The West needs to codify Russia sanctions before it is too late

The Ukraine war is far from over, but Western solidarity against Russia and support for sanctions may soon start to falter.

zelenskyy ukraine
From left, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Japan's Fumio Kishida, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, US President Joe Biden and European Council President Charles Michel at a round table as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appears on screen to address the G7 leaders via video link during their working session at Elmau castle in Kruen, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Monday, June 27, 2022 [Kenny Holston/Pool via AP]

This week, the leaders of the G7 first reaffirmed at a summit in Bavaria their “unwavering commitment” to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia “for as long as it takes”. They then jetted off to the NATO summit in Madrid, where they discussed ways to strengthen the military alliance in response to Vladimir Putin’s ongoing aggression.

The G7’s words are by no means hollow – its leaders have already begun instituting an agreed ban on Russian gold and are seeking ways to further limit oil sales by imposing a “price cap” on Russian exports.

The NATO summit began with a success, too, with Turkey agreeing to support Finland and Sweden’s accession to the alliance on June 28. Yet as Putin’s war enters its fifth month – and with the Kremlin refusing to even consider any serious diplomatic solution to the conflict – the G7 and NATO must begin looking at the potential threats to their ability to continue providing support to Kyiv over the medium and long term.

First and foremost, it is important that the West act to ensure that its strategy is indeed sustainable “for as long as it takes” for Russia to be defeated. That may be quite some time, and the West is far more susceptible to public pressure, and thus to the negative economic impact of the sanctions, than Putin ever will be.

The Kremlin has no strategy to overcome the sanctions – Putin is quite clearly happy to plunge his country’s economy into autarky in exchange for realising his neo-imperial vision – but does believe that it can overcome them so long as there are still markets willing to import its oil and gas, and so long as the rouble remains convertible. It also believes it can continue to mitigate the impact of technology sanctions by finding partners in third countries willing to take the risk of violating prohibition on these sales, even as the Biden administration sanctions those involved in such transactions. This is because it believes that Western unity will falter as the economic impact of sanctioning Russia bites in the West.

This belief forms a key pillar of Russian propaganda, which claims that the West is suffering far more from the sanctions agenda than Russians are. This is blatantly false – the West has seen nothing like the 69 percent increase in poverty that Russia experienced in the first quarter of 2022, which only reflects the impact of the first five weeks of the war and sanctions – but nevertheless, the reality is that sanctions will have a significant economic and political impact in the West.

Extremely dire predictions about the sanctions’ impact on the West are already widespread. They include claims that the sanctions will trigger the end of the dollar and the current global monetary and financial system that forms the basis of international trade and capital movement. Some have even declared the sanctions signal the end of the “American empire”.

While these are fanciful prognostications that are extremely unlikely to come true, the reality is that the West is already facing a significant economic cost for its sanctions policy against Russia and is only likely to face more over the coming months. Moscow is working hard to ensure this, selectively cutting off gas supplies to European nations unwilling to pay for them in roubles (and thus trade euros for them with Russian banks, keeping the rouble convertible and usable as Moscow’s oil and gas revenues fall from their post-invasion highs).

The sky-high oil prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctioning of its hydrocarbons are helping to fuel inflation in the West, and in turn, limit support for blanket cut-offs of Russian exports. Germany is already preparing for gas rationing this winter. Fertiliser supplies risk falling into shortage given Russia’s role in producing and exporting many key products, threatening not only global agricultural supply chains but also the livelihoods of farmers. All of these pressures will only grow as Russia’s invasion continues. New measures are getting increasingly difficult to agree on, as seen by the fact that discussions are still continuing regarding the “price cap” proposals for Russian oil even after the G7 summit concluded on June 27.

In order for the West to not only maintain its policy of seeking to choke off the Russian economy and thus cripple its war machine, but to ultimately continue to expand it, it is more important than ever to engage in a public campaign to build support for the sanctions. The Biden administration has attempted some of this, blaming inflation on Vladimir Putin and labelling increases in fuel prices “Putin’s price hike” – but with little success.

This is a failing that cannot be overlooked – especially because many of the factors causing the global economic outlook to turn negative can indeed be credibly blamed on the Kremlin. It was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that threw global agricultural markets into disarray. It is the Kremlin that is actively pressuring European gas supplies, blockading Ukrainian trade and attacking Ukrainian production.

The sanctions on the Kremlin are not the source of the West’s current and future economic woes. They are the West’s way of making clear that Russia will not be seen as an acceptable trade partner while it continues to stain its resources and products with Ukrainian blood.

Public attention to the war in Ukraine, however, is falling across the West, and voters are likely to prioritise economic concerns over humanitarian ones in upcoming polls. As the West struggles to agree on new sanctions, it is more important than ever to protect the existing ones. Public pressure campaigns are an important part of this, but far more significant would be to enshrine the existing sanctions in legislation.

This is particularly true for the United States, which plays a keystone role in enforcing the Western sanctions regime. Donald Trump is clearly seeking a return to the presidency, and has not only threatened to unwind NATO in the past, but has taken a soft position towards the Kremlin repeatedly, and been willing to toy with Ukrainian politics for his own perceived benefit. If he returns to the White House, he may move to remove existing sanctions on Russia rather than working to impose new ones.

Similar threats remain from the populist far right and far left across Europe. Before Trump and his ilk put Western unity – and all the progress made towards winning the economic war against Russia – in jeopardy, it is paramount that sanctions be codified in legislation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.