Jason Bartlett and Euihyun Bae
The first year of President Joe Biden’s administration witnessed major developments in U.S. sanctions strategy, including a general review of all sanctions programs under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Most notably, the Treasury has revised and expanded its sanctioning authorities to align with the broader foreign policy objectives of the Biden administration and to respond to global developments, such as by reactivating its country-specific program on Burma, issuing licenses for counterterrorism sanctions against the Taliban, creating new sanctions programs on Ethiopia, establishing the United States Council on Transnational Organized Crime, terminating its program on Burundi, revoking terrorist designations on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Ansarallah (Houthis), and issuing the first-ever virtual currency–related designation on a Russian cryptocurrency exchange for facilitating financial transactions linked to ransomware. Additionally, the Biden administration decided to waive sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 project, a 1,200 kilometer-long natural gas pipeline running from northern Russia to Europe across the Baltic Sea, which continues to generate significant controversy in Congress.
The Biden administration has demonstrated its intent to continue using sanctions within its foreign policy toolkit to combat illicit activity that threatens both national security and the security of U.S. allies and partners. In 2021, the Treasury issued a total of 765 new designations with the majority (51 percent) pursuant to country-specific sanctions programs, mainly Belarus, Burma, China, and Russia, and 787 delistings with roughly 92 percent pursuant to thematic sanctions programs, mainly addressing drug trafficking. Coordination with allies—especially the European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada—to address human rights abuses abroad was a recurring theme in a large number of sanctions designations for both country-specific and thematic sanctions programs. In tandem with allies during the Summit for Democracy and International Human Rights Day in early December, the United States levied 45 new designations to address human rights abuses and their facilitators across the world, including in countries such as China, Burma, Russia, North Korea, and Bangladesh.
These multilateral efforts contrast to the previous administration, which mainly used unilateral sanctions to support its “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against key country targets like Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran. This suggests that the Biden administration seeks to take a more cautious approach toward leading foreign policy strategy with the use of sanctions.
This edition of Sanctions by the Numbers will provide a snapshot of overall sanctioning trends, an overview of the most heavily used country-specific and thematic sanctions programs, and the global distribution of sanctions designations during the first year of the Biden administration.
In its first year, the Biden administration issued 765 new designations and 787 delistings, totaling 1,552 sanctions actions.
Of the total designations, 51 percent are pursuant to country-specific sanctions programs and 49 percent belong to thematic sanctions programs. The most used programs are:
Country specific: Belarus (100), Burma (76), China (70), Russia (54)
Thematic: GLOMAG (173), SDGT (90), CYBER2 (39), and SDNTK (36)
Roughly 83 percent of all 2021 delistings involved counternarcotics trafficking–related authorities.
The Treasury has issued 31 general licenses, along with 53 new and 12 amended FAQs on sanctions programs, to clarify proper compliance protocol and guidance on sanctions exemptions for permissible financial transactions, COVID-19 relief, and humanitarian aid related to Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and other countries.
The Use of Sanctions during the First Year of the Biden Administration
The Biden administration has issued a total of 765 designations and 787 delistings pursuant to 50 different sanctions programs during its first year, signaling the administration’s intent to continue the frequent use of sanctions to achieve foreign policy objectives. During her nomination hearing in January 2021, Secretary of the Treasury Dr. Janet Yellen reaffirmed the commitment of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to using sanctions as a tool “to identify and dismantle the financial networks of terrorists, proliferators, and others who seek to perpetuate harm against the United States,” while pledging to coordinate these economic measures with allies and partners when possible. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyamo later underscored the Treasury’s commitment to “ensuring sanctions remain relevant, rigorous, and fit to purpose, effectively advancing the national security, foreign policy, and economic aims of the United States” during a bipartisan roundtable with six former U.S. government sanctions leaders. These high-level statements from the Treasury outlined the Biden administration’s approach to continue incorporating sanctions, when possible and appropriate, into its broader foreign policy strategy.
Designations and Delistings under the Biden Administration, 2021
During its first year, President Joe Biden’s administration levied over 1,500 sanctions-related actions with 765 new designations and 787 delistings. (U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control)
Under the Biden administration, the Treasury has issued a diverse combination of designations pursuant to a range of thematic and country-specific sanctions programs, while also ensuring the proper delisting of sanctioned targets when possible and appropriate. In comparison, however, the distribution of delistings per program was not nearly as diverse, as roughly 83 percent of all 2021 delistings involved authorities related to counternarcotics trafficking, with the remaining delistings pursuant to programs related to global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and country-specific authorities such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, and others.
