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G7 continues sanctions on Russia — because it’s out of other ideas

Standing firm. EPA/Matthias Schrader

At its latest meeting in Germany, the group of nations known as the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – has decided to continue sanctions against Russia, and to deepen them if events in Ukraine get worse.

But it is getting worse – and the G7 clearly cannot come up with a response to match the situation on the ground.

The G7 group has met in a reduced form since the Russian Federation was excluded from the then G8 for its actions in Crimea in 2014. Its members have been the driving force behind economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and the Russian Army’s combat operations along the Russian-Ukrainian border (and potentially inside Ukraine itself).

Turning the screws

The economic sanctions have blocked trade with Russian banks and the export of certain goods, while diplomatic sanctions have led to some Russian and separatist officials being barred from travelling to EU countries.

The G7 wants to put further pressure on Moscow to meet its commitments to the now broken Minsk ceasefire and its main message at the Germany meeting has been about maintaining the momentum on sanctions. The longer the sanctions continue, the harder it is for more sceptical states (such as Hungary, Spain and Portugal, among others) to push for reducing or even ending the embargoes.

The summit has been an opportunity to not only ensure that the G7 nations are on the same page, but also to send a signal to the EU countries implementing the sanctions against Russia that the group is intent on maintaining a hard line towards Moscow on Ukraine. What’s more, it sends a similar message to Russia itself.

Preaching to the choir

It’s not clear who expected the G7 summit to make a significant impact on the war in the Donbas, and anyone who did was greatly overestimating the options available to Ukraine’s supporters.

The summit discussions about Ukraine have been an exercise in preaching to the choir, since all seven states are agreed on the current state of sanctions – though Germany is under serious pressure to ease them from domestic business interests.

Chin chin. EPA/Sergei Karpukhin

Sanctions are simply the lowest common denominator – the only action that can be agreed by all. They are also the only tactic that does not raise the risk of conventional warfare between the NATO states and Russia.

The G7 powers have clearly run out of ideas. The sanctions are biting, but they are having no real impact on the ground in Ukraine. And in any case, when have we ever seen a sanctioned leader turn around and say: “This is too much, we should stop now”?

Whether sanctions have any effect at all is widely debated, but research indicates that they are less effective the longer they go on.

Russia does not gain from further isolation from Europe, just as the US and Europe do not gain from Russia’s isolation. The G7 can probably go on indefinitely with Russia excluded, but this is just a measure of its limited heft. Its members may have significant influence on the pattern of international trade and finance, but the G7 is not the G20. The latter includes not only Russia but also China and India, and therefore represents a far wider swathe of the global system.

So while the 2015 summit was a good chance for the G7 to agree to stop using fossil fuels by the end of the century, its impact on Russia will have been close to nil.

This summit was less about making Russian sanctions work than about convincing European NATO members that something is being done about Ukraine – but we are no closer to a resolution to the crisis, and the war goes on.

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