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The sanctions of the West against Russia are followed by discussions about what effect they could have on further actions of Russia towards Ukraine. One side stresses that Putin and his closest environment understand only force, therefore the increasing sanctions are the best measure of scaring Russia from further aggression in Ukraine.
© Reuters/Scanpix

The position is strengthened by the experience of the Cold War. The inspirer of the doctrine of ‘containing’ the USSR George F. Kennan suggested for the USA to take a clear tactic of spread of pressure to the Soviets and anticipated that such pressure would either bring forth the cooperation of the Soviets or finally result in a crisis in the Soviet government. The strategic advantage by the USA against the USSR was gained when President Reagan initiated the implementation of the policy of total ‘containment’ of the USSR.

The opposing camp claims that at the moment any retreat by Putin will mean his political defeat, and the political system created by him is sufficiently stable to answer increasing sanctions from the West by more aggressive actions in Ukraine. In other words, the sanctions of the West may result in a wider intervention of Russia into Ukraine. The talk about entry of Russian ‘peace corps’ to Donbass and dislocation of the Russian Army by the eastern border of Ukraine immediately following application of third level sanctions could be considered the signs seemingly showing that the situation will develop according to this scenario. However, it is not clear what alternative recipe for solving the conflict in Ukraine is offered by the opponents of the sanctions.

It is obvious that the only real alternative is the policy of ‘calming’ Russia which would essentially mean acknowledging that there is a special zone of Russian interests. Such ‘calming’ politics is symbolized by negotiations concerning federalization of Ukraine, special status of Donbass, promise of the West not to accept Ukraine into the EU or NATO. However, even Western Europe, tired and wishing to hide away from realpolitik and geopolitical fights, understands that in the event of appeasement there may arise the need for more and more plans for ‘calming’ Russia and de-escalation of the situation (by sacrificing the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Eastern European states) and that the ‘red line’ will move further West in every instance. Therefore sanctions are the only viable course in the present situation when diplomatic means are ineffective. The more relevant issue is whether and under what conditions they could have a real effect on the geopolitics of Russia and further actions of the Kremlin in Ukraine.

Will the sanctions affect Russia?

Scholars analysing the effect of sanctions on different authoritarian regimes observe that the most vulnerable are the authoritarian leaders who because of sanctions could lose the possibility to grant favours to different competing political elite groups in exchange for loyalty and thus lose the position of a certain arbiter. And that’s exactly the function performed by Putin in the current political system of Russia. The source of favours granted to elite groups is the oil and gas sectors, the sales of these energy resources account for over 50 percent of the budget of Russia. This way the metaphor of USA Senator John McCain about Russia being ‘a gas station masquerading as a country’ gains content.

Russian companies operating in the oil and gas sector are not only the source of budget contributions but also a source of ‘feeding’ the elite groups, thus the sanctions of the West should be directed at these sectors and companies operating in them. Taking into account the fact that political changes in Russia are possible only in the event of a split in the political elite supporting the current political regime, the main goal of sanctions should be to drive a wedge between different elite groups, encourage their competition, reduce the abilities of the arbiter to control the process of granting favours. Will third-phase sanctions declared by the EU reach this goal?

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin
© Reuters/Scanpix

A fourth of all modern technologies used for extraction of oil by Russian companies are imported. Russia especially lacks national technologies, which would help drilling complex oil deposits. Thus the decision of the EU to prohibit export of technologies for oil extraction to Russia may affect the profitability of the main companies operating in the Russian oil sector. It could decrease the volume of extracted oil by 5-10 percent annually. But the biggest effect is only possible in the middle term, when the need to replace old technologies with new ones arises.

Still, at the moment we are only talking about separation of such Russian oil companies as Rosneft from modern Western technologies and not about the prohibition to trade with those companies or the embargo of Russian oil export to Western markets. This is the case because 20 percent of Rosneft is owned by the British company British Petroleum, and the British investment is a safeguard of a kind to the influential group of Sechin and Rosneft controlled by them against further EU sanctions. 

Besides the sanctions are applied only to the Russian oil sector and no reform of the political system is possible without the reform of the gas giant Gazprom, as Gazprom not only contributes a third of the Russian budget, but is also the main source of ‘feeding’ (favours) to Russian political elite groups. Gazprom is the pillar of the economic model holding the political vertical of Putin. Of course, due to lack of supply alternatives and investment projects of Western European companies with Gazprom, the EU is not ready to terminate contracts with this Russian gas monopolist, and at the same time this fact marks the limits of the effect of possible further EU sanctions against Russia. 

What is really stopping Russia? 

The question raising universal curiosity is what the final goal of Putin is in the Ukraine? The primary goal of intervention by Russia into the Ukraine was to start a civil war. In reality it would have meant separation of eight regions by the Black Sea from Odessa to Luhansk from the Ukraine. This plan failed not only because of very careful decisions of some pro-Western oligarchs (actions to stabilize the situation by Kolomoisky in Dnepropetrovsk region), but also due to the fact that it appears there are many more Ukrainians and fewer homo sovieticus and residents loyal to Russia than it seemed to the Kremlin. This not only proves that over-simplified division of the Ukrainian society into East and West Ukrainians was false but also the fact that a new modern political nation has been born in Ukraine which, despite language differences, sees its future exceptionally in an independent state of Ukraine. Not only do people see their future there, they are prepared to defend their state. 

