Sanctioning Russia: A Sisyphean Task?

After his poisoning in August 2020 and his recovery in Germany, Alexei Navalny, the most
prominent opponent of the Russian government and Putin, surprised the world considerably
by choosing to return to his home country in January 2021, despite mounting evidence that
the attack on him might have come from the higher ranks of the Russian government.
Minutes after his arrival on 17 January 2021 at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport, Navalny was
detained by police with little explanation, documented by numerous supporters and
journalists, such as by The Guardian for instance. It became known shortly after that the
politician will be detained for 30 days following an impromptu court hearing in a police
station on the day following his return.

Navalny´s team called on the public for protests against the regime, which erupted the
following weekend across Russian cities and have been considered as the most significant
political protests in the country in recent years. In Moscow alone, about 40,000 participants
were reported, despite the regime attempting to downsize the scale of the demonstrations.
However, the events were also marked by violence, with the Russian police and in particular
the special forces unit Omon allegedly dispersing the protests with considerable brutality,
leading to over 3,000 arrests across the country.

These events have not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world and have provoked
widespread outrage in response to what has largely been considered as serious breaches of
human rights. International political pressure is mounting in particular, as exemplified by EU Foreign
Ministers calling for new sanctions against Russia this week in reply to these events and the
continuing repression of political opposition by the Putin regime. However, it remains
questionable what form these international sanctions would take, and, more importantly, if
they would have any effect on the situation.

In this context, a few options for sanctions, coming from the EU or the US, need to be
considered. Economic sanctions, such as are already in place against Russia, essentially aim
for a stop to the transfer of capital, in the form of bans on specific products, freezing of
financial assets, or cancelling international economic collaboration. In an ideal case,
sanctioning Russia economically would lead to a severely limited access to international
financial resources, thus inciting political change. An important topic that has regularly
returned in this context is the project Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline built to provide Europe
with Russian gas via the North Sea. While the project is nearly finished and the accord
between Russia and the EU still stands, the US have expressed their discontent regarding this
on numerous occasions, imposing sanctions on the companies contributing to the project. It
must be mentioned here that the US has, above all, two motivations in doing so: firstly, they
fear that the project would render the EU more dependent on Russia for energy, thus
potentially creating a political pressure point. And furthermore, Russia is the most significant
competitor when it comes to American gas and oil export, hence pointing to the economic
concerns behind this course of action.

As economic sanctions are likely, but have not been finalized, there remain more
possibilities. In the case of political sanctions, these could be targeted towards specific individuals, such as placing travel bans on Russian politicians or officials, or going as far as
withdrawing the respective foreign ambassadors from Russia. However, these measures,
contrary to economic sanctions, are often of a more symbolic nature.

While it is still being debated whether new sanctions against Russia will be implemented, it is
foremost questionable what effect these measures will have for both parties. Since this is
not the first time that Russia has provoked such a response from other nations, what have
previous sanctions achieved in the past? The most recent major sanctions against Russia
were introduced in 2014 as a response to the Crimean annexation and the Russian-Ukrainian
war that followed it. Russia was notably excluded from the G8, an association of the most
economically and politically powerful countries. Viewing the facts of today´s current
situation, has this step for example led to any concrete outcomes? To date, Crimea is still
considered as Russian territory by Putin´s government, and efforts are made to strengthen
the Russian influence there even further. The war between the two countries continues,
almost seven years after its beginning, with no end in sight. Sanctions like the above
mentioned have overall had little effect, or what effect they might have had has been
conveniently ignored by the Russian government.

What does this this mean for future similar measures? Sanctions, whether political or
economic, are generally implemented with the aim of weakening or impeding an
international opponent in an attempt to incite them to change their behaviour, such as
ending an aggressive political stance, encouraging military disarmament, or adhering to the
observation of human rights as agreed by international conventions. “Economic sanctions
have clear economic effects on Russia, though they do not currently present a crippling
impediment”, as the 2017 Report by the Center for a New American Security estimates. Not
achieving this “crippling effect” lies at the heart of the issue: sanctions are often not specific
enough, and especially in recent years, have been used in an almost inflationary manner, as
the news agency Deutsche Welle highlights. Likewise, the American Security Report of 2020
deplores that sanctions, despite their effect, in fact have detriments for the country
imposing them too, especially in an economic context.

Sanctions, in whatever form they take, are always the result of complex geopolitical
questions. Yet their effectiveness, especially in the light of previous experiences, must be
doubted with regard to both the sanctioning party and the sanctioned. While it may
therefore represent a pessimistic view, it must be estimated that future possible sanctions
from the EU or the US will not deter the Russian government from repressing political
freedom and opposition movements on its own soil. This is even more so the case when one
considers that, if there is one thing disliked by Putin´s government, it is foreign interventions
in what is seen as an interior matter from a Russian point of view.

Image credit: Michael Parulava via UnSplash

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