Are sanctions enough to halt Russian aggression?

As Russia amasses forces of approximately 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, many Western countries are attempting to deter further aggression through the use or threat of severe sanctions. Yet the question remains, will that be enough to falter Russian resolve? 

A view of the Moscow Financial District – Sergei Karpukhin/TASS/Alamy Live News

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 was met with condemnation across Western countries and was quickly followed by a host of sanctions being implemented against the Russian Federation, many of which remain in effect to this day. However, eight years on, Crimea remains under Moscow’s control as a Federal District, while fears of further Russian military incursions into Ukraine loom.

According to UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, current legislation – which was initially implemented during the invasion of Crimea – allows “only those Russian businesses that can be linked to promoting instability in Ukraine” to be penalised. Something that has evidently remained difficult to implement in any noteworthy manner. However, new sanctions shall reportedly go further, with Truss stating that “any company of interest to the Kremlin and the regime in Russia would be able to be targeted, so there will be nowhere to hide for Putin’s oligarchs, for Russian companies involved in propping up the Russian state”. A sentiment echoed by US Senator Bob Menendez, who during a CNN interview divulged plans of a bipartisan senate foreign relations committee’s ambition to implement “the mother of all sanctions” against the Russian state, which could include cutting Russian banks from international financial payment networks such as SWIFT or prohibiting Western companies and individuals from trading with them. Nevertheless, Russian diplomats appear unmoved by such testaments, continuing to pursue a complete ban on the admission of Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the foreseeable future. 

So, the question persists, will the risk of sanctions diminish Russian ambitions? 

Well, first and foremost, the targeted sanctions that are being threatened by Truss are unlikely to yield substantial results any time soon, something most likely understood by the Kremlin. Successful application would require comprehensive investigation into every Russian-owned business that trades with or within the UK and would necessitate the detection of sufficient evidence to generate a link between them and the Kremlin to legitimise the potential penalisation. Let’s forget for a moment that such legislation, when implemented, precariously nears towards an Orwellesque state surveillance system that would seemingly pass verdict on every individual who happens to have a surname ending with -ov, -ev, or -in, and instead notice that the expectations to find such links are overzealous. Russian oligarchs and businesses that are linked to the Kremlin most likely have a ready supply of resources and diplomatic avenues through friendly states such as China available to manoeuvre around such sanctions – should they ever be enacted. 

It is important to note that Moscow is not risking severe sanctions on a whim, or without cause. Moscow’s long-held influence in Eastern Europe has diminished precipitously since the fallout of the Soviet Union. This led to the dissolution of NATO’s antithetical equal, the ‘Warsaw Pact’. Following this, many former Soviet and freshly established nations raced to distance themselves from Moscow’s sphere of influence by seeking NATO membership. With the frontier of the alliance drawing nearer to Russia’s borders over the previous decades, the Russian Federation has begun to view the expansion as not only an issue that hinders their regional authority, but as a threat against their national security.

Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to reiterate this issue during a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday, stating that “fundamental Russian concerns were ignored”. Which he later added as the “adequate consideration of our three key demands regarding NATO expansion, the renunciation of the deployment of strike weapons systems near Russian borders, and the return of the [NATO] bloc’s military infrastructure in Europe to the state of 1997, when the Russia-NATO founding act was signed.” 

When commenting on the severity of the sanctions under discussion by the Senate, Menendez stated that “It’s to include a variety of elements, massive sanctions against the most significant Russian banks, crippling to their economy”. In the same interview Senator James Risch, a ranking republican of the senate’s committee added that “it is going to cripple their oil production.”

Sanctions are all well and good if justified, but often they do not perform the function envisioned due to a lack of universal application. Only through sustained universally applied economic pressure can we expect to see internal change or diplomatic lines of communication opened. 

China has recently expressed support for Putin’s grievances against NATO and has vowed to block any action taken by the US on Ukraine at the United Nations Security Council. This deepening informal alliance between China and Russia reveals that the “mother of all sanctions” may hurt the Russian economy, but as both nations continue to strengthen trade and military relations, it may be assumed that agreements between Russia and the world’s second-largest economy would alleviate some of the temporary pressure exerted.  

Roberts explains that success is imprecise and not guaranteed. Often governments – especially those that have access to government-controlled news – under sanctions can galvanise support by portraying the penalties as a form of economic bullying and foreign aggression. This can often lead to the populace adopting a ‘blitz’ mentality, thus producing the opposite effect as the populace doubles down on their leadership’s decisions, a phenomenon that political scientists describe as the ‘rally around the flag’ effect

Attempting to constrain military alliances’ development by threatening a weaker nation’s sovereignty is never an acceptable response. However, the reality is that given the same situation, many governments – especially those with military superiority – when faced with probable national security threats or possible economic sanctions, would choose to resolve the former over the latter. 

And whilst every scenario is different, statistical evidence from one of the most comprehensive studies of sanctions – where academics examined more than 100 cases – concluded that sanctions were only partially successful at achieving their goals 34% of the time. It is not necessary to delve into the tales of history to find these failures. Castro has remained in power irrespective of the extreme sanctions enacted against Cuba. Iran continues to endure under sanctions which have led them into the choking embrace of China – now its largest trading partner. And the Myanmar junta continues to imprison the democratically elected leader of its country despite the imposed targeted sanctions, whilst being either supported or ignored by neighbouring regional nations.  

The application of sanctions alone is unlikely to halt Russian aggression. If the West remains serious about its commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, – as we should do – then it must be willing to deter Russian advances with more than just a threat or employment of sanctions. As Mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko remarked when asked by Sky News about the German government’s decision to send 5,000 helmets, “it’s a joke… I want to say thank you, but it’s not enough, it won’t really help”. 

Alexander Burrell is a British freelance writer and journalist based in Madrid. 

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