Opinion: we can only assess if sanctions work if we are clear about what their purpose is

The war in Ukraine has been raging on for several months now, but the EU is engaging Russia on another battlefield, that of economic warfare. The EU has imposed the heaviest sanctions in its history, with a view to asphyxiate the Russian economy in order to make it impossible, or at least harder, for Moscow to sustain the war efforts. Not everyone in Europe agrees, however, and the sanctions have been called 'reckless and ridiculous'.

So, are sanctions making a difference? In the short term, many of these measures do not impact the everyday life of ordinary Russians. Granted, Ruslan from Moscow and Ludmila from Novosibirsk will not get a coffee at Starbucks or lunch at McDonald's. But outside the big cities, these chains never existed anyways so sanctions made no difference.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, what impact are sanctions having on people living in Russia?

Ruslan and Ludmila can still go out and enjoy life as usual (albeit at increasingly growing prices). In fact, they can do much more than that: anyone with a good a salary can travel to Europe to enjoy the sunset in Santorini, the nightlife in Paris and so on. Again, for most of the population in Russia, it has always been prohibitively expensive to go to the EU for holidays, so sanctions did not affect them there.

However, things look very different for Russians in the EU. Direct flights are banned. It is true that Ruslan and Ludmila can go on holidays to Barcelona, but they must fly there via Istanbul (or Doha, etc). They could not use their credit card either, as they could not access money from Russian bank accounts. This is because the EU tried to isolate the Russian economy, including by cutting off Russian banks from the main global payment system.

The property of Russian oligarchs in the EU and the UK was also 'frozen'. This explains why many of those oligarchs moved their yachts outside the EU, for example from Greece to Turkey, as soon as they sensed sanctions were coming.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness warns Russia could be hit by more sanctions

But what was the impact of the sanctions on the war? It is now prohibited to sell military equipment to Russia, as well as other things that could be used to build weapons, tanks, and ammunition – or simply to build computers, cars, or airplanes. The EU has also targeted the Russian oil and gas industry, as well as its luxury and aviation sectors.

It is clear that sanctions have not stopped the war so far. Even though EU institutions cite reports by the Bank of Russia showing that the Russian economy has been seriously damaged, independent data is impossible to verify.

What is certain is that the sanctions have not produced a change of policy in the Kremlin. Indeed, Putin has sought to profit from higher energy prices, including by demanding that oil and gas should be paid in Russian roubles, to circumvent the EU’s prohibition to make payments in euros. Winter will tell if Europe can really live without Russian gas, or if Putin’s energy backlash will overpower the sanctions. It is increasingly clearer that sanctions come with a heavy cost for the EU.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business. Andrea Palasciano, Economics and Business correspondent with AFP in Russia on how sanctions have affected the economy

But the debate must not simply be reduced to the question "should we lift sanctions or not?". The issue is more complex. Lifting sanctions won't necessarily mean lower energy prices, nor would their removal necessarily convince Putin to stop fighting.

Sanctions pursue various aims. It's not about just coercing Russia to stop the war, but perhaps simply making it harder for Russia to continue. It is possible to speculate that Russia would have achieved even more militarily without sanctions. Financial punishments also signal to Moscow that the EU and its allies are united in solidarity against the invasion. Sanctions also function as a message (to China?) that the West will not accept any invasion of sovereign countries.

We can assess if sanctions ‘work’ only if we are clear what their purpose is, but there is only so much the EU can do. Brussels' greatest political leverage is economics. Heavy reliance on Russian energy and on US military protection meant little wiggle room for the EU.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne on the latest batch of EU sanctions against Russia

Sanctions are always a double-edged sword. They may turn out to harm Putin, or they may turn out to strengthen his position domestically, if Russians rally behind him. In the latter case, sanctions simply backfire. There is no way of knowing in advance whether Russians will hate Putin more for dragging them into this war, or the EU more for punishing them.

For the EU, economic sanctions are a question of values. Imposing them means not tolerating a gross violation of international law, even at a bearing a cost to its own economy.

Democracy in the EU is paying a high a price as well. Some of the sanctions consist of censoring the European branches of Russian media to halt the Kremlin’s propaganda in the EU. This means that the EU limited democracy – it severely limited freedom of expression of journalists working for those Russia-sponsored media – in the name of democracy itself. The Russian narrative is branded as propaganda and is prohibited in the EU – at least the narrative spread by those media outlets was. But has Russia not done the same, censoring the narrative of the enemy?


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