Sanctions Against Russia Raise Issues

Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique

Illustration by Peter Ansell for La Jeune Politique

Russia, Ukraine and the EU walk into a bar. Ukraine fancies Russia, but sees a future with the EU. When Crimea passes by, Russia remembers they were once together and decides to aggravate Ukraine by leaving with Crimea. The US storms in, shocked by the injustice and, together with the EU, comforts Ukraine. The US and the EU threaten to have Russia banned from the bar and in the meantime, try to make her life more difficult.

The reality of the crisis is far from a joke. It started with the now ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose abandonment of an EU deal in November 2013 sparked protests, an occupation of Kiev City Hall and Independence Square, and eventually clashes between the rioters and the police which saw at least 88 people killed in Kiev.

The president fled in February and while the West was still coming to terms with the crisis, Russia seized Crimea. The next breaking news was the Crimean parliamentary vote to join Russia, followed by a controversial referendum that led to a declaration of independence and eventually, the deal on the March 18 that saw Crimea join Russia.

Despite pleas for help from the Ukrainians in Kiev, such as the viral “I am a Ukrainian” video, the West’s aid came when the crisis already threatened the disintegration of the country.

The EU condemned the Crimean referendum and said it would not recognize the outcome, as it violates Ukraine’s Constitution and international law, a statement supported by Washington that cites multiple electoral violations. The EU and the US have put up a united front, and statements, such as Obama’s from his visit to Brussels in late March, are rather reminiscent of the Cold War rhetoric. “The world is safer and more just when Europe and America stand as one,” he said.

Both the EU and the US responded by applying individual economic sanctions such as visa bans, asset freezes, and a suspension of diplomatic relations. The White House has targeted 11 Russians and Ukrainians blamed for the seizure, including Yanukovych, Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Glazyev, two of Putin’s aides. Furthermore, cooperation between NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency has been abandoned.

Obama praised the EU; it is notoriously difficult to secure an agreement on sanctions because it requires unanimity from the 28 states. 33 people have been targeted by the EU with individual sanctions, mostly mid-ranking officials who may have been more directly involved on the ground in the Crimean crisis. More recently, NATO foreign ministers agreed to suspend all civilian and military cooperation with Russia. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the annexation of Crimea was the gravest threat to European security in a generation.

Previous discussions of more serious economic sanctions against Russia in case it further destabilizes Ukraine, had seen some EU states torn. Two factors holding back harsher sanctions are the fear that years of developing closer ties with Moscow and increasing trade would go be lost as well as the issue of energy dependency on Russian resources.  However, a trade war is thought to hurt Russia rather than the EU, as 15% of the Russia’s GDP comes from exports to the bloc.

At the same time, Obama has highlighted that the energy dependency issue could be a wake-up call for the EU to devote more research and resources into alternative forms of energy.  Tougher statements have hence emerged, as President of the European Counsel Herman Van Rompuy has called actions in Crimea a “disgrace in the 21st century.” Even Germany, who has close ties to Russia, has displayed a harsher stance, as Chancellor Merkel stated that no one should doubt Europe’s willingness to introduce tougher sanctions. This echoes British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s position, who advised his EU partners to press ahead with preparing economic sanctions.

The Head of the European and International Studies Department at King’s College London, Christoph Meyer, has said the initial sanctions, while limited, signalled that the EU –including the Big Three – had not ruled out the possibility of imposing more substantial sanctions on Russia despite the potential costs and risks. He believes in the effectiveness of the sanctions, as they have accelerated capital withdrawal from Russia and increased uncertainty among investors about relations between the West and Russia. Furthermore, he thinks the West’s response could have the intended preventive effect on Russia’s approach to Eastern Ukraine.

On the other hand, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt stated that the West must be firm when dealing with Russia, as he has observed a new political mentality in the Kremlin, one of “an Orthodox bastion against the West.” Referring to a public rally last month in which Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in front of a banner reading “Crimea is in my heart,” Bildt said, “You have to ask yourself, what else is in his heart?”

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