The international community is turning its back on Russia en masse, and that is according to experts Steven Van Hecke (KU Leuven) not Laura Vansina (VUB) crucial to halt the invasion of Ukraine. “Sanctions are our most important asset to resolve this conflict.” Political philosopher Tinneke Beeckman calls for not being the man in the street, maar de elite te serener. “Putin doesn't give a damn about what his people think or have to endure.”
Russian banks are being thrown out of the international payment system SWIFT, yachts of wealthy oligarchs are seized. Apple, Microsoft, Ikea an H&M cease their activities in Russia, just like Volkswagen and Toyota. Live Nation will no longer be organizing concerts there for the time being, they have to draw a line because of the Eurovision Song Contest. No Russian Grand Prix, no Russian participation in the Paralympic Games and no World Cup football.
The laundry list of international sanctions against Russia goes on and on. At a diplomatic level, the European Union hopes, United States and countries such as Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom that the Kremlin can no longer finance the war in Ukraine. In reality, it mainly affects the man in the street, who not only becomes more and more isolated from the outside world, but also faces unemployment and other financial consequences.
Sanctions champion North Korea
And yet sanctions are crucial right now. This is what Europe expert Steven Van Hecke says (KU Leuven) as Russia expert Laura Vansina (VUB). “Let's face it: these sanctions are not intended to affect the population”, emphasizes Van Hecke. “Then measures of a different order would be imposed, such as stopping exchange projects or trade as a whole. The EU has not deployed its full arsenal, much more is possible. Just look at North Korea: that is the sanctions champion.”
“The absolute priority now is to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine”, vult Vansina aan. “Economic sanctions are the most important asset the European Union has to achieve this, because NATO intervention will not happen.” Moreover, there is a lot of symbolism behind the measures. “Russia is located on the European continent. If Europe wants to promote its values regarding human rights and self-determination, she has no choice but to respond.” For countries such as China, it is a signal that the West does respond when necessary.
Elite support necessary
According to Van Hecke, it is important to know that sanctions are mainly taken with a view to the medium and long term. “More specifically, to undermine support for Putin and to make the population realize that it is not the West, but the Russian regime is the main culprit. Although that is not a scenario we can hope for in the short term.”
Vansina adds nuance: “There are few conflicts that are resolved solely through sanctions. They can provoke a popular uprising, but that's easier said than done. Putin doesn't care what his people think of him and does everything he can to suppress protest. Reporting on the war that does not match the Kremlin's version, is severely punished. Minority party LDPR has proposed a law to oblige Russians who protest into the army. More and more independent news media are being banned. There is virtually no opposition left that the Russians can rally behind.” And already the people are resisting, Even then, the support of the elite is necessary to actually overthrow a regime. “People's protest alone is not enough”, aldus Vansina. “Part of the upper class must join the crowd or withdraw its support from the Kremlin and unleash a so-called palace revolution.”
Political philosopher Tinneke Beeckman calls for targeting exactly that elite. “Putin is an authoritarian figure who doesn't care about his people, and has therefore in the past dealt very cynically with sanctions imposed on his country. World leaders now hope that the Russian people will have more strength to fight against Putin from the hardships they have to endure, but that is a very tricky gamble.”
Beeckman admires the Russians who have taken to the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg in recent days. “They can just rot in jail for ten years, just for criticizing Putin and his policies. He calls it treason. It is not possible to appeal. You can hardly blame people for not being inclined to learn the ropes.”
“Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov and the oligarchs who - often abroad - lead a life of luxury: those are the weak points we want to push on. If we hit them in their freedom of movement, that could possibly have an effect.”
A complete disconnect from SWIFT, stop purchasing gas and oil, targeting even more businessmen: a third wave of sanctions cannot be ruled out. “It is important to make a cost-benefit analysis”, say both Van Hecke and Vansina. “It cannot indeed be the case that only the population is affected while those in power remain out of harm's way.”
“Moreover, we should not lose sight of the fact that Europe will still need to maintain ties with Russia in the future.”, Vansina notes. “The more measures we impose now, the more difficult it will soon be to normalize relations again. Russia and China are already working on an alternative international payment system, and Russia has long been trying to have its own, decided to set up the internet." Another disadvantage to the sanctions, according to Vansina, is the "brain drain" or "knowledge flight" from the country. “Russia is a country with a lot of potential: it belongs to the world level in the field of mathematics, engineering sciences and IT. However, we see more and more young Russians moving abroad, and this situation will only accelerate that. While student exchange, academics and experts are just as important to understand each other. We are taking a lot of steps backwards in that area.”
Replying one gesture with another
It remains to be seen whether the hoped-for long-term effect of the sanctions - bringing the Russian population to the Western side - can be achieved. “The majority of Russians seem ashamed of the invasion of Ukraine, but for many others the measures are confirmation that we do not want to enter into fruitful relations with them. Something that is spoon-fed to them by state propaganda.”, says Vansina.
Important to justify them, is that the sanctions imposed are linked to objectives. "For example: if there is a ceasefire, then Russian airlines will be welcome again in European airspace. They must be an instrument to end the conflict.” Van Hecke joins Vansina: “Suspending sanctions is part of a deal: one gesture is answered with another. Nevertheless: the side effects of certain measures appear to be so great that the Russian population suffers, then they can always be reviewed.”