Western products in response to Ukraine-related sanctions, which targeted the United States, the EU, Norway, Canada and Australia.
Those sanctions resulted in highly publicized scenes of Russian authorities bulldozing tons of foodstuffs.
Regarding claims the sanctions violate GATT, Article XXI, of the agreement covers “Security Exceptions,” which legalizes the right of any nation to impose unilateral sanctions against another country when “essential security interests” are involved, Polygraph.info previously reported.
While the text of GATT has been reviewed and amended several times since its creation shortly after World War II, Article XXI has never been amended.
A number of scholars, however, do lay out rather stringent criteria for the imposition of sanctions, which provide room for debate over the extent of sanctions but not their legality.
Ruth Wedgwood, a law professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Polygraph.info that the U.S. government cannot arbitrarily target entities of a foreign government but said that suspicions of illicit activity may provide it with sufficient grounds for assets freezes.
Michael Reisman, a professor of international law at Yale Law School, said that in the event of sanctions, the measures should be “proportional,” that sanctions should be “necessary to achieve an explicit and lawful objective,” and differentiate between the elite who are “responsible for the offensive behavior” and the “rank-and-file.”
Russia itself has a complex relationship with international law. From its occupation of Georgian, Ukrainian and Moldovan territory, annexation of Crimea, multiple alleged assassinations on English soil, alleged war crimes in Syria and use of its own unilateral sanctions.
Peskov’s appeal to international law to counter Western sanctions is at best misleading.
Based on the available evidence, Peskov’s claim that such measures don’t conform with international law are false.