A year has passed since the EU imposed the so-called “structural sanctions” against Russia.
To many, in Russia as well as the EU itself, this was a surprising show of unanimity and boldness. And this decisiveness has also proved quite lasting – the renewal of sanctions this spring and early summer was largely a done deal that barely even made it into the headlines, dominated at the time by Greece.
Still, a great deal of uncertainty remains not only over the question of whether the sanctions work, but even more importantly – what are they actually supposed to achieve? Do we want Russia to leave Donbas? Give back Crimea? Do we expect a regime change in Moscow? Or do we want Russia to start behaving “as a normal European country,” i.e. one that tries to base its influence on attraction rather than coercion? These things should be better thought through before the sanctions debate starts again at the end of the year, when the deadlines for fulfilling the Minsk agreement – to which the bulk of sanctions are linked – will expire, and Europe will need to decide whether the agreement has been implemented or not and if not, whose fault it is.
Russia thinks in terms of ‘spheres of influence’ and wants not just to lay a claim to what it considers its own sphere, but, more importantly, to re-legitimise the concept of spheres of influence as an organising principle of international life.
To get a clearer understanding of the situation it might be useful to start from the other end – not to ask if the sanctions work, but to first look at the nature of Europe’s problem with Russia and ask what it would take to fix it, or even whether it can be fixed by the West at all. That will allow us to see what role the sanctions can play in remedying the problem – and what the things that sanctions cannot accomplish are.
The nature of our ‘Russia problem’
Europe and Russia have clashed over international rules of the game that the two sides see through totally different paradigms. Russia thinks in terms of ‘spheres of influence’ and wants not just to lay a claim to what it considers its own sphere, but, more importantly, to re-legitimise the concept of spheres of influence as an organising principle of international life.
To an extent, this agenda stems from the personality and worldview of President Vladimir Putin. His formative experiences as a child in an underprivileged neighbourhood of St Petersburg, then at the KGB, then again in the wild mafia-dominated St Petersburg of the early 1990s have made him a man who sees the world as dominated by a few power centres, with smaller players in the role of pawns. Consequently, he interprets international affairs and his own experiences with the West in the same key. Unable to understand the thinking and power of ‘societies’, he thinks – probably sincerely – that revolutions in the post-Soviet space have been initiated by the West with the goal of weakening Russia.
However, this worldview also has roots in Russia that go beyond Putin. It has to do with the nature of an authoritarian regime – Putinist or otherwise – that lacks democratic mechanisms of legitimisation and seeks legitimacy by mobilising society against enemy figures – real or imagined, internal or external. It may have some roots in the economic model of a petro-state and the rent-seeking clientelism that usually comes with it. It has to do with the education system, the state-centric way history and international relations are taught at Russian schools and universities. It has to do with the way law has historically been understood and executed in Russia – arbitrarily. It has to do with the tensions and sense of insecurity that arise from aspirations to control a huge landmass with a limited number of people. And finally, it has also to do with Russia’s centuries-old philosophical thinking that includes conceptions of Moscow as a third Rome, with a ‘messianic’ mission to ‘save’ other peoples.
The inevitable, emotional clash
This sort of mindset is bound to clash with Europe’s postmodern, win-win oriented, OSCE-based view of international relations. And this clash has been around for ages, sometimes manifesting prominently, at other times being barely visible – depending on circumstances. In a way, the more postmodern Europe’s thinking and behaviour, the deeper the conceptual misunderstanding between the two, and consequently, the more emotional the clash.
Moscow sees itself as having given up everything: it has left Central Europe, it has left the Baltic States, not to mention Cuba, Africa and the Middle East, but now the West seems intent on ‘taking’ the last little bit that was left – ‘brotherly’ Ukraine
What makes the current standoff so tense and dangerous is not the reach of Russia’s territorial ambitions, as many suggest, but vice versa – the limited nature of them, and its psychological implications. Moscow sees itself as having given up everything: it has left Central Europe, it has left the Baltic States, not to mention Cuba, Africa and the Middle East, but now the West seems intent on ‘taking’ the last little bit that was left – ‘brotherly’ Ukraine. Of course Moscow takes it emotionally and tries to fight back.
Sadly, the current standoff is also as inevitable as it is emotional. It could not have been avoided: had it not occurred the way it did, it simply would have happened differently. Its inevitability stems exactly from that power of societies that Putin fails to understand.
