Dan BaerActing director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The threat of sanctions did not prevent President Vladimir Putin’s war, but the reality of them may help to end it. While hopeful voices have wondered if sanctions might produce enough popular discontent inside Russia to cause Putin to reverse course, this is unlikely.
Instead, while no one can say definitively when the war will end, we can expect that it will end with a settlement. No matter how poorly his military seems to be doing—and it appears they are performing quite poorly indeed—Putin retains capacity to draw out the conflict into a bloody, rolling horror in the months to come.
The strength and severity of the sanctions and their palpable effect on the Russian economy are likely to incentivize Putin to seek a settlement sooner than he otherwise would and could offer bargaining chips to counter some of Russia’s most egregious demands.
To be clear, the sanctions won’t lead to a good deal soon; the deal will still be bad and too late, but not as bad and as late as it might have been.
And even if they don’t help end this war, they are important both as an immediate step toward accountability and as a potential deterrent to other actors in the future.
Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil Director and senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
It depends on whose sanctions.
Russia had factored in the sanctions cost of the war before triggering it. The actual breadth and depth of sanctions alongside private capital flight, trade restrictions, and diplomatic ostracism probably surprised the Kremlin. But there also exists in Russia a cost-benefit calculation when it comes to stopping the war short of its goal. And here, the cost of failure—not overthrowing the Kyiv government and subjugating the population—must also be set against the burden of the West’s sanctions.
Aside from the West, there’s one other global power whose economic and strategic capacity makes a difference in the Kremlin’s calculations, and that’s China.
When Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela suffocated under the West’s sanctions, these countries could count on Russia and China to evade some of them. So long as Beijing straddles the fence, Russia’s economy won’t implode. It will experience hyperinflation, its living standards will erode, and its long-term growth will decline. But it will muddle through. However, should China signal it is prepared to shadow the West’s sanctions, the calculations in Moscow would change.
Alas, it is not clear whether for Beijing, the advantages of China’s lining up with the West would make up for the costs of a rupture with Russia.
Robert CooperCouncil member at the European Council on Foreign Relations
Yes. But sanctions are only one element. The story begins with the horror of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, its neighbor and cousin; then the courageous, inspiring resistance of a united Ukrainian people. Add to that the crushing economic penalties, cutting Russia off from the global system and, in a world where we are all joined together, anything is possible. In war, wrote Napoleon, the moral stands to the material in a ratio of three to one.
These sanctions are different from past cases such as Cuba or South Africa. Those aimed at regime change. With Ukraine, the plan is simpler: empty the war chest and stop the war. If President Vladimir Putin falls too, that would be a bonus.
Martin EhlChief analyst at Hospodářské noviny
These are the most comprehensive sanctions any superpower or major developed country has had to face since 1945.
So one would expect them to work. But even experts warn that sanctions per se are not the instrument for winning wars—as history teaches us. At this moment in time, these sanctions are an irreplaceable tool the international community can use against the Russian regime.
I am not naive to think that Russians will rise up against Vladimir Putin immediately due to the impossibility to use Apple Pay. And I also do not believe the unprecedented unity of the democratic West would survive a longer period.
But for the here and now, these sanctions could significantly contribute to persuading the Russian government to stop fighting because they show the unity of the West, a unity which nobody—neither us nor Putin—imagined possible about three weeks ago.
Theresa FallonDirector of the Centre for Russia, Europe, Asia Studies (CREAS)
Sanctions as such cannot end the war. They can create hardship for the Russian population, but historically Russians are used to suffering and the official Russian propaganda will put the blame for the sanctions squarely on the West.
Propaganda will paint the sanctions as unjust persecution of Russia by its enemies and will try to use them to rally the people around the regime. Only a minority have access to outside information and are ready to protest against the government.
Sanctions will make Russia more dependent on trade with China, increasingly making Russia the junior partner in the China-Russia de facto alliance, which I call “Chinusia.” This will give China access to Russia’s vast natural resources, feeding China’s economic growth and military buildup.
On the other hand, sanctions will hurt the economic interests of Russia’s economic, security, and political elites (oligarchs). It is still possible for a small elite to thrive, even under sanctions and in conditions of economic isolation, as in North Korea. However, is Russia comparable to North Korea? If the sanctions against Russia are sustained, there is a hope that Russia’s elites may act to put pressure on Putin to change course, or they may try to replace Putin with a new leader altogether.
Geoff KitneyWriter and commentator on Australian and international affairs
When Vladimir Putin visited Australia the one and only time in September 2007 for an APEC meeting, a journalist asked him what he thought of Australia, to which he replied: “I never think about Australia.”
Despite its remoteness from Russia, Australia has vigorously joined the global action to sanction Russia—not just to hurt Russia but also to warn China.
Australian leaders believe that widely enforced sanctions are setting the Russian economy back decades. Australia wants Beijing to see how united global action to cripple Russia is the price to be paid for military adventurism of a kind it is contemplating toward Taiwan.
