Lifting Sanctions Would Spell a Russian Victory

When Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stood before the recent United Nations General Assembly, he urged Ukraine’s supporters in the West and elsewhere not to abandon the sanction regime against Russia as long as Ukrainian territory remains occupied. “We ask our partners not to lift sanctions until Ukraine takes over control of its entire territory – starting with the East of Ukraine, and ending with Crimea”, he stated.

Yatsenyuk also re-iterated many of the points that the Ukrainian authorities have reminded the world community over the past six months. The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea was illegal under international law. The conflict in Ukraine is not just a domestic problem, not just a confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, but an issue of international importance. If Russia succeeds in having its sanctions removed, it will have escaped the Ukrainian crisis virtually unscathed, having succeeded in occupying Crimea, carving out a Donbas rump state, and undermining Ukrainian reforms and Europeanization.

Yatsenyuk’s statements seemed to respond to President Obama’s remarks made to the General Assembly earlier in the day, which strongly supported Ukraine, but also touched upon rolling back sanctions on Russia.  Obama stated: “The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective [of peace]. If Russia takes that path – a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people – then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges”.

Those contemplating rescinding sanctions are misguided. Russia still controls Crimea. With the help of the Russian military, its proxies in Eastern Ukraine have carved out a brutal rump state in the Donbas. Russian bullying has forced the Ukrainian authorities to delay the implementation of the Association Agreement with Europe for another year.  In short, Russia’s behavior hasn’t changed and there is no reason to believe that its behavior will improve in the near term.

If the West lifts sanctions in return for Russia’s respect of the current cease fire in Eastern Ukraine, this will be a clear victory for Putin. From the start, Putin’s strategy has been that of steady escalation. Russia incrementally increases its level of aggression in Ukraine, forcing the international community to accept its new status quo, and then ratchets up intervention once again. Only six months after Crimea’s forceful annexation, the peninsula’s status and the plight of the indigenous Tatar population is now a mere afterthought. Russia that escapes long-term sanctions will have succeeded in its strategy of creeping intervention, distracting world attention from its long list of abuses in Ukraine.

Western reasons for wanting to repeal the sanctions are clear. First, European and American corporations that do business in Russia want unimpeded access to the Russian market. Even from the beginning of the crisis, business interests led a powerful lobbying campaign against sanctions in Washington and Brussels. Next, several EU states that are dependent on Russian energy and foreign investments are becoming increasingly outspoken against the sanctions. Slovakia and Cyprus, to name just two Russia-dependent states, sharply criticized the implementation of the so-called “fourth round sanctions”. Before the implementation of the last round of sanctions, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico described the sanctions approach as “meaningless and useless”, threatening to veto a tough approach if it harmed Slovakia’s economic interests.

But perhaps more important than economic considerations is the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). President Obama is trying to gather an international consensus on military action against the group, which has seized a large swath of territory in the Middle East. Russia is the Syrian government’s most powerful international backer, and thus coordinated action against ISIS and a resolution for the Syrian civil war requires Western cooperation with Russia. The West also needs to solicit cooperation with Russia on a range of other fronts, especially over Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

So far, the West has largely seen the crisis in Ukraine as an unwanted distraction from other international issues. With the exception of several post-communist countries, notably the Baltic States and Poland, the United States and European Union have never shown much enthusiasm in tackling the Ukraine issue head on. Up until the MH17 tragedy, which changed the political calculus and demanded stronger political action, the West preferred to issue strong words of warning to Russia, without backing up words with substance.

The battle for Ukraine is in fact the battle for the future of Europe and European values. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine should also be seen as aggression against Europe, the rule of law, and democracy. In using naked aggression and force to change international borders, Russia has violated post-Cold War norms of stability and peace. There’s no reason that European security and values should take a back seat on the minds of Western leaders. This is their backyard. It’s time that world leaders treat the Ukrainian issue with the seriousness and attention that it deserves.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center