Sanction Factor in Canada-Russia Relations

By Maria Solyanova, Ph.D., Research Fellow at the Centre for North American Studies, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO RAS)

Global Affairs Canada defines sanctions as follows: “a foreign policy tool used to address international peace and security concerns, gross violations of human rights, and significant foreign corruption”[i]. Thus, Canadian sanctions are aimed at changing the policies or behavior of the sanctioned state, individuals or legal entities. Through targeted sanctions, Canada seeks to minimize the adverse effects on civilians and on legitimate business, humanitarian or other activities. Based on history of the sanctions regimes of the Canadian government, we can distinguish the following types of sanctions measures:

– arms embargo;

– asset freeze;

– restrictions related to export and import;

– financial bans;

– a ban on the provision of technical assistance.

Any of these measures are based on certain legislative acts, which may be amended depending on the development of interstate relations and the situation on the world stage. The main laws on which all sanctions regimes of Canada are based include:

  1. United Nations Act, which provides for the mandatory implementation by Canada of all sanctions measures adopted by the UN Security Council.
  2. Special Economic Measures Act, or SEMA.
  3. Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act.

Sanctions such as restrictions on entry into Canada, on export, and asset freezing can be applied in accordance with the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Export and Import Permits Act, and the Freezing Assets of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. In order to study the Canadian sanctions regimes against Russia, the Special Economic Measures Act and the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act are of particular interest, since these legislative acts are guided by the Canadian government in making decisions on sanctions against the Russian Federation.

So SEMA is a sanctioning regulation of economic relations, specific economic prohibitions against individuals and legal entities, non-state entities listed in a specific provision of the act. Therefore, to concretize information on sanctions regimes, a specific sanction rule should be studied that defines specific restrictions for specific subjects/recipients of sanctions. SEMA allows Canada to impose sanctions either unilaterally or jointly with like-minded countries.

Despite the fact that SEMA was adopted in 1992, it is still applied in Canada in cases where there is no UN Security Council decision and if there is a violation of international law on the world stage that threatens or could threaten global security (this is the wording in regulatory legal acts on sanctions against the Russian Federation). Consequently, the government may decide to use SEMA in various cases, such as meeting the requirements of an international (UN) or regional organization (Organization of American States), EU decisions, and coalitions of states if Canada decides to join them.

SEMA in relation to Russia entered into force on March 17, 2014. The justification for the application of the sanctions regime against Russia was “violation of international law by violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine”[ii]. Then, until March 2019, fifteen amendments were adopted expanding the lists of individuals and legal entities – subjects of the sanctions regime, as well as the prohibitions imposed on them. So, the list of sanctions includes prohibitions on transactions with property, financial transactions, and restrictions in the field of oil production and in the service sector. In addition, each applicable sanction rule indicates which specific prohibitions apply to a specific individual or legal entity. The latest amendment was adopted in March 2019: 25 individuals were added, in particular Sergey Fursenko, Konstantin Kosachev, Igor Rotenberg, Vladimir Yakunin and others, and 14 legal entities, including Power Machines, Oboronlogistika, Sukhoi and MiG Aviation Companies, United Aircraft Corporation, etc.

The Second Law, recently (on November 3, 2017) unanimously adopted by the Parliament, which has a different name – the Sergei Magnitsky Law, is an innovation in the history of Canada’s sanctions regimes, as it provides the opportunity to impose sanctions on foreign citizens, including those who are abroad, violating human rights, as well as against foreign officials (and their accomplices) responsible for large-scale corruption.

In accordance with this sanctions regime, sanctions are imposed on thirty individuals, including officials, civil servants, doctors, judges, and others. Under the Act, these individuals are subject to asset freezes by Canada and are listed as “undesirable” by Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In addition, other sanctions measures were taken against the Russian Federation. In particular, on March 26, 2018 Foreign Minister H. Freeland made an official statement expressing solidarity with Great Britain in connection with the chemical attack in Salisbury, as well as accusing Russia of “undermining security and interfering in Canada’s democracy”[iii]. Four diplomats were deported and the Russian government was denied the additional appointment of three diplomatic officers.

Currently, Canada has imposed sanctions regimes on 20 countries and terrorist organizations. Sanctions are imposed on a multilateral basis, for example, following decisions of the UN Security Council, as well as in rare cases unilaterally. The multilateral application of sanctions regimes is crucial for Canada. Thus, sanctions against Russia were imposed by the Canadian government not on the basis of a UN Security Council resolution, but in coalition, that is, in conscience with the United States, Great Britain, Australia, France, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Japan, Albania and Montenegro. De jure, Canada does not have a strict legislative framework for the application of such sanctions in conjunction with its closest allies – the US and the EU. Canadian law does not oblige the government to impose sanctions if they have been imposed by the United States or the European Union. For example, Canada responded to the Ukrainian crisis faster than the EU, applying sanctions against a number of individuals[iv]. De facto, an analysis of the sanctions regimes applied by Canada demonstrates the maximum likelihood of a government applying a sanctions regime if both allies also use sanctions measures. 