The intervention by Russia only helped to consolidate the political society of Ukraine. Linguistic differences, different historical assessments (the role of Bandera) will continue, but the perception that Ukraine is not Russia will only strengthen after this conflict. Therefore we can bravely say already today that the maps of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, where Ukraine is depicted as ‘the state of fragments’, that might split into two, should be placed deep in the drawer.

Upon failure of the civil war scenario but after creating a focal point of instability in the most Soviet-oriented Donbass with different economic and cultural ties to Russia, Russia attempted to bring together the representatives of Ukraine and the terrorists supported by Moscow for negotiations and to strive for an agreement on further political structure of Ukraine: decentralization of the state, granting the Russian language the status of the national language, autonomy of Donbass, etc. Of course, the Ukrainians were encouraged to attend the negotiations by some large Western European states (primarily – Germany through its Minister of Foreign Affairs Steinmeier). But Ukraine (President Poroshenko) did not surrender to such geopolitical combinations and did not allow application of the traditional Russian scheme to the conflict: decentralization of Ukraine and the promise of Kiev not to joint NATO and EU in exchange for the decision of Russia to de-escalate the situation. This way the issue of territorial integrity of Ukraine was transferred into battle fields. It took a long time to hear good news from there. And first of all they were heard from the places where war was waged not by the regular army struggling with corruption, professionalism and loyalty problems but by soldiers volunteers the National Guard and battalion Donbas and Azov, the majority of which are composed from Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

After failing to enforce a political structure favourable to it and weakening the independence of Ukraine, which would have been the result of state decentralization, as certain regions of Ukraine would depend more on Moscow than Kiev, Russia decided to turn Donbass into a new frozen conflict in the post-Soviet area. This status would actually mean that although officially Donbass remains in the territory of Ukraine (Russia would not acknowledge its independence and would not incorporate the region into its territory), but in reality it would be controlled by Russia through its followers. Donbass turning into a new frozen conflict would allow Russia further control of the situation. 

Under favourable circumstances the Kremlin could at any time return to possible negotiations concerning the political structure of whole Ukraine and control the possibilities of Kiev to develop ties with the EU and NATO. As an illustration of similar policy of Russia we should remember 2003, when Russia offered Moldova the Kozak plan, under which in exchange for joining Transnistria, Moldova would become a federal state and would undertake an obligation to never join transatlantic security organizations (then Moldova rejected the plan at the last moment). Besides, maintaining a certain level of instability in Donbass, taking into account the fact that there still is no agreement between Kiev and Gazprom on long-term supply of gas and the gas reserves of the Ukraine are decreasing, the economical state of the country is poor may stimulate the turn of Ukraine into an economically bankrupt (in this case it’s a forced bankruptcy) state on which it is much easier to impose own political conditions.

Then the talks about possible entry of Russian ‘peace corps’ into the territory of Ukraine that we here more and more often would mean just that Russia is operating in accordance with the classic logic of frozen conflicts. The so-called Russian ‘peace corps’ have operated and are still operating in Transnistria and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But differently from Moldova and Georgia which grew weak two decades ago and did not manage to withstand it, this time would have been different.

Before sending its soldiers to Ukraine, Russia should remember that in the times of USSR West Ukraine was always one of the least Soviet-oriented as well as the least pro-Russian regions in the USSR. Avoiding the resistance of Ukrainian nationalists, even Soviet bureaucrats did not seek language assimilation in West Ukraine, and did not encourage special migration of Russians into the area. The region held the least number of persons who joined the Communist Party. Even the ideologist of Eurasianism Alexander Dugin acknowledges that at the moment Russia would not be able to assimilate the western part of Ukraine. But most probably he doesn’t yet know that the western part of Ukraine today has spread significantly just as the slogan of nationalists of western Ukraine of the 50s ‘glory to Ukraine, glory to heroes’ has spread and has already become the slogan uniting all Ukrainians. That’s what should scare Russia away from direct invasion of Ukraine.

Thus not the sanctions of the West (though they are also important), but the national unity of the Ukrainians, the strengthening independence of this nation is the main obstacle to the creation of Putin’s ‘Russian world’. Namely nationalism, which tends to be discarded in the West as a remnant of the 20th century, is destroying the Russian neoeurasia empire and protects the European civilization from eurasianism. The case of Donbass shows that this kind of hybrid war is possible only where there is no national identity, ties to the community and the state. As rightly observed by Anne Applebaum: ‘Donetsk, Slovyansk, Kramatorsk are the examples of what the Earth would be like without nationalism: corrupted, ruled by anarchy, full of soldiers of fortune ready to sell themselves. The majority of local people observes the fighting passively and are ready to come to terms with any government. Those are people who are accidentally living where they do, whose parents or grandparent came there due to a whim of a Soviet bureaucrat, who do not feel loyalty to any nation or country. Only people who feel loyal to their communities, only people who value the language, literature and history of the nation, only people who sing national songs and tell national legends can be ready to work for their society.’ These are the lessons that should be learnt by Lithuania while thinking about its defence plans.