Are EU’s sanctions useful in ending the Ukraine conflict or are they senseless? The aim needs to be the de-escalation in Eastern Ukraine. A background article by Stefan Bernhardt
After long hesitation, the EU decided on the first economic sanctions against Russia on July 29 2014. The access of banks mostly owned by the Russian state to European financial markets shall be restricted. In the technology sector, high technology devices must not be exported anymore for special oil production and the military most notably – the natural gas sector remains unaffected. Moreover, trade in military goods or those that can be used both civilly and militarily is forbidden. As per a press release of the EU, only new contracts are affected, not the already existing ones. Besides, according to media reports, the sanctions are supposed to be in effect for only a year and could be dropped after three months, in late October, with an examination.
In the Ukraine conflict, each party pursues its own interests and tries to play off the opposing side. This is true both for the parties directly involved, the government in Kiev and the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and for international actors like the EU and Russia. In the West, especially the EU and the USA are trying to force Russia via the pressure of sanctions to convince the separatists of a negotiated solution. Can this strategy really succeed?
The right recipient?
Among the actors confronted in the conflict, the West’s pressure has been focused on Moscow thus far. The direct actors, however, are the interim government in Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists. What is certain is that Russia rejects the interim government in Kiev due to its one-sided pro-EU stance and its vehement rejection of the Kremlin. It is also unquestionable that Moscow can exert influence on the separatists since they want to join Russia.
Here, it lies the problem of sanctions against Russia: The Kremlin can exert influence but it cannot control the separatists’ actions. They can freely decide what to do. This is why sanctions against Russia cannot exert direct pressure on the separatists. In order to reach a solution of the conflict without any further violent escalation, however, this is exactly what would need to happen.
Pressure on both conflict parties
The thereby established unilateral pressure is likewise problematic: In the Ukrainian crisis, two sides are facing each other, unwilling to negotiate. Besides the separatists, this involves the Ukrainian interim government. Therefore it is profoundly important for the problem’s solution to equally exert pressure on the interim government – after all, Kiev refuses a solution by negotiation, too.
The civil war in Eastern Ukraine evolved into a violent conflict only when the interim government decided on military operation against the separatists who, by then, ‘only’ occupied buildings as armed combatants. Solely the newly elected president in May 2014, Petro Poroshenko, who had to give up his brittle cease-fire because of domestic political pressure, showed willingness to negotiate thus far. Therefore, pressure on Kiev, as a conflict party, and the separatists alike needs to be part of a negotiation solution.
Sanctions have to be painful
An analysis of the EU sanctions shows that, until now, primarily entry bans and/or account blockings have been imposed on more or less ‘important’ persons from Russia and, occasionally, from Ukraine. Factually, these cannot build any pressure since an EU entry ban does not hurt anybody. Therefore, they are to be considered symbolic to demonstrate to the public the EU's capability to act and its resistance against Russia. But at the same time, they are a signal of powerlessness because the EU dares no hard economic sanctions on Russia as the EU would suffer from these itself. Economic sanctions, like those described above, even contain the risk that Russia seeks for other trade partners for the affected sectors, like, for instance, China. In the long term, it would rather be the EU’s economy to suffer from it since it would lose a sales market.
Russia’s isolation is limited to the West, too, and only damaged its reputation. After all, the exclusion from the G8 is merely temporary, and the membership did not render more than international reputation without significant advantages. To put Moscow under pressure to act, it would have to be hit where it is most vulnerable, like the export of raw materials or access to markets. However, these sanctions would hurt Western states equally.
Advantages and disadvantages of sanctions
Sanctions are both a controversial and disputatious instrument in international politics as they rarely achieve the desired results. The consideration of different sanctioned states, in part over decades, demonstrates why they are controversial and, as a rule, inefficient: Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Iraq – to name only a few; altogether, sanctions without the desired effect. The biggest advantage sanctions can offer is to show that a state is incapable of acting towards other states.
For all practical purposes, sanctions will not help in cases of international conflict like in Ukraine. They rather poison the diplomatic atmosphere, which in turn hinders a solution through negotiation. They could even help a sanctioned state domestically. For domestic problems, sanctions and other countries could be held accountable instead of the sanctioned government. The inept use of sanctions, like the EU’s against Moscow, can demonstrate helplessness rather than the ability to act. Furthermore, sanctions are always a form of extortion. In an ongoing conflict, they can lead to escalation but also to permanent distrust between the states from which further conflicts can emerge.
The wrong instrument
In the end, it can be concluded that sanctions are not successful in the case of Ukraine. They address the wrong ones, do not generate noteworthy pressure, mainly demonstrate the EU’s helplessness but also that they are no tool for conflict resolution. The sanctions should either be dropped or affect the right actors in a delicate way. If a negotiation solution is to be achieved by sanctions, the conflict parties who wage the civil war would have to be hit – that is, Kiev’s interim government as well as the separatists.