Russia sanctions: Policy of provocation?

Western leaders need to use more constructive language for cooperation with Russia – sanctions don’t

It is already evident that the measures taken by the West will in no way help improve the situation in Ukraine, writes Vaslavskiy [AFP]

After more than 20 years of US investment in Ukrainian “democracy”, which, according to Victoria Nuland, a US assistant secretary of state, has cost US taxpayers more than $5bn (it may well be even more), Ukraine has found itself in the most serious crisis of its very short history as an independent state.

Internal contradictions and conflicts carefully warmed up by authors of handbooks on organising revolutions and coups now put under heavy doubt the very existence of Ukraine as a country in its current borders.

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea, as the region was called in Ukraine, was the first to distance itself from the new authorities in Kiev. The decision to hold a referendum on self-determination was harshly criticised by the same European and US politicians who before had vigorously supported and even stimulated unconstitutional events in Kiev. But in the end it was impossible to selectively implement the Ukrainian constitution and not to recognise the will of the citizens of the Crimea region when almost 100 percent of the voters at a 83 percent turnout chose reunification with Russia.

Russia, constantly calling for respect of the right to self-determination and providing protection of the interests of all Ukrainians, notwithstanding their ethnic, religious, or other peculiarities, was accused of aggression and violation of international law.


Later, after a de facto civil war broke out between the Kiev regime, on the one side, and breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics on the other, allegations started coming from US and Europe that Russia directly supported the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. At the same time, not a single proof of Moscow’s involvement in these events has so far been provided.

Europe inexplicably started constantly linking its position on Russia with Moscow’s unproven involvement in the Ukrainian civil war. It looks like some decision-makers in European capitals and Washington are deliberately ignoring the fact that Russia is no party to the conflict and, moreover, has been doing a lot on the negotiation and humanitarian side…

Besides, it looks more and more likely that the Kiev regime is to blame for the MH17 tragedy. Ukraine still doesn’t bother to explain what its air force fighter jets had been doing near the civil aircraft right before it was shot down and why voice conversations between the crew and Ukrainian air traffic control have still not been published.

Kiev’s involvement in shooting the aircraft down was persuasively demonstrated at one of the Russian defence ministry briefings with satellite images and schemes. Also, Russian media have provided well enough evidence of Ukrainian army artillery shelling of civilian targets in Eastern Ukrainian cities and towns. This openness sharply contrasts with vague and bold statements coming from the US State Department’s Jennifer Psaki and her colleagues, relying mainly on strange materials from the internet and especially social networks.

Later on, Europe inexplicably started linking its position on Russia with Moscow’s unproven involvement in the Ukrainian civil war. It looks like some decision-makers in European capitals and Washington are deliberately ignoring the fact that Russia is no party to the conflict and, moreover, has been doing a lot on the negotiation and humanitarian side in order to help Kiev and the rebels reach a ceasefire agreement – not to mention, provide urgent aid to the civilian population of the suffering Eastern regions.

With condemnation of Russia’s position on Ukraine, threats of sanctions started coming from the West one after another. Several so-called “waves” of sanctions have already been introduced. In March, they touched a number of Russian companies and banks and also people who, according to sanctions’ authors, are, without any real proof, guilty or have part in what is going on in Ukraine. More precisely, visa limitations were introduced against certain Russian officials, and their accounts and property in initiating countries could be blocked. Some of the Russians officials who found themselves in the lists, like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, claimed that sanctions look more like a joke since one cannot block something which does not exist, apparently meaning mythical accounts and property abroad. Since March, a number of countries and companies have frozen various cooperation projects with Russia and imposed trade limitations in different areas.

Principle of mutuality

Acting on the diplomatic principle of mutuality, Russia was forced to introduce counter measures. These measures included lists of politicians from certain countries who were banned from entry into Russia. When Visa and Mastercard on the demand of the US Department of Treasury froze operations with several Russian banks, the government in Moscow announced that it would speed up the project of launching a new Russian national payment system and also intensify cooperation with China-based Union Pay system.

But much more sensitive for many European countries became Russian food embargo, introduced by Moscow in August. It touched EU, US, Australia, Canada, and Norway. The embargo includes limitations on imports of meat, milk, fish, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. According to Russian government estimates, the embargo hits the volume of imports equivalent to $9bn. The embargo has already proved to be quite damaging for many European agricultural producers who previously exported considerable volumes of their goods to Russia and enjoyed good shares on the Russian market.

Most recently, on September 12, European sanctions were expanded on several Russian state-owned companies, top managers and politicians. Along with trying to hit Russian production of dual-use goods and finance sector, sanction authors are aiming at Russia’s oil industry, since a number of influential western oil companies are now not allowed to share their technologies with Russian partners in oil exploration and extraction. Like before, Russia is very likely to respond and, according to a number of sources, Moscow’s reaction will include limitations on imports of certain consumer goods (for example, textile) and second-hand cars.

Double-edged sword

Overall, the introduced European sanctions do not look efficient since so far, there are no evident damaging effects on Russia’s economic, social, and political life. Moreover, it is widely known that sanctions are a double-edged sword and may even bring more harm to their initiators.

Russia will undoubtedly gradually compensate the gap on its internal market created by the embargo with the help of domestic and foreign suppliers from countries like Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, and others willing to enter the Russian market or increase their shares on it. At the same time, according to the Wall Street Journal, damage to European producers is far more sensitive. Compensations announced by the EU authorities look more like a drop in the bucket in comparison with overall losses, and what is maybe even more important, European producers will now inevitably start losing their positions in Russia, and it will be very hard to return to the previous figures after the mutual sanctions are eventually (and hopefully) lifted. Their places will already be occupied by other companies who will now surely do their utmost to get Russian consumers accustomed to their production.

Analysing recent US and European foreign policy towards Russia, one gets an impression that their politicians know no other language than sanctions. But it is already evident that the efficiency of the measures taken by the West is doubtful and will in no way help improve the situation in Ukraine.

Overall, western sanction-based policy is once again demonstrating to the Russians the degree to which US and some of their partners are used to writing their own rules of the game since the collapse of the Soviet Union and expecting their strict observance from the rest of the world. The current situation shows that such an approach is no longer sustainable. Sanctions only serve as provocations and contribute to the tension in world affairs.

Russia has always aspired to carry out its foreign policy using the principles of mutual respect and parity. Today, a more constructive language needs to be used for cooperation in the contemporary world, and, hopefully, western partners will eventually realise this.

Yan Vaslavskiy is the director of the School of Government and International Affairs and an associate professor at MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia.