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Sanctions 2024: Which hotspots should you be watching?

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Written by Iain Armstrong

In regular times, 2023 would have been seen as a busy year in geopolitics. But in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the massive Western sanctions in response to it, it seemed relatively quiet by comparison. However, as the events in Gaza and Israel in the autumn of 2023 have demonstrated, new crises can emerge quickly. 

With that in mind, I explore three hotspots compliance leaders should watch as 2024 unfolds. 


The war in Ukraine will likely continue within its current parameters, with further Russian offensive and Ukrainian counter-offensives in the spring and summer. 

The most substantial developments are likely to come off the battlefield, as Western countries will pressure Ukraine to start looking to some form of negotiation. Changing domestic political environments have started to have an effect – Western publics’ attentions shifting elsewhere – and the prospects of changing political leadership in the West have raised questions about the level of commitment to Ukraine in the long term. Indeed, it seems likely that European efforts to find a way to end the conflict on grounds relatively favorable to Ukraine will accelerate if it looks likely that Donald Trump – no great friend to Ukraine – will be re-elected as US President in November. 

Pressure to make a deal might also be brought to bear on Putin from both domestic allies and President Xi. It is notable how careful China has been not to aggravate the US by providing overt military support to Russia. Although there is evidence of some material being supplied through back channels, despite Xi’s promise of a “no limits partnership” in 2022. 

However, even if talks begin, progress is likely to be slow and tortuous, given the level of enmity between both sides. This suggests that any material reduction in Western sanctions against Russia will be extremely unlikely in 2024.

North Korea

There can be little doubt that the regime in Pyongyang will persist in its pattern of defiance and confrontation, emboldened by its growing ties to Russia. There is always the risk that North Korea will go a step too far, firing a ballistic missile through Japanese airspace, downing a Western surveillance flight, or conducting a new nuclear test. The emergence of a more comprehensive military and economic cooperation deal with Russia would also be another potential trigger for a severe response from the US – although, again, there is limited room for additional designations. 

Nonetheless, Pyongyang has become an expert at dancing on the edge of provocation, and it seems probable it will avoid taking actions that would make its life more difficult than it already is. Despite its closer ties with Russia, North Korea knows there are limits to what Russia can provide as long as it continues to claim to support UNSC sanctions. The main factor in what happens next will be China’s attitude. China has, for example, taken exception to Western surveillance flights tracking ship-to-ship transfers off the Korean coast, sometimes responding with dangerous aerial intercepts. But it still insists that it supports the UNSC sanctions. Responding to allegations of weak sanctions implementation from the G7 and EU in July, the Chinese government insisted that it implemented UN sanctions “strictly.” China will, therefore, probably not appreciate North Korea or Russia making moves that will put it in a more awkward position vis-à-vis the US.


At the start of 2023, after the Chinese spy balloon debacle, it would have been a brave analyst who would suggest that by year-end, Chinese-Western relations would be in a more stable condition – and yet, they are. 

Despite the current fair weather, several events could push in a negative direction. If the new Taiwanese President – likely the current VP Lai Ching-te – takes a robust approach toward China, Beijing may respond aggressively. Similarly, if Russia faces military defeat, China might feel driven to provide overt material support, which will almost certainly provoke a major Western sanctions response – even in the face of the economic anxieties of US allies in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. This could, at last, trigger a major Chinese economic counter-response or possibly a blockade or military action against Taiwan.  

But while possible, these outcomes do not look probable. Despite his very public nationalism, President Xi has much to occupy him domestically. With the sacking of major military figures in 2023, it seems unlikely he intends to order the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into action in 2024. 

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Originally published 01 February 2024, updated 08 February 2024

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