Delistings can signify the success of a sanctions program in changing the behavior of a designated target. This is most commonly seen in sanctions programs related to transnational crime and drug trafficking, which typically experience a high number of delistings following designations due to the target’s changed behavior. Another potential reason to delist a sanctioned target is a “verified change in status,” meaning that a previously sanctioned target is no longer officially affiliated with a designated party engaging in prohibited activity. An example of this was the delisting of several foreign Iranian individuals after their retirement from government-affiliated entities in June 2021.
Emphasis on Incorporating Sanctions Themes within Country-Specific Programs
Although the Biden administration has issued more designations pursuant to country-specific sanctions programs than thematic, a large portion of country-specific designations contain language citing themes such as human rights abuses, corruption, and illicit cyber activity. For example, the Treasury issued its first sanctions against North Korea under country-specific programs, but cited “fundamentally unfair trials” and “severe restrictions on … human rights and fundamental freedoms” as key contributors to the designations. Additionally, the Treasury designated the 33rd light infantry division of the Burmese army under both the Burma-specific and human rights–related sanctions programs, demonstrating its efforts to use sanctions to address governmental behavior, while also signaling to both allies and adversaries its intent to uphold human rights norms abroad. Country-specific sanctions programs authorize the U.S. government to designate individuals and entities conducting prohibited activities within or related to a specific jurisdiction, whereas thematic sanctions programs, such as human rights and cybercrime-related authorities, target specific illicit activities, regardless of location or specific jurisdiction.
The prior administration mainly levied designations pursuant to country-specific sanctions programs under its maximum pressure campaigns. For example, in the last two years of the Trump administration alone, the Treasury levied over 1,560 sanctions designations with 43 percent of 2020 designations targeting Iran. Under the four-year maximum pressure campaign, the ratio of country-specific sanctions designations to total designations was 805 out of 1,172 for Iran; 245 out of 272 for Venezuela; and 170 out of 173 for North Korea. Although the Biden administration continues to issue new designations pursuant to both country-specific and thematic sanctions programs, it is far from reaching the same level of intensity as the Trump administration.
Country-Specific vs. Thematic Sanctions Designations under the Biden Administration, 2021
During the first year of President Joe Biden’s administration, the Treasury issued a majority of designations (51 percent) pursuant to country-specific sanctions programs and 49 percent related to thematic sanctions programs. (U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control)
Many of the country-specific sanctions imposed under the Biden administration correspond to its thematic priorities, such as the global observance of human rights and improving national cybersecurity. For example, OFAC recently levied sanctions pursuant to Executive Orders 14038 and 13405—both Belarus-specific sanctions programs—against 59 individuals and 41 entities who are associated with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and its “blatant disregard for international norms and the wellbeing of its own citizens.” Along with citing corruption, human rights abuses, inhumane exploitation of vulnerable people and forced migration, and attacks against democratic freedoms, the Treasury also mentioned coordinating with the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada to reflect its “commitment to acting with its allies and partners to demonstrate a broad unity of purpose.” This sharply contrasts with the previous administration’s preference for heavy unilateral sanctions against unfavorable targets.
Country-Specific Sanctions Designations
Along with a notable rise in designations pursuant to thematic sanctions programs, the Treasury continued to designate targets through country-specific programs. Most notably, the Biden administration reinstated the country-specific sanctions program on Burma following the military coup in January 2021 and issued a series of economic sanctions on Belarus, in concert with European, British, and Canadian allies, in response to government-sponsored violence and election fraud. Many of the sanctions imposed under these programs focused on actors involved in human rights abuses and/or corruption, which is consistent with the administration’s strong focus on thematic issues even when implemented under country-specific programs.
Total Number of Designations Pursuant to Country-Specific Sanctions Programs under the Biden Administration, 2021
While President Joe Biden’s administration utilized 34 country-specific sanctions programs in its first year, the majority of related designations targeted Belarus (100), Burma (76), China (70), and Russia (54). (U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control)
The Treasury created Belarus-related sanctioning authorities in 2006 under President George W. Bush’s administration to address political repression in the country. The Biden administration expanded these authorities to address the long-standing human rights abuses stemming from the fraudulent 2020 Belarusian presidential election. In 2021, the Treasury imposed a total of 100 Belarus-related sanctions designations while coordinating with European and Canadian allies on a multilateral response. In addition to U.S. sanctions, the European Union (EU) has imposed sanctions against the Belarusian regime in response to the “escalation of serious human rights violations … and the violent repression of civil society, democratic opposition and journalists.” Among the 100 total designations pursuant to Belarus-related country sanctions programs, 96 target actors in Belarus, while the remainder target entities and individuals in Cyprus, Ukraine, and Russia for their connection to the Belarusian regime’s illicit activity.
