West opted for Russia sanctions due to lack of any other policy

Strong words don’t mean strong measures. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

The invasion of Crimea and Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s Eastern borders have set a difficult task for Western diplomacy. Since Russia is a nuclear power, despite being militarily diminutive in comparison to other major states, the West can only support what remains of Ukraine and its new government and talk the talk without walking the walk.

While the US and its allies (NATO and others) have moved military hardware to the Baltic States to indicate support for the former Soviet republics, the main response has been financial and travel sanctions. To understand the possible impact of these sanctions, we must first understand Russia’s intentions post-Crimea. To paraphrasing the great British poet Stevie Smith, we might ask whether the signalling of (limited) sanctions is less a Western wave and more of a sign of diplomacy drowning.

How exactly has the “West” sanctioned Russia? The United States was the first to move, blocking seven members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle from travel and freezing their assets. A short time later, the US government bumped this up to another 13 individuals and banned any US financial institution from dealing with Bank Rossiya. The European Union (EU) responded similarly, with the same sorts of sanctions on 20 then 12 more members of the Russian government and inner circle. In all, to date, 51 individuals have been sanctioned.

Existing assets in the US and EU have been frozen, not seized, and could be released at a latter date. In addition, these individuals cannot fly to, or transit in, the US or EU. The West has not responded with blanket sanctions against all individuals in the government, as in the case of US sanctions against Iran. Nor have the sanctions sought to prevent trade, even from the US. The sanctions are specific and tailored to hit people in their pockets.

Waving? Or drowning… EPA/Robin van Lonkhuijsen

As yet, the effects have been minimal. Still basking in the heat of the annexation and the “glorious” return of Crimea to Russia, the Russian government has suggested in a statement that the Western sanctions are limited in their effect – despite the resulting loss of billions of dollars from asset freezes and stock market slumps. We have yet to see if the Russian government will seek to compensate for such losses, but it is to be expected. At the same time, American and European officials have stated that more sanctions are possible with Russia’s further escalation of the conflict.

This Russian statement comes at the same time as serious discord in the EU over what those further sanctions would be. EU members busy rebuilding their economies are far less interested in prejudicing possible Russian investment (FDI); some will see an opportunity to ride along on the decisions taken by other member-states. The US could choose much harsher sanctions that could have more serious impacts, but without the EU, Russia’s largest trading partner, their real effects would be modest.

Will sanctions work?

In other words, effective sanctions (or at least as effective as sanctions get) would require three things. Firstly, they require that the US and EU work together to deploy a similar list of sanctions. The question would be whether the EU in particular has the ability to do just that. Barack Obama has every reason to show a hard foreign policy to Russia in the latter days of his administration. The EU has no such imperatives.

Sanctions would also need to be tied to realistic outcomes: if Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation and maps are being re-written as we speak, then having sanctions attached to the removal of Russian forces from the archipelago is simply foolhardy and counter-productive. Rather, the sanctions have to show some room for both sides to look like they came out of this situation with their international integrity intact (assuming anyone still has any).

Finally, sanctions need to happen quickly. Sanctions are about signalling, not about crippling. And when they do cripple (see Iraq), they are less productive as time goes on. All of this is to say that the game of international sanctions is complex if everyone is to get something out of it in the end.

Sanctions were the result of the lack of any other policy towards Russia. As in the case of Georgia in 2008, no one is interested in going to war with a nuclear power. This situation comes at a time when history illustrates that the use of sanctions in the short, medium and long term are limited in their effectiveness to get the other side to do what one wants them to do. So, if the West cannot even do sanctions correctly, the US and EU have to worry about what signal they are sending to Russia. Might it look more like drowning, than waving.