The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
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Sanctions on Moscow, No Matter How Severe, Won’t be Effective, Shevtsova Warns

Staunton, March 22 — Since World War II, Western governments have often imposed sanctions to show their displeasure about this or that action, but such sanctions “never were effective” in returning the world to “the status quo ante.” Instead, they highlighted the lack of accord within the West and were even used by powers like Russia for their own purposes.

In a blog post earlier this morning Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center offers four cautionary notes about the limitations of any sanctions regime regarding Crimea and the dangers that those who believe sanctions are enough may be leading their countries and Russia itself into.

Her four points are these: First, “in the post-war history, sanctions were never effective. They did not return the situation to the status quo ante.” Indeed, only “very rarely did sanctions stop the subject against which they were directed from further indiscretions.”

Second, she writes, “Western sanctions regarding Russia confirm the absence in the West of a single position and decisiveness to inflict real harm on the Russian regime.” Third, “even in that situation, the fact of applying sanctions to Russia complicates the integration of the representatives of the Russian ruling class into Western society. [Instead] their gradual distancing from Western life begins.”

And fourth – and this may be her most important point – “sanctions create for the Kremlin an additional impulse for the isolation of Russia from the external world,” although this self-isolation given Putin’s policies appears to be “inevitable even if there are no sanctions imposed.”

It is important to underscore what Shevtsova is not saying. She is not saying that sanctions should not be imposed: she is simply insisting that they must be part of a much larger effort to contain the revanchist policies of Vladimir Putin and his threat to the international system.

In the short term, such a larger effort can include many things. People who argue that the West can’t reverse Russian aggression often suggest that the West should do nothing. But there are many other steps that can be taken not only to show the West’s displeasure – and importantly reunite the West against the Russian challenge – but to punish Moscow.

Among them are steps like excluding Russia from major international institutions. Suspending Russia from what had been the G8 is a small example, but there are other possibilities, including suspension or even expulsion of Russia from the Council of Europe, the WTO, and other bodies.

Moreover, there are diplomatic steps that can be taken: expelling diplomats, cutting back the size of representation, imposing tighter visa regimes, and eliminating or at least postponing bilateral and multilateral contacts with Moscow as long as Putin continues his current aggressive and repressive course.

And of course there are even tougher measures possible, including using oil and gas reserves to depress the price of Russia’s chief hard currency earners and the pre-emptive offer of NATO membership to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – and at least potentially to any other country threatened by Putin’s approach.

At the very least, it is time to end the unfortunate view in many Western capitals that a country has to “qualify” for membership in the main Western defense alliance. Such alliances are not something you “qualify” for; they are creating for a specific purpose, to defend countries that are threatened. Changing that language alone would send a powerful signal to Putin

(Some commentators have compared the West’s response to Putin now with Britain’s response to Hitler after Czechoslovakia. But it is worth recalling that even Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the poster child for appeasement, felt he had to give first assurances and then binding defense treaties to Poland and other countries.)

And in the longer term, as John Lough of Chatham House argued in a paper released yesterday, the West needs to design and implement “a new form of deterrence that targets Russia’s weaknesses.”

Despite Putin’s bombast which has so impressed both Russian nationalists and many in the West as an indication of Russia’s growing strength, Russia is quite weak in many areas. And the West needs to pay attention to these weaknesses, economic, political, ethnic and otherwise, and begin exploiting them, or at least showing that it is willing to do so.

Such moves will do far more to restrain Putin and encourage the many Russians who are appalled by what he is doing than any sanctions regime now on offer, however comforting the limited steps Western governments have taken so far may be to leaders who want to look tough without having to take a tough position against the current danger.