Burma-related sanctions represent the first country-specific sanctions designations used under the Biden administration. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama terminated the previous country-specific sanctions program on Burma following its democratic transition. But Biden created a new program for the country after the Burmese military overthrew the democratically elected government on February 1, 2021. To date, the Treasury has issued a total of 76 designations on Burmese individuals and entities affiliated with the crisis and military coup using both Burma-specific programs and human rights–related authorities.
On June 3, 2021, Biden created a new OFAC sanctions program known as the Non-SDN Chinese Military-Industrial Complex Companies List (CMIC) under Executive Order 14032. This action amended and revoked two Trump-era executive orders, 13959 and 13974 respectively, to clarify existing prohibitions on certain Chinese military-industrial complex companies and expand sanctionable activity to include the use of Chinese surveillance technology outside of mainland China, as well as the development or use of this technology to facilitate repression or serious human rights abuses. It also shifted the regulatory sanctioning authority from the Department of Defense (DoD), which had previously identified Chinese companies as “Communist Chinese Military Companies” under the Trump-era executive order, to the Treasury to better align with existing bureaucratic and logistical capacity to implement sanctions regimes. In total, the Treasury has issued 70 designations on Chinese targets pursuant to CMIC-related programs, however, the Treasury transferred most of these designations from previous DoD designations.
Under the Biden administration, OFAC imposed a total of 54 sanctions on Russian targets pursuant to the 2019 Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA) and the new PEESA-EO14039. In August, Biden issued Executive Order 14039 to expand the scope of sanctionable parties pursuant to PEESA by authorizing sanctions against entities engaging not only in direct energy coercion tactics in Europe, but also indirect assistance such as offshore tugging, pipe-laying, and salvage, service, and supply operations for designated Russian companies. The remaining designations on Russian targets are pursuant to the following country-specific sanctions programs: PEESA-EO (20), PEESA (14), CAATSA-RUSSIA (7), RUSSIA-EO (6), RUSSIA-EO14024 (5), and PEESA-EO14039 (2).
Significant debate remains surrounding the implementation of U.S. economic sanctions on allies, especially those within Europe, still remains, particularly in regard to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. While Biden has publicly opposed the $11 billion pipeline project, the U.S. Department of State decided to waive certain sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to “rebuild relationships with our [U.S.] allies and partners in Europe.” The threat of U.S. sanctions, especially secondary sanctions, on targets from friendly European nations significantly contributed to divergence in the U.S.-EU relationship during the previous administration, an issue that the Biden administration seems to consider as detrimental to U.S. national interests. However, as a result of the waivers, various government officials from Congress and other bodies have actively voiced their disagreement and certain leaders have opposed key appointments within the Treasury due to this issue. In December 2021, the U.S. Senate finally reached a consensus to confirm two of the previously blocked Treasury appointees, Elizabeth Rosenberg and Brian Nelson.
Thematic Sanctions Designations
Compared to the previous administration, which focused more on leveraging sanctions against specific countries, the Biden administration is issuing more sanctions according to specific themes. Out of the 411 designations pursuant to thematic sanctions programs, the Biden administration has issued 173 related to human rights (GLOMAG), 90 to global terrorism (SDGT), 39 to cybercrime (CYBER2), 36 to narcotics trafficking (SDNTK), 33 to election interference (ELECTION-EO13848), 23 to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (NPWMD), 8 to global illicit drug trade (ILLICIT-DRUGS-EO), 6 to transnational crime organizations (TCO), and 3 to general terrorism activities (FTO).
Total Designations of Thematic Sanctions under the Biden Administration, 2021
Designations pursuant to the GLOMAG and SDGT sanctions programs account for roughly 64 percent of total thematic-based designations, demonstrating a strong intention to leverage sanctioning authorities within U.S. national strategy against human rights violations and global terrorism. (U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control)
GLOMAG Sanctions (173)
Congress passed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in 2016 to create the Global Magnitsky Sanctions program, allowing the U.S. government to impose sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses and/or corruption anywhere in the world. In the first year of the Biden administration, the Treasury imposed more designations pursuant to the GLOMAG sanctions program (173) than any other sanctioning authority, accounting for more than one-third of all thematic sanctions designations. Of the total 173 GLOMAG designations, 67 target individuals and entities related to Bulgaria due to accounts of corruption surrounding the country’s parliamentary election in November, which comprises roughly 39 percent of all new GLOMAG sanctions designations in 2021. The Treasury claimed that these designations became “the single largest action targeting corruption to date.” In addition to Bulgaria, the Treasury also issued GLOMAG designations on Kosovo (26), D.R.C (13), Cuba (11), Serbia (10), Paraguay (7), Angola (6), Bangladesh (6), China (4), El Salvador (4), Guatemala (3), Cambodia (2), Saudi Arabia (2), South Sudan (2), Ukraine (2), Burma (1), Brazil (1), Croatia (1), Eritrea (1), Liberia (1), Macau (1), Marshall Island (1), and Uganda (1) for various government-led human rights abuses, corruption, and oppression of democratic protests. The Treasury’s increased use of GLOMAG designations to target human rights abuses and corrupted government officials is likely related to the Biden administration’s broad efforts to fight against corruption as a “core United States national security interest.”