The countries in Russia’s neighbourhood – in what one can call Eastern Partnership area – received their independence semi-accidentally in 1991, when it was promptly hijacked by corrupt elites. Now, their societies are starting to mature and demand better governance, rule of law and more say over their countries’ futures. This manifests in a bumpy, but inevitable evolutionary process that the EU did not launch and does not control, but cannot do anything other than support. Moscow, on the other hand, is fixated on the elites it can control – and therefore bound to resist it. The clash is systemic, and likely to manifest repeatedly as long as the fundamentals remain unchanged.
It seems true that in its wish to dominate the neighbourhood, Moscow is not necessarily looking for a large-scale conflict with the West. In fact, ever since April 2014 it has been hinting that it wants a deal with the West and made quite clear that this deal should be on the new spheres of influence and the related rules of engagement.
But this is something the West simply cannot do. An explicit deal is impossible: it would run counter to a whole array of documents that regulate the international behaviour of the European countries – the OSCE charter, the principles of the Council of Europe, the founding documents of the EU and NATO and so forth. In addition, Munich and Yalta have made such things a taboo. An implicit deal would probably not be enough for Moscow who feels that it has been deceived once already – in the early 1990s, when it believe it was promised that NATO would not enlarge.
Furthermore, an implicit deal would also be impossible. While after the Cold War the spheres of influence could be held together by coercion, these days they are more likely to stay together by attraction and like-mindedness. Moscow may lay a claim to a sphere, but it cannot really hold one without this being accepted by the societies of the countries concerned. Likewise, none of these countries can be firmly anchored in what one can view as the Western “sphere,” unless their elites get on board and do the reforms that are needed to reduce their vulnerabilities towards Russia.
What does it take to fix things?
Maybe the hardest thing for a hands-on Western mind to accept is the truth that we are facing a Russia-problem that is long-term, that needs to be managed, but cannot be fixed quickly, nor by our efforts alone. Furthermore, in the atmosphere of deep mutual misunderstanding and mistrust, attempts to achieve quick breakthroughs can be dangerous, as they may raise false hopes and lead to new dangerously emotional disappointments.
What is needed is something much more complicated: Russia’s sincere and extensive rethink of the means and ends of its international behaviour. This is closer to an identity change, than to a regime change. And a lot trickier.
Ideally, Europe would want to live next to a Russia that shares if not our values, then at least some of our interests, and uses attractiveness, rather than coercion to win allies and make itself influential. Some experts suggest that to achieve that, we need a regime change in Russia. This would be true if our Russia-problem was rooted solely in the personality of Putin and the nature of his regime – but this is probably not the case. Russia’s dominance-fixated mindset has survived multiple regime changes – from Lenin to Stalin or Stalin to Khruschev, or from the Stalin of the 1920s to the Stalin of 1930s, or from the Putin of the 2000s to the Putin of 2010s. It has even reinvented itself after two state collapses, in 1917 and in 1991.
What is needed, therefore, is something much more complicated: Russia’s sincere and extensive rethink of the means and ends of its international behaviour. This is closer to an identity change, than to a regime change. And a lot trickier. While such things have happened in history, the circumstances that bring them about are generally unpredictable and tend to vary greatly – which means that this is not something that outsiders can easily bring about, and achieve a desired outcome.
One can think of different elements that in theory could combine to cause such a rethink in Russia’s case. Some are rational and obvious: such as the country’s need to modernise the economy that in turn presupposes a more meritocratic, if not democratic political system; ethnic and regional tensions that threaten Russia with serious fragmentation unless it manages to become a more law-based state; the rise of China that is likely to prompt Russia to see its relations with the West in more rational context than is the case now.
If Russia could experience influence based on attraction, not coercion; if it had followers, not vassals and inspired respect, not fear, then this could be a culture shock that would affect Russia’s ways of engaging with the world
Others are more speculative and have more to do with soft power. For now, Russia is a psychologically insecure state that does not trust its natural attractiveness and therefore feels compelled to rely on big-power deals as well as coercion, bribery and blackmail to “force its neighbours to friendship.” But if Russia could experience influence based on attraction, not coercion; if it had followers, not vassals and inspired respect, not fear, then this could be a culture shock that would affect Russia’s ways of engaging with the world and neighbours. After all, countries tend to believe in means that have worked for them.
