Cities are a great place for social experiments. Benjamin R. Barber

Punishing Russia

Shortly after the annexation of Crimea, the West imposed sanctions against Russia. That is the wrong strategy at the wrong time.

Various justifications for sanctions have been presented stating that Russia should be penalised for her annexation of Crimea and support of the eastern Ukrainian rebels. The West is unwilling to go to war over Ukraine, but merely denouncing Russia’s actions is too weak. This begs the question: under what conditions will sanctions be lifted? If only be Russia returns Crimea to Ukraine, then the sanctions are effectively permanent. Local support for reunification with Russia is more than 90%, and given the situation in eastern Ukraine, the Crimean people would not accept a return to their former governors. The Sevastopol naval base is also of great strategic and nostalgic importance to Russia.

A second explanation offered is that sanctions are necessary to prevent Russia from invading other parts of the former Soviet Union, Poland or Nordic states. It is difficult to refute the counterfactual, but from the Russian viewpoint, their actions in Ukraine were motivated by a coup d’état in Kiev that was encouraged by foreign powers and which threatened Russia’s vital security interests and the wellbeing of the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine. The Russian course of action was defensive, not offensive. Had Russia wished to take Kiev, she could easily have done so. There is no indication that this was ever intended, and it is certainly not the sanctions that prevent such action.

Another argument frequently cited in defense of sanctions is that they ensure the proper implementation of the Minsk accords. This is Germany’s position. Though this stance seems reasonable, the fundamental problem is that while Russia wishes to see the adoption of Minsk II, there is little they can do to achieve this goal. The main obstacles toward the implementation of Minsk II lie in Kiev. The agreement calls for legislation granting broad autonomy to the eastern regions of Ukraine. President Poroshenko has repeatedly stated that Ukraine will remain a unitary state and that no substantial federalisation would be considered, gutting Minsk II. Perhaps the wrong party is being sanctioned.

Neoconservative Fantasies

The final argument is the most illegitimate. It states that sanctions should be strengthened in order to “degrade" the Russian economy and create circumstances under which oligarchs and others would rebel against President Putin and bring about regime change. This fantasy is mainly entertained amongst American neoconservatives, but Washington is obliged to support it, as perceived weakness toward Russia is a political “kiss of death”. This has also driven an unprecedented campaign to demonise Putin across the West. In particular, comparisons made by senior statesman of Putin to Hitler constitute a descent into unseemly ignorance. They are an insult not only to Russia, who bore the heaviest load in defeating Nazism, but also to Hitler’s victims. With opinion polls showing Putin’s popularity rating breaking records, the response of Western politicians and media has been to attack the supposed lack of morality of the Russian people in effectively racist terms.

The United States’ strategy is not clear. Moreover, it is hard to understand why some form of containment or regime change policy toward Russia would be in Europe’s interest. Such maneuvers carry a high risk of creating considerable turbulence on Europe’s eastern boarders, leaving primarily Germany to pick up the pieces and inevitable bill. For the U.S., the potential cost of this policy is limited, but for Europe the risks are substantial. Why would Germany want this?

One can understand European solidarity with Poland and the Baltic countries, as they fear Russia, but bullying those countries that wish to lift sanctions also carries costs. All European Union member states were told that decisions of this sort would require unanimous agreement, but they are now learning that some are “more equal than others”, which will no doubt lead to problems later.

Sanctions Aren’t Working

The sanctions are proving ineffective. Following a shallow downturn, the Russian economy is stabilising, largely on the back of import substitution as Russian counter-sanctions push European agriculture out of the market. New capital sources are being found in Asia, replacing European banks. Perhaps the major victims are the already vulnerable southern and eastern European countries, who have lost a major market and may need further assistance. The U.S. insists on a bailout of Greece, paid for by the E.U., so that the sanctions regime against Russia is not derailed. Many European companies have suffered declines in exports to Russia. Within Russia, while there has been some impact upon ordinary Russian people, predictably, this has triggered a “rally around the flag” response. This has strengthened Putin’s position and that of the country’s hardliners who oppose cooperation with the West, which is now widely seen as seeking to destroy or contain Russia. The liberals and modernisers in the Russian government have been discredited. Oligarchs are certainly not rising up against Putin.

From a geostrategic standpoint, sanctions have helped to score an own-goal of historic proportions. The post-war global order is coming under serious threat, but not from Russia. The challenge comes instead from a rising and profoundly disruptive China intent upon supplanting the current unipolar global system. To have driven the Russian bear into the arms of the Chinese dragon qualifies as insanity. In fact, it would have behooved the West to do everything possible to pull Moscow into their own tent and far from Beijing.

The sanctions regime against Russia has no chance of achieving any beneficial goals and does not help Ukraine. In fact, it is counterproductive; weakening the E.U. economies, creating rifts within the bloc and undermining modernisers in Russia.

Read more in this debate: Alexander Stepanyan, Franz-Stefan Gady, Mark Galeotti.

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