Sanctions on Russia: A western Euphemism? By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

Sanctions on Russia: A western Euphemism? By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

FOR months, it has been a western euphemism to impose sanctions on Russia. Veritably, the western focus has now been moved from diplomacy to sanctions.

Apparently, Brussels appears quickest out of the blocks with wide-ranging sanctions more faster than London and Washington.

Per se, the EU’s approved package sanctions against Russia formally announced on 23 February included all 351 members of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, which voted in favour of recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ and 27 individuals or entities described as contributing “to the undermining or threatening of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine”.

Ian Hurd, an expert on international law and organizations, said: “The rest of the world doesn’t have the tools to stop Putin from taking Ukraine.

Russia’s military power is easily capable of taking over the country, as long as Moscow is willing to both cause enormous damage and bear costs for Russia.

The best strategies are those that target the economic lifelines for Putin and his cohort. ’’ Recently, the European Commission sustained agreement by the Council to adopt a fifth package of restrictive measures against Putin’s regime in response to its brutal aggression against Ukraine and its people.

The Commission announced in its RE Power Communication of 8 March ‘’a strategy to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels as soon as possible and work has started to implement this plan’’.

Retrospectively seen, the EU sanctions on Russia vis-a-vis its annexation of Crimea in 2014 remained quite effective in two regards.

Firstly, they remained successful in halting Vladimir Putin’s pre-announced military offensive into Ukraine in the summer of 2014.

Secondly, sanctions had hit the Russian economy badly. Since 2014, it has grown by an average of 0.3percent per year, while the global average was 2.3 per cent per year.

The EU has also restricted economic relations with Donetsk and Luhansk (including banning imports from them) and prohibits “financing the Russian Federation, its government and Central Bank” – shutting them out of the EU’s capital and financial markets.

A concrete example is that while the EU will freeze assets of people on its sanctions list, Switzerland (albeit, not an EU member) will only ensure that its banks do not accept further funds from these individuals.

This is to prevent sanctioned Russians from using Switzerland to get around EU measures. The measure that has attracted the most attention, however, was not taken by the EU, but by Germany unilaterally, when on 22 February Olaf Scholz announced the suspension of the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

This was a step long sought by the US, as well as Poland and the Baltic States, but resisted, until now, by successive German governments – on the unconvincing basis that the pipeline, conceived by state-owned Gazprom and carrying Gazprom’s gas to Germany, was a purely commercial project.

Washington-London initially imposed more limited sanctions. In the US case, the most significant step was to ban trading in new Russian government bonds on the secondary market – eliminating a loophole that had allowed the Russian government to sell bonds to Russian financial institutions that could then go on to trade them on the secondary market in the US.

It also added two banks and three individuals to its already long lists of sanctioned firms and people.

The UK sanctioned three people close to Putin, all of whom were sanctioned by the US some years ago; and five banks, three of which were also sanctioned by the US some years ago.

It said that over the coming weeks it would apply similar sanctions to those of the EU on members of the Duma and on Russian sovereign debt, as well as restricting trade with the two enclaves.

First, the West needs to work on its own resilience. Russia will step up disinformation designed either to spread panic, cause confusion or discredit Ukraine.

Western governments will need to respond quickly, and Western media need to avoid framing conflicting claims in neutral terms when there is clear evidence of what is true and what is not.

Russian propaganda channels like RT and Sputnik should come under closer scrutiny: if they are not complying with their obligations to ensure balanced coverage and ban hate speech, they should be penalised and, if they are persistent offenders, closed down.

Even at this late stage, governments that have neglected societal resilience should look at the examples of countries like Finland and Sweden and consider how to ensure that the whole of society contributes to ensuring national security.

Second, in the military sphere, NATO members need to accept that there is not going to be a return to business as usual with Russia after this.

Russia aims to intimidate the West: Putin’s statement on February 24th warned that anyone who interfered in events would face “consequences that they have never faced in their history” – seen by many as a threat to use nuclear weapons.

NATO is moving more forces into Central Europe and critical maritime areas to reassure allies that NATO will respond if Russia challenges the alliance; it also needs to make clear to Russia that it too has nuclear weapons and is capable of inflicting intolerable damage on Russia.

Arguably, there can be no ‘unilateral nuclear deterrence’, whereby Russia can do what it likes with its conventional forces while deterring any NATO response with the threat of nuclear escalation.

Strategically put, Putin’s immediate goal may be to eliminate the security threat to Russia that he fantasises Ukraine poses; but once Ukraine is under his control, then his perception of threat will transfer to other neighbouring countries.

Europe is in for a long period of confrontation with Russia. Putin has the capability and the will to retaliate against Western sanctions, and to inflict economic pain and increase social division in Europe.

But Western leaders cannot allow him to win. Europe’s future is at stake today, not just Ukraine’s.

Foreseeably, with Washington’s striving for multilateral coordination accompanied by Brussels’ quest for strategic autonomy, there is an opportunity to revamp a trans-Atlantic sanctions policy toward Russia.

By reducing its own domestic vulnerabilities, the West can become more resilient to Russia’s attempts to exploit weak spots in western systems, thus reducing the need for a sanctions offensive.

Stricter anti-money laundering regulations, robust foreign investment screening and tighter export controls could minimize the West’s domestic vulnerabilities and strengthen its room for manoeuvre to exert influence externally.

This might not solve the transatlantic dilemma— deterring Russia in the short term, but taking the long-term perspective—adopting a clearer thinking about a more effective use of economic statecraft.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.

Sanctions on Russia: A western Euphemism? By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi


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