The role of sanctions
Ultimately, the causes for a rethink – if indeed this is going to happen – will be brought about by history, and the rethink needs to be done by the Russians themselves. The West can help in limited ways – most importantly by affecting the means that Russians see as having worked for them in the past. We are able to make aggressive means costly and ineffective, and therefore deny Russia the ends it wants. This implies a wider strategy that consists of boosting the security of the vulnerable EU and NATO members, defending the independence and sovereignty of the EaP countries, and keeping sanctions until the conditions for lifting them – implementations of the Minsk agreements or settlement of the Crimea issue – are fulfilled.
As implied above, the aim of the sanctions is not – and should not be – regime change in Russia. Russia is more likely to have a democratic and prosperous future if the regime is discredited and brought down not by outsiders, but by the Russians themselves.
On the other hand, one should not fall into the trap of thinking that we need to somehow reconcile with or even support Putin, just because alternatives to his regime may be worse. It is worth remembering how in 1996 the West clung to President Yeltsin in fear of the Communist alternative. But by now the worst fears associated with the Communists have come to pass as part of Yeltsin’s legacy, albeit unintendedly. The lesson is that Europe needs an agnostic view towards the regime in Moscow. The West is in no position to save it, nor is it our business to bring it down.
[Russia] hopes that Europe’s creeping Ukraine-fatigue combined with Ukraine’s failure to reform…will lead Europe to accept the Russian interpretation of the Minsk agreement as a face-saving way out of the situation
It is good that the sanctions are linked to concrete demands – return of Crimea and fulfilment of the Minsk agreements. This provides a relatively clear conditionality that the Europe needs to stick to. While the Crimea-related sanctions will probably remain in place for the foreseeable future, as a settlement of the issue is not on the horizon, the Minsk agreements are supposed to be implemented by the end of the year.
This is, however, trickier than it sounds. The agreements are vaguely worded and interpreted vastly differently by Russia and Ukraine. For Russia, Ukraine’s territorial integrity and true sovereignty is not the end goal of the process. Russia wants use Donbas to gain control over Kyiv and its future decision-making. It probably hopes that Europe’s creeping Ukraine-fatigue combined with Ukraine’s failure to reform – politically as well as economically – will lead Europe to accept the Russian interpretation of the Minsk agreement as a face-saving way out of the situation. This is a trap that needs to be avoided.
If the West wants to escape further clashes with Russia in the post-Soviet neighbourhood, it needs to resolve this one along the lines of the OSCE-based order. This in turn means that Europe needs to have relative internal unanimity as regards its own interpretation of the Minsk agreements. At the very least, this must consist of a refusal to roll back sanctions before Ukraine has gained full control of its eastern border. But the agreements are more complicated and nuanced, and so, to avoid an embarrassing debate at the end of the year, Europe needs to work more on creating a common understanding of the agreements and the state of their fulfilment.
While the sanctions should not be lifted prematurely, they should also not be upgraded to levels that are politically and economically unsustainable for Europe. One does not need to make sanctions a ‘barometer’ of Russian behaviour in Ukraine, going up and down with escalations and de-escalations (both of which can turn out to be illusory). The durability and firmness of sanctions is much more important than their intensity at any given point. Sanctions should be a slow squeeze that gradually reduces Russia’s freedom of manoeuvre and thereby reminds it of its misdeeds and Europe’s displeasure.
One does not need to make sanctions a ‘barometer’ of Russian behaviour in Ukraine, going up and down with escalations and de-escalations (both of which can turn out to be illusory.)
At the end of the day, one very important implication of the sanctions – regardless of whether one considers it a goal or a by-product – is to boost Western credibility in the eyes of Moscow. It was telling how in the days following the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in February 2014, a flurry of phone calls went from the Western capitals to Moscow, asking Russia not to intervene in Ukraine. These calls were not listened to – largely because the West’s track record, such as its reaction to the Georgia war of 2008, allowed Moscow to assume that it will get away with annexation relatively easily. The fact that the West adopted serious sanctions and is prepared to bear some economic hardship also itself has undoubtedly left an impression on Moscow, which, if lasting, has a chance to influence Moscow’s calculations at similar junctures in the future.
Europe needs to be aware that our problem with Russia is long-term and multi-layered. It is clear that the sanctions are not a miracle cure to fix it all, but they need to be a small part of a bigger strategy. They are instrumental in restoring our credibility and possibly fixing a few near- or medium term goals. Getting that right, however, is important, as credibility is something Europe badly needs if it wants to influence processes in the future. Hence the necessity of sanctions – despite all their limits.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.