Wednesday, 8 March 2017

E.U./U.S.-RUSSIA: Understanding the politics of Sanctions

Political experts both in Russia and elsewhere suggested that the election of Donald Trump as the new US president may lead to the lifting on anti-Russia sanctions by America and its allies, based on Trump's statements that he would work with Russia. However Russia officials warn against such optimism, knowingly that campaign rhetoric does not necessarily translate into policies.

Moscow believes that the sanctions tit-for-tat with the EU was beneficial to some sectors of the Russian economy, particularly agriculture, and that the government helps domestic producers capitalize on the situation.

The West sanctions were imposed in response to Russia's support of popular separatist movements in regions of Ukraine opposed to the coup in Kiev, which impose a new government hostile to Russia. The predominantly Russian region of Crimea voted in referendum to rejoin Russia, while large ports of Donesk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine proclaimed their independence and fought against government troops. 


Responding to sanctions imposed by the EU, Moscow banned the import of the EU-produced foodstuffs. This served as protectionist measure for Russian farmers, who otherwise found it difficult to compete against subsidized European producers. The measure also caused multi billion euro damage to European companies, which lost their markets in Russia. Moscow also rejects the West's accusation of illegally annexing Crimea, accusing U.S. and E.U of contributing to the escalation of the political crisis.

The EU-U.S. sanction policy against Russia represents not only a fundamental miscomprehension of the interactions amongst the Russian structures of power, but also of the relationship between Russia’s top politicians and the worlds of bureaucracy and business.

The sanction policy is in no way, shape or form working. Sanctions cannot be used as stratagems in the traditional sense of the word. Nor can they function as valid instruments for foreign policy, especially against political giants like the EU or a political entity the size of Russia

Brussels overestimated the connections and reciprocity between the Russian economic and political elites, assuming that the former had a much greater influence over the latter than is actually the case. Europeans use their own customary political matrix as a starting point to understanding other nations, but in reality this does not correspond to how Russia works. Unlike their counterparts in the West, Russian politicians do not represent any economical advocacy groups or lobbies. On the contrary, the basic principles of bureaucracy, the secret service and the army form their foundations of power.

Here is where the key underestimation of Putin’s powers lies. The Kremlin’s dominance over the media, the widespread domestic TV propaganda and the techniques of external information warfare directly affect Russia’s media portrayal of the sanctions. As a consequence, regardless of any further sanctions that are imposed on Russia, Putin controls the perceptions of the general population.

The Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU has certain inherent weaknesses in the way it works. On the one hand, this is due to the polarization of the positions that each member state has. On the other hand, EU member states adhere to principles of transparency and democracy, which can on occasion negatively affect the EU’s scope of action in crisis situations.

In the event of a crisis, in which one is confronting the unapologetically incomparable military potential of Russia, as opposed to those of Syria or Iran, the EU becomes trapped in its own methods of interstate negotiation. Quite the opposite is Putin’s ability to make foreign policy or military decisions on his own. He does not need to make an appointment to discuss the current issues and hop on a plane to Brussels.

The Russian president generally confides in small circles of people whom he trusts. The actual amount of attendees to these private meetings is smaller than the number of members of the Russian Security Council, which normally meets on Mondays. However, this does not mean that Putin excludes himself from other networks. It is understood that he often has to consider the concerns of several interest groups, using the differences and inner quarrels to his advantage according to the famous Byzantine principle of divide and conquer.

The way he makes foreign policy decisions also differs substantially from that of his European counterparts. The decision making process of the EU and its disadvantages remain at fault for the lack of action taken by its member countries. Multilateral discussions of this kind rarely, if ever, play a major role in secretive, autocratic regimes such as Russia, which is why they require less time to come to a decision. Complicated supranational systems such as the EU need more time and in this regard cannot compete head-to-head with autocracies.

Russia, US and EU are not moving at the same pace. As a matter of fact, they are at different stages, working at different speeds. Putin makes operational decisions very fast. Yet at the same time, he is struggling to make key strategic decisions, because they require a broad pallet of allies, which Russia simply does not have. He has begun to doubt his own beliefs about his on-going projects, including the Eurasian Union. 

The effects of European diplomacy are weak, and the diplomacy of each individual EU state are even weaker. For European officials, diplomacy is a long list of formal and informal operations. For Putin and his subordinates, diplomacy is a chain of secret operations, where the negotiations serve a direct function. An important part of it lies in the use of violence to actively progress and gain actual terrain, as opposed to performing symbolic actions, such as supporting peace processes or freeing hostages.

After the signing of the Minsk Protocol, the situation in East Ukraine has not improved. In fact, things have actually gotten worse. Peace talks do not lead to a positive exit out of the crisis. In this respect, Europeans are scoring an own goal with their constant appeals for negotiation. 

Anti-war parties are gaining ground in France/Germany and all over Europe. A common phrase one often hears in European discourse is, “do you want German soldiers to battle once again against Russians?” Provocative questions like this, caused by a fear of Moscow, are deferring ever further any possible help for Ukraine, whose military resources today are no match for Russia. 

And, each attempt to negotiate with the separatists, already armed with mighty weapons provided by Russia, only spurs on the Kremlin and the military groups that they are in control.

The diplomatic and humanitarian efforts of current European policies are simply not enough to combat the Ukrainian crisis. The Ukrainian army needs intensive, methodical military provisions and help from its European partners. At the same time, Europeans should abstain from taking part directly in the action. No German, French, Polish or NATO troops should be sent to the battlefield.

Putin assumes that in further extending an extremely protracted war, the Ukrainian government, which previously committed to an international course of reforms, will not be able to effectively implement those reforms needed. It is very likely therefore that the government will lose the trust of its citizens and of the West. Throughout world history there have been no examples of a government that has successfully managed to accomplish a systematic reform while simultaneously waging war.

Putin’s current concerns are not to further encroach on and eventually capture Kiev. What he actually wants is the continuation of a war and the humanitarian crisis it causes, which will ultimately weaken the government of Poroshenko so much that Ukraine remains another post-soviet failed state , eventually running back into the loving arms of Mother Russia. This is the final stage in the life cycle of an aging autocrat, who is executing his geopolitical dream, and at least he is honest about it.

A failure to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty will feed the Kremlin’s appetite for military adventures and jeopardize the geostrategic stability of the European continent. Will the EU’s leaders stand up to Putin or will they emulate their predecessors Laval and Chamberlain? The answer to this question will seal the fate of Europe in our time.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Political Analyst/Author

Photo-Credit: AFP-photo