Last week the United States and the European Union announced new sanctions targeting Russia’s financial industry, energy sector, and the trade of dual use technologies. As a response to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the EU has rallied behind the United States’ previous efforts with these more expansive and hard-hitting sanctions. Earlier rounds of sanctions focused on specific individuals in the Russian government and select companies run by Putin’s supporters but avoided entire sectors of the Russian economy.
Russia has been accused by the US and EU of overt support, training, funding, and arming of the Ukrainian separatists. A recent report by the US cites a missile launch from Russian territory into Ukraine as further evidence of direct Russian involvement. Yet, Russia has continued to deny playing any role in the Ukrainian separatist movement. What Russia cannot deny is the illegal annexation of Crimea and the continued military buildup along the Russian and Ukrainian border.
In a world relying more frequently on multilateral agreements, international organization, and interstate cooperation, Russia’s actions represent a direct challenge to the international order. The first step in punishing Russia is through sanctions. Although the US has employed economic sanctions many times before, this is the first instance in which the sanctioned party had an economy of this size or this integrated in the global market. Because of their integration and reliance on the global market, Russia’s extensive energy sector and financial institutions provide ideal targets for sanctions.
The effectiveness of sanctions on the Russian economy mirrors the potential blow back to the global economy, and especially to the EU. This is due to the EU’s role as a major consumer of Russian energy. It is important that sanctions pressure the Russian government while limiting the economic effects on the EU. Unfortunately, preventing this blowback is not the only key to successful sanctions.
The history of international sanctions has exhibited mixed results. While it is generally understood that multilateral sanctions are much more effective, the evidence that sanctions alone will change a leader or regime’s behavior is mixed at best. For sanctions to be effective, they must be incorporated into a broader policy, such as diplomatic talks. The sanctions themselves must also include an “off-ramp,” or clearly articulated actions which the sanctioned party should undertake. For Russia, this would provide a path towards eventual easing of sanctions. Without this option, sanctions back Russia into a corner, potentially leading to greater conflict.
The first such action by Russia, should be the closing off of their border with Ukraine. The true extent of Russian support for the Ukrainian separatists is unclear, yet there is no doubt regarding the porous nature of the Russian and Ukrainian border. Russia has the capability to limit the supplies and manpower of the rebels in Ukraine simply by securing its own border. This would eliminate the flow of weapons and militants into Ukraine as well as sending the US and EU a signal of good faith. Although this alone would not halt the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, it would be a legitimate effort on the part of the Russian government to limit the spread of violence and to reengage in the international community as a partner and not a pariah.