I have a story set in a country which is rich with natural resources and officially under embargo due to poor human rights records. However several industrial countries are turning the blind eye on their companies deals as long as they keep them low profile.

Could someone point me to similar examples from the 20th or 21st century history?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This might be better on history stack? $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2017 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ Would blood diamonds count or is that not condoned enough to qualify? $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Mar 17, 2017 at 22:59

2 Answers 2


Yes. North Korea, Russia. CCCP, there were a COCOM list, it was essentially a list of (mainly high tech) goods which wasn't allowed to sell to the communist countries.

Actually, they can still get everything what they want, but it was was much costly for them.

The results:

  1. For example, ancient personal computers were also on forbidden, but anybody living in the communist block and got the (rare) permission for a voyage to the west, could buy one safely and smuggle back in the package room of his car.
  2. In the current Russia, there is a strong border smuggling. For example, even private persons, with their cars, could go on the borders (Poland -> Belarus, Slovakia -> Ukraine, Hungary -> Ukraine, Romania -> Ukraine, etc). In the Russian area, the gas is cheap but they didn't have enough western money. Thus, they filled their tank with cheap gas on the easter side (they paid with euro or western money), and came back with full tank (where they could sell it). Nobody checked, how many gas is in the tank of a car of a simple commoner.
  3. The same could happen in bigger sizes, by simply paying the border control to see elsewhere as the big trains and camions are coming, all with full gasoline tanks.
  4. In the era of the cold war, the was a common misconception about the real tasks of the KGB ($\approx$ CIA & FBI of the CCCP). It has made "romantic" actions like we can see in the James Bond films only a quite few. Its main task was to organize the network of smugglers and intermediary re-sellers to get fromt he west what the communists wanted. From the details, here you can find a first-hand speech from a KGB agent.
  5. Of course sometimes the West hit back. In 1984, the newly commissioned Trans-Siberian Gas Pipeline was controlled by U.S. electronics smuggled into the CCCP by the KGB through a Canadian fake company. The CIA discovered the plot, and they "modified" the electronics to overpump the pressure in the pipeline. The result was an explosion with thousands of deaths.
  6. According to the previous, we can classify the more recent Stuxnet attack against the Iranian nuclear program. Here Iran buyed some Siemens devices to refine their Uranium production, these got a buggy firmware "update" through a virus (embedded into a South East Asian network card driver) with the purpose to destroy the spin-dryers.

In general, what we can say:

The countries are mostly too big to close their border hermetically. There is too many contact with the external world. What can be done, is that the sanctions make the access to these good much more costly for them. And even this can cause significant disadvantage for them (for example, losing the Cold War on economic reasons).

  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, but pipeline part seems to be just authors imagination from the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_the_Abyss book, reviews for its accuracy are very poor amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2LU2V03VY9JQ6/… $\endgroup$
    – boher3rd
    Mar 18, 2017 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ @boherThe3rd Thanks. I know this version, I think there are many reasons to think, that yes it was a CIA plot: 1) this is exactly how security services work 2) they could do it, why they hadn't done it? (At the time they didn't know that it will be a mass murder, they only wanted to destroy the pipeline and not to kill so many innocent people, it was an unintended side-effect) 3) The Israelis did the same with the Stuxnet, it was absolutely not a problem for them 4) The most important is the reaction of the communist governments. If it hadn't been a CIA plot, and the pipeline had exploded $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Mar 18, 2017 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @boherThe3rd on a different reason, they had surely shouted it everywhere, that it was a sabotage. Don't forget: it was the Andropov era, the CCCP was in chaos and nobody knew it will soon collapse, but everybody feared a nuclear war. But, at the time, the communists were still. I think, they simply tried to hide their mistake. $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Mar 18, 2017 at 14:26

The economic sanctions against Iraq were rapidly unravelling prior to the Second Persian Gulf War, which finally toppled the Saddam Regime, but you really have to look no further than the underground oil trade with ISIS during the years they occupied large portions of Syria and Iraq, or even the trade which goes on with the DPRK; obviously sufficient to keep the odious Kim family in power over several generations.

Russia is also currently under sanctions, which slows things down a bit foe President Putin, but Russia's economic problems are more tied to the lack of economic diversity (much of their foreign income is based on oil exports) and the internal kleptocracy, which siphons off wealth and investment capital to line the pockets of politicians and their favoured clients.

You could also look at the case of Iran, under sanctions for their nuclear program. In an interesting move, Saudi Arabia began flooding the world market with oil just prior to sanctions being lifted, in order to deny the Iranians new oil income, as well as to punish the Russians for supporting Iran. This strategy banked on the idea that Saudi cash reserves would last long enough for their enemies to collapse, but failed to take into account the innovative nature of the US oil industry and their ability to develop technology and techniques to prosper even under low oil prices.

So sanctions and sanction busting isn't a simple yes-no equation, and often there will be many outside influences which make or break sanctions as a means of exerting economic leverage.


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