Having studied the sanctions related to the “annexation of Crimea” to the Russian Federation and the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, it can be noted that the measures taken by Canada are in most cases similar to those imposed by the United States and the EU, and are aimed in a similar way at representatives of the Russian elite. At the same time, the sanctions regimes of all allies seek to limit the impact of sanctions measures on ordinary citizens. Thus, the main characteristic of Canada’s sanctions regime is the desire to use sanctions not with one of the partners, but as part of a larger coalition, thereby supporting its allies.

The retaliatory measures taken by Russia against Canada may be perceived by the Canadian authorities as a signal that the sanctions regime against Russia is an essential part of Canada’s foreign policy. Although it is obvious that Canadian sanctions measures without the same measures taken by other Western countries, mainly the United States, could not have a serious impact on Russia, its politics and economy. Therefore, the main factor in the coherence of Western sanctions regimes against Russia is the need, from their point of view, the collective measures of influence as the most effective means in the history of sanctions, capable of influencing domestic and foreign Russian policy.

Despite Canada’s commitment to impose a sanctions regime in coalition with its allies, disagreements still arise. Thus, the introduction of sanctions by the United States against the heads of “Rosneft” Igor Sechin and “Rostec” Sergey Chemezov in April 2014 did not entail the imposition of similar sanctions measures by Canada. Sanctions against S. Chemezov were introduced only in February 2015, at the same time Canada added Rosneft to the sanctions list. The commercial interests of Canadian companies, their close economic ties and joint projects with Russian companies contributed to this lack of coordination. So party disagreements, lobbying of business structures, economic interests of Canada may further lead to some disagreements regarding anti-Russian sanctions.

Despite the presence of a number of political and economic issues on which the views of the United States and Canada differ, such as the approach to immigration, trade disputes, as well as the wary attitude of Canada towards US President D. Trump, his statements and sharp steps in foreign policy, strong bilateral integration ties have a priority impact on the global vision of the two countries for the development of international relations and ensuring security in the world. Therefore, Canada’s coalition approach to the application of the sanctions regime against Russia, in many ways, may be explained by the special significance for Canada of its relations with these actors of world politics. They are not only the closest partners in the economy and trade, but also the closest allies in the framework of a number of bilateral agreements, as well as NATO.

The consolidation of the sanctions regimes of Canada, the USA and the EU, the increase in sanctions are promoted by a common vision by the allies of the civilizational and value development of international relations. Also there are a common goal of sanctions measures and a bet on exerting collective pressure on the “violator of the international order”, in relations with which fundamental factors appeared not only hindering rapprochement, but also accelerating estrangement – the economic and political systems of Russia and the West did not approach each other, but evolved into diverging directions.

In addition, the analysis of Canada’s sanctions policy against Russia from 2014 to 2019 demonstrated solidarity at all levels of power – in Parliament, Government and at the regional level. Although a number of experts do not support the anti-Russian sanctions strategy, the solidarity of the political elite at the legislative and executive levels, the broad support of the population, the influential Ukrainian diaspora, the absence of significant pro-Russian groups and the wait-and-see attitude of the Canadian business community significantly aggravate the possible process of establishing Russian-Canadian dialogue. Given the trends of the Canadian sanctions policy in relation to Russia, it may be concluded that the list of measures and restrictions (financial bans, freezing of assets, restriction of entry into the country, expulsion of diplomats) will only expand.

The most likely to improve Russian-Canadian interaction, therefore, seems to be the development of dialogue at the regional level – regions, provinces and territories. At the same time, various cultural, linguistic, educational projects, youth forums, exchange programs for students and young professionals, which can enhance Russia’s image in the eyes of Canadian society, may turn out to be promising directions. In addition, it is absolutely necessary to maintain and promote new areas of cooperation in the Arctic. Another possible, but unlikely direction of the bilateral dialogue under the present conditions could be the resumption of the Canadian-Russian parliamentary association to discuss issues related, for example, to anti-terrorist activities or adaptation to climate change.

[i] Government of Canada. URL:

[ii] Special Economic Measures (Russia) Regulations. March 17, 2014. Available at:

[iii] Canada expels Russian diplomats in solidarity with United Kingdom. March 26,2018. Government of Canada. Available at:

[iv] Freezing Assets of Corrupt Foreign Officials (Ukraine) Regulations. Available at:

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