SDGT Sanctions (90)
Following 9/11, the Bush administrated created the Specially Designated Global Terrorists Sanctions program, which allows the Treasury to impede the financing of terrorism by blocking property and prohibiting transactions with persons who commit, threaten to commit, or support terrorism. SDGT-related designations account for the second largest portion of thematic sanctions (90) and the Treasury issued roughly 63 percent of all SDGT sanctions on individuals and entities related to the Middle East: Iran (10), Lebanon (8), Turkey (8), Oman (5), Qatar (5), Afghanistan (4), Syria (4), Kuwait (3), United Arab Emirates (3), Yemen (3), Bahrain (1), Iraq (1), Palestine (1), and Saudi Arabia (1). While the majority of SDGT-related designations involve targets in the Middle East, the Treasury has also issued global terrorism–related sanctions against individuals and entities in Hong Kong (7), Brazil (5), Colombia (5), China (2), Mali (2), Somalia (2), Tanzania (2), Gabon (1), India (1), Liberia (1), Mozambique (1), Niger (1), Romania (1), Sweden (1), and the United Kingdom (1). Several targeted persons also had financial connections with various terrorist groups, such as Chinese nationals Yan Su Xuan and Song Jing who helped a designated financier of terrorism, Morteza Minaye Hashemi, launder funds for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Hezbollah. This demonstrates that the U.S. government views terrorism as a global security threat that continues to remain a top priority.
CYBER2 Sanctions (39)
In 2015, Obama created a cyber sanctions program under Executive Order 13694 in response to increased North Korean–sponsored cyberattacks, including the hack against Sony Pictures Entertainment a year earlier. Originally known as CYBER, the Obama administration later amended this program in 2016 to strengthen its sanctioning authority, creating the CYBER2 sanctions program which is still in use today. Under the Biden administration, the Treasury issued a total of 39 designations pursuant to CYBER2 with the largest distribution on Russian (23) and Pakistani (11) targets, mostly for their interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The OFAC also issued CYBER2 sanctions on targets in Estonia (2), Latvia (1), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (1), and Ukraine (1). Notably, the Treasury imposed CYBER2-related sanctions for the first time on two virtual currency exchanges, SUEX OTC, S.R.O and CHATEX, for facilitating transactions related to ransomware payments. These novel designations are likely linked to the Biden administration’s broader national strategy to counter ransomware and deter the use of cyber-enabled financial crime to generate funds for other illicit activities.
SDNTK Sanctions (36)
A much older sanctions program than most others, the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) was passed by Congress in 1999 to expand the Treasury’s ability to target foreign nationals and entities engaging in drug trafficking operations that threaten U.S. national security, but fall outside of U.S. jurisdiction. The Kingpin Act created the Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficking Kingpin (SDNTK) sanctions program, which is still in use today. In the first year of the Biden administration, the Treasury issued a total of 36 SDNTK-related sanction designations. The designations were imposed against individuals and entities in Mexico (30) and Colombia (6). Although there are fewer SDNTK sanctions under Biden compared to the Obama and Trump administrations, the number of delistings (513) has increased by a large margin compared to the Trump administration. This may imply that SDNTK-related sanctions were successful in pressuring the designated individuals and entities to change their behavior involving global drug trafficking.
Understanding the Global Reach of U.S. Sanctions Programs Under the Biden Administration
The global distribution of sanctions—considering the nationality of entities designated under both thematic and country programs—shows a heavy focus on Belarus, Russia, China, Burma, and Bulgaria to date.
