As world leaders gathered in Brisbane for the ninth G-20 meeting, they discussed, among other pressing issues, the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s role in it. Western governments have been extremely critical of Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and support for the eastern rebels, and they implemented a series of sanctions against the Russian economy.
Western policies of pressuring Russia for concessions on Ukraine are not likely to be beneficial to the West. The past several months have shown that Western states are playing with a weak hand and will not succeed in forcing Russia to comply with their demands.
The West cannot do very much in terms of applying its military capabilities. The reality is that with respect to Ukraine the Kremlin continues to hold all the important cards with which to defend its security interests. Short of going to war with Russia – an option that is clearly off the table – NATO has no winning strategy, and has admitted as much at the Wales summit in September 2014 by failing to develop a coherent response to Russia. Attempts to arm Ukraine will serve to increase casualties and human suffering in the country, but will not change the military balance on the ground. Russia simply has too many military advantages and will not be shy to exploit those in defending its interests.
Economic measures too are limited. In order to effectively isolate a country from the global economic system Western policies must accomplish two things simultaneously – cripple the target economy and strengthen those inside the country who are dissatisfied with the ruling regime.
Western ability to hurt the Russian economy is not very impressive. It is true that in the short-term, the Russian economy may decline and even go into recession. The recent decline of oil prices and continued capital flight from the country will exacerbate the short-term negative affects. However, in a few years the Russian economy is likely to adjust by finding alternative markets and investments. This process is already under way in an agricultural sector that grew by 17% since September. There is a reason why Vice-Premier Igor Shuvalov recently called Western governments to maintain sanctions. He believes that Russia will use this opportunity to stimulate domestic production and push through unpopular reforms.
The attempts to “isolate” Russia also impact the West’s own economy. European producers in particular are loosing billions of dollars due to Berlin’s decision to join Washington’s sanctions following the downing of MH17. Western corporations are increasingly deprived of opportunities inside Russia. The New York Times has recently reported that energy sanctions against Russia result in “Russification” of energy business in Siberia and the Far East.
The Western ability to win over Russia politically isn’t working either. Although some segments of Russia’s political class are not happy with Vladimir Putin’s decisions regarding Ukraine, most have rallied behind him. Instead of complaining or conspiring against Putin, Russian elites have supported the regime and begun to shift their assets away from Western to Asian economies.
The larger population too is not in the mood to protest against Putin or pressure him to bow to the West’s pressures. On the contrary, the more Western governments try to squeeze the Kremlin, the more nationalist and anti-Western the Russian public becomes. The net political effect of the West’s sanctions has been to strengthen Putin, not weaken him. Liberal, pro-Western opposition is largely discredited and in disarray, while many nationalist organizations have chosen to unite behind Putin.
In addition, non-Western powers are not eager to embrace the West in its determination to punish Russia. Chinese and other non-Western companies are gaining from the Western sanctions. The Kremlin has also been effective in capitalizing on the image of Russia as a power working to assist those seeking to improve their position in the world. For example, during the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg non-Western states declined to support the United States’ position on Edward Snowden in part because Moscow managed to frame the issue in terms of resistance to the U.S. global hegemony. This explains why no country outside the West has supported the sanctions against Russia. Most of non-Western countries do not see the issue of Ukraine as one betraying Russia’s “revisionist” ambitions and do not feel threatened by Russia. Instead, the dominant perception is that the Kremlin’s policies in Ukraine have been defensive, even if not respectful of international law.
As difficult as it might be to accept for the West, there is hardly an alternative to engaging Russia in a joint effort to stabilize the situation in Ukraine and across wider Europe. The red lines for Russia have already been drawn and need no further enforcement. These red lines coincide with the borders of NATO members and the Kremlin has no intention to fundamentally challenge the Western military alliance. Although Moscow has the power to undermine Eastern European states through asymmetrical economic, informational, and military measures, it does not think the time has come to engage in such warfare.
To limit the already done damage to Russia-West relations, Western nations should acknowledge their share of responsibility for the Ukraine crisis and discuss joint steps toward normalization. Such steps must include Kiev’s military neutrality, guarantees for ethnic Russian minorities, and provisions for Ukraine to participate in both the European Union and Eurasian Union’s economies. If Russia and the West muster the will to find a joint solution to the crisis and sign a comprehensive security agreement, then there is still hope that future world order will be based on rules, rather than a bitter rivalry among regional powers.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.