By Elsa Buchanan
As US and EU leaders outline the finishing touches on their Russian economic sanctions, experts say Putin needs to be integrated to the debate, not economically quarantined
The European Union and the US have finally imposed punitive economic sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow’s continued support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But as EU members are giving themselves big pats on the back – these are the most extensive EU sanctions imposed on Russia since the cold war – experts are questioning whether restrictive measures are the solution with Russia the boisterous. Some go further, arguing the Kremlin should be better integrated to the debate on Ukraine, not economically quarantined.
So, could the new restrictions really see Putin change his rhetoric? Or should the EU block review its political integration of Russia?
The long-awaited restrictions on trade target Russia’s defence with an arms embargo,are closing European capital markets to Russia’s state-owned banks and restrict the sale of sensitive technology and export of the giant’s oil industry.
They come on the back of previous lighter sanctions, which included the freezing of assets and a ban on travel on 87 people and 20 organisations, all deemed to be linked to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the revolt in eastern Ukraine – but more importantly, they seem to be cronies of President Vladimir Putin.
While Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former UK foreign secretary, described the lighter sanctions as ‘pretty useless’, Margot Light, professor emeritus of international relations at the Department of International Relations of the London School of Economics and Political Science, has thrown doubts on the tougher sanctions’ effectiveness.
“Clearly, the sanctions will affect Russia financially, but it will not affect ordinary people as it’s only going to affect the capitalist classes. The only thing that is likely to make Putin change policy is if economic conditions get so bad that people take it to the streets, but this is highly unlikely because Russians can put up with an awful lot.
“So, I don’t think that sanctioning Russia to make Putin change course is an effective policy.”
Because the EU sanctions policy results from a sense of emergency from the block “that something must be done but nobody knows what”, Light believes the measures can only have a limited impact.
More importantly, she explained, the only penalty capable of really hurting Russia would be if the EU stopped buying Moscow’s energy. “But Europe can’t afford to stop buying Russian energy, so that it’s not going to happen.”
One of the sanctions, the export embargo for all dual goods for military use, military end users or mixed end-users, includes special materials, some machine tools, high performance computers and electronics, could hit Russia at the heart.
But while the Russian economy needs those systems and products to develop some of its most competitive and export-oriented sectors, such as energy and steel production, the sanctions have not moved dangerously enough to ticking off Russian natural gas.
Indeed, its gas-related projects are not affected by the restrictions; because the EU is not ready to take a colossal hit.
Of the 18.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas consumer in 2013 by Europe plus Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, and the non-EU Balkan states, 30 per cent of the volume was supplied by Russia, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
As long as its energy exports continue flowing, Light indicated, Putin will carry on concentrating on showing to the world that Russia can’t be pushed around.
“And in the meantime, we have to renew Russia’s cooperation over a wide number of issues including trying to find some way to resolve the situation in Ukraine, so [sanctioning] is no way to getting engaged in problem solving.”
Instead, the expert on post-Soviet politics recommended the EU get Russia engaged in a combined political negotiation with both the separatists and the Ukrainian government.
“They need to involve it in a problem-solving exercise which attempts to bring about a political settlement to the conflict in Ukraine,” she added.
This is, however, not the aim of US President Barack Obama, who warned in a March press conference that if Moscow continued to intervene in Ukraine, it would “achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world”.
Sophia Pugsley, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)’ wider Europe programme coordinator, agreed Putin would not give up on his foreign policy.
“At some point, he will wind down the military operations and then pursue his policy by other means. The military option is but one of them. He has already started using economic means to destabilise Ukraine [Last week, Moscow slammed restrictive measures on the import of beef, milk and dairy products from Ukraine].”
“In my view, it makes no sense when people start talking about Putin’s unconditional surrender in the face of the EU sanctions.”
While Pugsley recognised the isolation of Russia was “unconstructive”, she highlighted the fact “every effort has been made in the last 20 years to include Russia in political circles”.
“This included things they weren’t really ready for, including having a place in the G8, and special treatments such as the NATO-Russia Council (NRC).
“So I think some people in the EU trust that the bloc has tried too much for too long to keep on a political track with Russia, while some event think the only thing Russia understands is force.”
However, the ECFR expert highlighted the temporary life of the sanctions, adding Russia would not be “isolated forever”.
“Ties with Russia are not going to disappear overnight; it’s not the Cold War.”