Global Distribution of Total U.S. Sanctions Designations under the Biden Administration, 2021
The total number of U.S. sanctions pursuant to Russian and Chinese targets skyrocket when accounting for both country-specific and thematic sanctions programs, as opposed to only country-specific sanctions designations on Russia and China. (U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Asset Control)
In addition to the 70 designations pursuant to the country-specific sanctions program on China (CMIC), the Treasury imposed 30 designations on China-related targets under various other sanctions programs. To address continued human right abuses in Xinjiang against the Muslim Uyghurs, the Treasury—along with Canada, the EU, and UK—sanctioned two Chinese government officials, Wang Junzheng and Chen Mingguo, pursuant to human rights–related authorities. OFAC also imposed seven Hong Kong–related designations pursuant to Executive Order 13936, which addresses the oppressive actions of the Chinese government and Hong Kong authorities against democratic protests linked to Beijing’s Hong Kong National Security Law. The remaining sanctions on China and Hong Kong–related targets are pursuant to GLOMAG, SDGT, ISFR, DPRK3, and ILLICIT-DRUGS-EO for providing designated terrorist groups, such as the IRGC-QF and Hezbollah, with financial assistance and money laundering services.
To date, the Treasury has issued designations against Chinese targets using the following sanctioning authorities: CMIC-EO, CMIC-EO13959, DPRK3, GLOMAG, HK-EO13936, ILLICIT-DRUGS-EO, SDGT, and IFSR.
The Treasury imposed the largest number of sanction designations on Russia-related individuals and entities (95) in response to Moscow poisoning anti-corruption and political activist Alexei Navalny, attempting to influence the U.S. election, authorizing the illegal occupation of Crimea, developing chemical weapon capabilities, and conducting malicious cyber activities against the United States and its allies.
After consulting with European allies, the Treasury imposed its first round of sanctions in March 2021 on seven Russian government officials and three government research institutes in connection with the poisoning of Navalny. Later that year, the Treasury imposed additional sanctions against associated Russian targets alongside the European Union (EU). In April, the Treasury continued to coordinate with allies through joint sanctioning efforts involving the EU, the UK, Canada, and Australia, and imposed a total of 32 sanction designations against Russian government officials responsible for the occupation of Crimea. Beyond targeting government officials involved in the occupation, these designations also included individuals and construction companies involved in creating the Kerch Strait Bridge to connect mainland Russia to Crimea, which hastened the occupation process.
Election interference has also contributed to a rise in Russia-related sanctions following Moscow’s attempts to influence democratic elections abroad, including the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The Treasury designated 16 individuals and 16 entities related to the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election, including four disinformation outlets controlled by the Russian Intelligence Service. In the same press release, OFAC designated Russian operators and companies affiliated with a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, which aims to interfere with online discourse regarding domestic politics of foreign countries to influence voting behavior. Given the cyber-enabled aspect of Russian election interference, the Treasury often issues these sanctions pursuant to both election interference–related sanctions programs and the CYBER2 program.
The Treasury issued its first-ever designation on a virtual currency exchange, SUEX, based in Russia for facilitating transactions related to ransomware payments. In addition to this designation, the Treasury also imposed CYBER2 sanctions on two ransomware operators, Ukrainian national Yaroslav Vasinskyi and Russian national Yevgeniy Polyanin, for their involvement in ransomware attacks against nine U.S. companies, including the July 2021 Kaseya ransomware attack. As previously mentioned, the Treasury has issued 35 PEESA-related sanctions designations on Russian targets involved in threatening European energy security.
To date, the Treasury has issued designations against Russian targets using the following sanctioning authorities: BELARUS-EO, CAATSA-RUSSIA, CYBER2, DPRK3, ELECTION-EO13848, NPWMD, PEESA, PEESA-EO13660, PEESA-EO14039, RUSSIA-EO, RUSSIA-EO14024, UKRAINE-EO13660, UKRAINE-EO13661, and UKRAINE-EO13685.
Sanctions will likely continue to play an important role in U.S. foreign policy and economic statecraft. Most recently, the Biden administration pledged alongside key allies, such as the EU, to employ a set of financial, technology, and military sanctions against Russia if Moscow decides to invade Ukraine. Maintaining a steady level of new designations while also incorporating broader thematic themes, such as human rights, and multilateral coordination into existing and new sanctions programs was a key development under the Biden administration. In its 2021 Treasury Sanctions Review, Treasury stated an intent to assess sanctions actions to improve targeting capabilities and effectiveness, while also taking necessary procedures to reduce possible negative impacts on unintended populations, such as ordinary civilians. This was reflected in the Treasury’s issuance of 31 general licenses—along with 53 new and 12 amended FAQs on sanctions programs—to clarify proper compliance protocol and guidance on sanctions exemptions for permissible financial transactions, COVID-19 relief, and humanitarian aid related to Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and other countries. While the Biden administration will likely continue to impose a steady stream of sanctions, these actions may reflect the U.S. government’s desire to put into practice the guiding principles of the Treasury sanctions review.