Australia sees its biggest long-term security threat coming from what it calls “an arc of autocracy” formed by a strategic alliance between Russia and China. Australia believes the free world’s response to Russia’s Ukraine war must be so strong that it will force China to pause for thought about the likely cost of a military takeover of Taiwan: that it may not be necessary for the West to go to war to make China an economically damaged, pariah nation.
From Australia’s point of view, even if sanctions don’t end the war in Ukraine quickly, their success will also be measured by the strength of the message it sends to China.
John C. KornblumFormer U.S. ambassador to Germany
No. Sanctions alone cannot do the job. They are a limited tool substituted for more difficult alternatives. The same was the case in 2014, after the Russian takeover of Crimea, and in 1968 and 1979 after Prague and Kabul.
I managed a sanctions package against Serbia in 1996 and 1997. In the end, it was the NATO bombing which forced then president Slobodan Milošević to pull back. But NATO cooperation on sanctions was essential to agreeing the military option.
Sanctions may help stop the Russian attack, but they will not change Russian behavior overnight. Sanctions will help us maintain the moral high ground, especially with the Russian people.
Thirty years ago, our Russian partners wanted a fresh start. Today, we may be forced to deal with Vladimir Putin as we did with Milošević in Serbia. We probably can’t expect a return to the Charter of Paris, but at the same time cannot modify it to meet Russian demands.
Fifty years ago, German Social Democrat Willy Brandt and then U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger defined Western principles in a way that both Russia and China found acceptable. Thirty years have passed since current arrangements were agreed upon. Even without Russian attacks, it would be time to bring some of the agreements up to date, just as we did with the Charter of Paris and the Helsinki Summit in 1992. The active application of sanctions will be essential in helping to define future goals.
Stefan MeisterHead of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
The most comprehensive sanctions Western countries have ever enacted against Russia seriously hit the Russian state, society, and economy. After these sanctions, Russia will not be like it was before. It is about changing the way of life for the Russian people and decoupling the country from the global economy.
At the same time, even if they are important, sanctions will not stop Russian President Vladimir Putin in his war against Ukraine. Putin is on an historical mission to get Ukraine back at any cost. He has prepared this war over the years while he built a repressive apparat for any internal opposition and securitized all parts of the Russian state where the economy has to serve as an instrument to resist any kind of sanctions.
Russian oligarchs depend more on the Russian state than they are able to resist Putin’s policy.
Even if people in the system are shocked by what Putin is doing, for the time being, they fall into patriotism or apathy. Sanctions will work in the medium term, but then there might be no Ukrainian state anymore and Russia may be so isolated that the West lacks any impact. Ukraine is fighting for European security and needs any means to resist the Russian attack. Sanctions alone will not stop Putin.
Mariann ŐryHead of the foreign desk at Magyar Hírlap
Western sanctions alone will most likely not end the war in Ukraine.
They were never enough to change the fundamental geopolitical stance of Russia. Putin has a certain goal to reach and Russia has probably prepared to deal with most of these sanctions.
Of course, it’s also possible that the sanctions will change the course of events. Even though Putin underestimated the EU’s and the United States’ willingness to make sacrifices, these sanctions will hurt the West too.
Some of sanctions and the decisions made by big companies are aimed at making the Russian people put pressure on their government. It is very hard to estimate by Western logic and experience how the Russian people will react. Sanctions can also have far-reaching consequences. Pushing Russia toward China and India can create a new geopolitical reality.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unfolding in the most brutal fashion imaginable and there is little clarity about the endgame. But, if Grozny and Aleppo are any meaningful yardsticks of Russian military operations, it is doubtful that, at this very moment, Western sanctions have any effect on the Kremlin. There are two reasons for this.
The first one is that, by virtue of the current pattern of Western European imports of gas, oil, and coal, Russia is still earning some $600-700 million per day—enough to fuel a massive war for a long period of time.
The second reason is that the Kremlin’s political motivations for such a massive invasion are solidly cast in ideology and history. They are packaged in fabricated narratives and the media are all but suppressed.
Over the medium term, though, incremental sanctions will have two effects. They will vastly increase the cost of war for Russia and will cut it off from the West, its main source of income. They will also make the consequences of the invasion visible to each citizen of Russia, each policymaker, and each general. Even in Russia, that may matter.
Clara PortelaProfessor of political science at the University of Valencia
The big unknown is whether sanctions will have the effect of ending the war in Ukraine, or if they will intensify President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to “win” back Ukraine, or trigger more anti-Putin, anti-war demonstrations in Russia. The answer is that sanctions can, theoretically, do all of these.
Sanctions are generally unsuitable to stop war: they are no match to military force in terms of speed. The impact of force can be immediate; sanctions take time to work. This is true despite the shock effect sanctions often cause. Financial sanctions, which made up the bulk of recent sanctions waves, have some effects even before they are implemented, such as impacting markets adversely.
