In the immediate aftermath of Crimea’s annexation by Russia and the breakout of Moscow-supported separatist upheaval in Eastern Ukraine, the USA and the EU began imposing sanctions against Russia and individuals involved in the Kremlin’s Ukraine policies.
Since their adoption in March 2014, these sanctions have been periodically prolonged and extended. The declared aim of the sanctions has been to make Russia change its policies towards Ukraine, and to withdraw from occupied Ukrainian territories.
Russian leaders think differently, arguing that the sanctions seek to provoke the public discontent with Putin’s governance and to trigger a regime change. Putin himself in November of 2014 told his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov,
that Western sanctions serve the purpose of forcing a regime change in Moscow:
“As for the concept behind to the use of coercive measures, the West is making clear it does not want to force Russia to change policy but wants to secure regime change.”
IMF reports that due to Western sanctions, the Russian GDP underwent a 1.5% decrease in 2015. According to one study, those sanctions inflicted
$170 billion dollars of damage on Russia’s economy between 2014 – 2017.
However, it is commonly acknowledged that the sanctions failed to reach their original objectives and did not bring about noteworthy changes in Russia’s behavior. A lawmaker from Italy, a EU-member that has reportedly lost more than 1.25 billion euros since the sanctions came into force,
stated before a Rome forum in February this year that
“Sanctions are a failure… Europe is paying a big price. Let’s admit that.”
In fact, the failure of the sanctions is potentially a serious problem for the West, but first and foremost to the European Union. This constitutes a danger in two important ways:
Firstly, it makes some Western politicians and experts examine the possibility of extending the sanctions even further and inflaming domestic pressure on Putin. For instance, Christopher Hartwell and Andreas Umland, calling for a total ban on energy imports from Russia,
wrote recently on Atlantic Council that
“Unlike the sanctions regime currently in place, import sanctions targeted at the Achilles’ heel of the Russian economy—the oil trade—could make a difference and have a quick political impact… These measures would not only trigger a major social crisis in Russia because of price hikes… So far, ordinary Russians have primarily felt the bite of the combined effects of oil price slumps and Western export sanctions since 2014. The elite has been relatively insulated from the effects of these economic changes. But with Western energy import reductions, insulating elite members of society from income losses would become more difficult.”
that there is a high possibility that tougher sanctions would provoke more aggressive reactions and any regime change that occurs under these circumstances might bring into power more nationalist, more revanchist and more unpredictable political elements.
Secondly, the sanctions at the actual level are not likely to produce expected outcomes and may potentially damage the geopolitical stance of the EU and paralyze its eastern neighborhood policies.
Lessons Not Learned
The early years of the post-Soviet period witnessed a similar Western approach to Russia. The United States and European powers ignored the concerns of Russia and pursued a far-reaching eastward enlargement of NATO into territories previously dominated by the Soviet Union. They even went so far as to bombard Serbia twice in a decade despite all the counter-efforts of the Kremlin. In those years, France’s President Jacques Chirac warned Bill Clinton about his Russia policy, presciently telling him that, “I’m just saying that you shouldn’t kick a wounded dog because it will get well and bite you.”
The Russians that had just departed from the glorious times of the Soviet years felt humiliated by the expansive maneuvers of the Western powers in the region. This exploded ultra-nationalist groups, sewed the roots of future confrontations and brought Vladimir Putin to power.
Although the early years of his presidency were accompanied by a search for cooperation with the West (supporting the US after 9/11, establishing the NATO-Russia Council in 2002, etc.), the angry mood remained dominant in the country. Against this background, the tone of relations between the sides gradually downgraded, causing two major crises (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014), and brought the two sides into a power deadlock.
The imposition of more extensive sanctions against Russia runs the threat to further aggravate the situation and empower ultranationalist and fascist groups. The lessons drawn from the recent history demonstrate that “kicking” Russia when it is “wounded” risks creating a more aggressive Russia.
This possibility has been voiced from time to time by some European politicians as well.
For example, last year German Vice – Chancellor of Economic Affairs and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel in response to calls for tougher sanctions against Russia warned that this could destabilize the country and generate an
“even more dangerous”
environment in Europe. He stressed that the West should not try to bring Russia to its knees.
Backfire of Sanctions
In fact, when Russia invaded Crimea and intervened in Eastern Ukraine, it was clear in the West that NATO was not going to go to war against Russia over Ukraine. Responding with the traditional method of expressing “concerns” was also not a remedy for the situation. The West had, regardless of all the objections of Moscow, supported the pro-Western drift of Ukraine from the beginning and it was not possible to step back in the crisis that this drift had brought about.
In the end, financial sanctions were picked as a more plausible tool, despite the fact that history has shown that sanctions have rarely been successful.
As the experiences of EU sanctions against China after Tiananmen Square in 1989, against Uzbekistan after Andijan in 2005 and international sanctions against Iran, North Korea, and Assad’s Syria have demonstrated,
the effect of sanctions as a foreign policy tool is rather dubious.
Studies propose that in history, the success rate of such sanctions imposed on states has been
consistently rather low.
Nowadays some commentators optimistically argue that the sanctions imposed on Russia have made a significant difference, circumscribed Moscow’s territorial ambitions, prevented it s further military expansion into eastern Ukraine and
averted more dramatic changes in Ukraine’s de facto border in the east.
However, a more realistic analysis of the situation indicates that
“they have not deterred Putin from pursuing what he sees as a vital Russian interest.”
George Friedman of the Stratfor group draws the conclusion that, “The U.S. sanctions strategy is […] not designed to change Russian policies; it is
designed to make it look like
the United States is trying to change Russian policy.”
Although this policy and the failure of the sanctions is not a serious loss for the USA, it is certainly a blow to the geopolitical weight of the EU.
The EU as an international actor has developed more like a normative power rather than a military unit that can easily overcome this failure. Sanctions had been preserved in the arsenal of the Union as the most effective instrument to respond to the misbehavior of other States.
The major problem is that the EU is experiencing the incapability of this instrument at the most sensitive time of its recent history. The Brexit referendum in June of this year, the stunning victory of Donald Trump at the US presidential elections earlier this month and his skepticism concerning the transatlantic alliance, the growing electorate of the right-wing populists across the Europe and the subsequent victory of pro-Russia politicians in the Eastern European countries (e.g. Moldova, Bulgaria, and Georgia) darken the clouds hanging over the European Union.
Under these circumstances, the EU is stuck in a catch – 22: it can neither lift sanctions without any notable changes in Russia’s Ukraine policy nor can it extend them to impose more pressure on Russia.
It is also obvious that their maintenance is not a solution either.