ArticlesWestern responses to the escalation in Ukraine: From diplomacy...

Western responses to the escalation in Ukraine: From diplomacy to economic sanctions


On the 21st of February Russia recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk following a meeting of Russia’s Security Council, and only 2 days later attacked Ukraine Donetsk and Luhansk are not the only republics in the region that have been granted recognition by Russia, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia being recognized by Russia in 2008. Throughout the escalation in Georgia the power of economic sanctions imposed by European and US leaders proved limited in deterring Russia. Indeed, the application of economic sanctions is not unique to these particular moments of escalation in Ukraine and Georgia. In Moldova, throughout the negotiations in Transnistria sanctions against de-facto state leaders have been applied by the EU and the US. The war in Ukraine is only one facet of the wider rift between Western countries and Russia. Similarly to the 2014 crisis brought about by the annexation of Crimea, when the response of the European Union and the United States was to resort to international sanctions, the continued war in Ukraine poses questions about the responses that Western countries are now faced with. Primarily it is about the power of Western sanctions to deter further aggression: Can European states be united in stopping further Russian aggression? And how have the UK, Germany and France- that have long cultivated different bilateral relations with Russia responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

Economic sanctions as a response to aggression

Responses in London, Berlin and Paris involving international sanctions sought to reach a point of agreement that would suggest Russia’s actions have become untenable, a point stressed by President Joe Biden in his decision to impose sanctions on Russia. The UK, who’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson who had made it clear early on in the crisis over Ukraine that he wants to lead on a united western response has announced economic sanctions against Russia involving a ban on exports of Russian goods and the use of airspace by Russian flight companies, individual sanctions against wealthy businessmen who are known to have links to the Kremlin, a ban on oil and gas imports from Russia as well as freezing the assets of Russian banks and excluding major Russian banks from the UK financial system .In Germany, newly elected Chancellor Olaf Schultz who has previously shown caution on the issues of sanctions against Russia in case of an aggression has decided in the aftermath of the invasion that the certification of the North Stream 2 pipeline would be suspended.

France’s response and adherence to the package of economic sanctions imposed by the EU is now also considering further actions with regards importing energy from Russia. This response should be seen in the context of its previous involvement in brokering the Minsk agreement and the diplomatic attempts at the beginning of the year to salvage the Normandy format in which it had worked alongside Germany to deliver the Minsk Agreement. But with remaining divides in the EU’s response they should also be understood in the context of different bilateral relationship with Russia that the UK, Germany and France have cultivated over the years.

Russia as the biggest threat to UK national security

In July 2020 the Intelligence and Security Committee of the British Parliament published the result of an Inquiry held between November 2017 and November 2019 by the Parliamentary committee in the form of a Report assessing the threat of Russia against UK National Security. The Report described the UK as one of the top ‘Western intelligence targets’ and a ‘diplomatic adversary’ to Russia, especially in the context of the UK-led response to the 2018 Salisbury attacks that saw the expulsion of 153 Russian intelligence officers and diplomats from 29 countries and NATO. This report also went into details of Russia’s threating activities against the UK (cyber-attacks, disinformation, and economic investments in the UK) as well as the potential responses that a UK National Strategy in dealing with Russia could be framed. Though ‘more proactive engagement, or relationship-building’ had been frozen as had ‘planned ministerial engagement’ the report acknowledged that: ‘Having limited channels of communication with the Russian government can be beneficial. The ability to have direct conversations enables an understanding of the intentions of both sides in times of crisis – ***. Having such channels in place can therefore reduce the risk of miscommunication and escalation of hostilities. It can also provide opportunities to de-conflict military activities in areas where both the UK and Russia have active military presences.’

The UK government has sought to deliver on this strategy prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through the visit of the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and of Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to Russia and Boris Johnson’s diplomatic call with Vladimir Putin. These diplomatic exchanges have been regarded in the Kremlin as lacking substance and ‘utterly confused’. In the UK the need to respond to Russia is nevertheless dependent on the current leadership’s ability to deliver on the strategies that it has adopted on Russia in which the issues of Russia’s threats to the national security of the UK have been closely connected to the economic activities and the Russian capital that flows into the British economy.

Germany and North Stream 2: From restraint to economic sanctions

Perhaps the most important shift in bilateral relations between a European country and Russia can be found in Germany’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Throughout the diplomatic efforts to prevent the escalation in Ukraine, Germany’s position had shown a level of strategic ambiguity in its restraint to comment on the economic sanctions. In his visit to Moscow Olaf Schulz re-stated the importance of the Normandy format talks, seeking de-escalation from Russia in Ukraine, yet pledging comprehensive sanctions in the case of aggression against Ukraine. How can the decision to suspend the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline therefore be interpreted in the context of wider economic sanctions against Russia? With Germany importing 35 percent of its gas from Russia and North Stream 2 seeking to consolidate this economic relationship between Germany and Russia, the stalling of this project has serious consequences in the long term not only for Germany’s ability to address its dependency on Russian energy but also for other European country. Thus far though the main lines of response with regards to economic sanctions have converged, when it comes to decisions regarding sanctions oil and gas trade, pressure is now higher on European states to find a common response.

France and its push for diplomacy

Emanuel Macron’s last push for diplomacy with Russia prior to the war received a less dismissive attitude from President Putin than the reactions to British diplomacy – with the Russian President commended the efforts of the French President to engage in dialogue. Nevertheless they should still be viewed in the context of Russia’s sense of threat that has been expressed throughout this crisis. In the press conference following the six hours discussion on the 7th of February President Putin touched upon the record of interventions that NATO has in Serbia, Afghanistan and Syria -as a justification for this sense of threat against what it sees as the expansion of the alliance rather than solely the enlargement of NATO based on the principle of indivisible security. This underlining theme that has ran throughout the political discourse in Moscow justifying Russia’s steps in escalating the situation in Ukraine has left NATO with no room for manoeuvre to respond to the war in Ukraine, through a no –fly zone as suggested by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Such move is viewed as having the potential to further escalate the conflict. Its outright rejection by NATO leaves European responses to this war locked in the paradigm of economic and international sanctions. With the British government openly supporting Ukraine militarily and Germany’s strategic shift from economic- only support to military support, what matters at this stage in the conflict is both the content of the sanctions regime as well as the leverage that can be applied on Russia by any of the states and organizations that seeks to bring an end to this conflict through negotiation. Among the British, German and French leaders, President Emanuel Macron has been the only one that has, at least publically continued to engage with Vladimir Putin. Ultimately the success of economic sanctions can be achieved when ‘the political and economic costs to the target country of defying the sanctioner’s demands are greater than the costs of complying’ In the current context where a ceasefire has not yet been achieved the extent to which the regime of existing sanctions against Russia will evolve towards new possible harsher sanctions against the energy trade will greatly affect the leverage that Europe has in its relationship with Russia.

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