But by the time they start strangling the economy—particularly one that has shielded itself against sanctions—military operations might have very little of Ukraine’s territory left to cover.
This said, sanctions could work without strangling the economy. They might inflict or threaten sufficient harm on Russian elites to compel them to withdraw support from their current leaders. No autocrat can survive without elite support. Elites will back autocrats for as long as it is profitable, but not one minute longer.
Or the elites may prove instrumental in disrupting the Kremlin’s official narrative that sanctions are “anti-Russian.” If there is something that the intensifying, coordinated Western effort is making clear to the Russian population is that the measures are a reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, and not to any alleged bias against Russia.
Tatiana RomanovaPolitical scientist, Russia
Sanctions perform an important role for the West, but they will not bring an immediate end to Russia’s “special military operation.”
Firstly, the threats of Western sanctions were omnipresent earlier this year. That made many Russians believe that sanctions would have been imposed whatever Russia did.
Secondly, most sanctions hardly affect the so called “deep people,” the core of the Kremlin’s electorate.
These people don’t have business contacts in the West. They do not travel abroad. They never had Western shops in their cities. They will feel the impact of inflation, of job losses, but they are used to it and they will concentrate on their survival, believing that they are making the sacrifice for an important cause, for national security. This is a classical rallying around the flag.
People affected the most are the middle class. They will find themselves in the crossfire: on the one hand, being ostracized in Russia for their pacifist position and, on the other, being victims of both official sanctions and the “cancel culture” in the West.
Thirdly, the priority of the Kremlin at the moment is not the economy. Thus, the influence of the business and the economic flanks of the government seems minimal.
The Kremlin will have to face the economic consequences of Western sanctions, but that will occur when the military and political goals are deemed to be achieved.
Tommy SteinerPolicy director of the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership (SIGNAL)
Hard to tell.
The role of sanctions in ending the war depends on how they shape the calculus of President Vladimir Putin. If recent weeks have taught us anything, it is that speculating about Putin’s decisionmaking yields very limited results.
Nevertheless, the rapid, widespread, and growing sanctions regime, followed by an avalanche of global companies severing their operations in Russia, sends a critical message to Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes: crossing Western red lines will exact a heavy price.
Authoritarian leaders tend to underestimate the resolve of democracies. That is why the Western response is such a powerful statement. It may not, in itself, stop the war in Ukraine, but it might well prompt authoritarian leaders to recalculate the pros and cons of challenging the West in the future.
Monika SusAssociate professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences
Only if Europe is ready to take it to the next level. And suffer.
The war triggered by Russia has shattered Europe’s security architecture. There will be no return to any cooperation with Moscow as long as it is led by President Putin and there are no signs that this will change.
Ukraine is fighting and doing everything it can to defend European values, so the EU must do absolutely everything in its power to help. And it must act quickly since thousands of people are suffering every day. This means that Europe must make the sanctions as severe as possible, as quickly as possible.
To do so, at their forthcoming summit in Paris, European leaders should take the sanctions to the next level and decide to stop importing gas and oil from Russia. This would no doubt be extremely costly for the EU, especially for the Central European countries that are highly dependent on Russian energy resources. But the EU must do this in order to have a chance at ending the war. And if EU member states act in a united manner and support one another, they will manage the costs and the energy supply problems.
Besides, the Kremlin is already threatening to stop gas supplies to Europe through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Do we really want to be further bullied by an aggressor? Let’s start calling the shots, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us.
Mirjana TomićJournalist and project director at Presseclub Concordia, Vienna
In the summer of 1993, I spent a few days in Skopje, in what was then the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I was reporting for the Spanish daily, El País, on the United Nations embargo against Yugoslavia (Serbia). During breakfast at the hotel restaurant, I overheard conversations: some people discussed how to enforce sanctions, others how to boost import or export of goods, thereby violating the sanctions. One floor above the hotel restaurant, the UN had set up its office in charge of monitoring the UN embargo.
Two rounds of sanctions were declared against Serbia. They failed to end the wars, but the Serbian economy needed thirty years to reach its 1990 level.
I lived and worked as a journalist in a country under sanctions. We adapted. Austrian supermarket chains established outlets at the Hungarian-Serbian border and people travelled to buy and smuggle. There was no gasoline at the petrol stations, but one could purchase it in people’s backyards. International flights were banned, but direct bus lines connected Belgrade with Budapest airport. The population was getting poorer and the smugglers richer. The latter became respectable businessmen. The regime remained.
The Yugoslav wars involved a small territory. The war in Ukraine involves global players and interests. Institutions and companies seem to compete over who will enforce harsher sanctions. I doubt sanctions will stop the war. They will deepen poverty. The black market will generate new oligarchs.