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Sanctions won’t stop a war in Ukraine – but they will increase its cost for Putin

4 min read

The origins of the crisis lie not in Ukraine; but in Russia.

Until the 2011-2013 Bolotnaya pro-democracy mass protests in Russia, the Kremlin never expressed concern about Ukraine’s pro-EU orientation (as opposed to its attempts to join Nato, which Russia consistently opposed). I visited Moscow in 2009 and discussed Ukraine’s EU ambitions with the head of the Russian foreign ministry Ukraine department. He shrugged. “It’s up to them,” he said.

The Bolotnaya protests terrified the Russian leadership. Could a successful Ukraine plant the bacillus of democracy in Moscow? The Kremlin started pulling every lever to prevent Ukraine’s further integration with western political and economic structures – including, in 2014, by fomenting uprisings in the east of the country and annexing Crimea.

Those 2014 actions must have seemed a good idea to Putin at the time. But from 2013-2020 Russian GDP per capita fell 37 per cent; his popularity slid; and Ukraine became less – rather than more – pro-Russian. Putin’s speech on Monday showed he wants to change all that and build a greater Russia; but he doesn’t know how.

Putin alleges “genocide” in the Russian-controlled enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. He announced the evacuation of what he calls “Russians” living there because of a supposed threat from Ukrainian-controlled Ukraine. He ordered Russian forces into the occupied regions and recognised them as “independent”. All this was aimed at Russian audiences, to convince sceptical Russian citizens that there is a humanitarian justification for these actions, and whatever comes next.

In reality, nothing threatens the people of Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are exercising discipline lest they provide a pretext for further Russian military action.

UK sanctions should be expanded if Russia expands the war

Putin’s talk of protecting “Russians” in eastern Ukraine is disingenuous. Before Russian forces entered the region in 2014, there was no separatist movement there. Luhansk and Donetsk voted 83 per cent in favour of independence in Ukraine’s 1991 referendum. Before Russian military forces occupied these regions eight years ago, Russian speakers in the east of Ukraine lived in peace and security.

The latest developments do not change the military situation. Russian troops have been in the enclaves since 2014, when the Kremlin sent them in to install puppet governments.

There is clear evidence for the presence of Russian regular troops in this region since 2014. Many have been killed and captured in fighting. Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile from the Russian-occupied region of eastern Ukraine in July 2014 – killing 298 passengers and crew. 

Yet the Kremlin has always denied the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, because the Russian population is not keen on military action in Ukraine, and hates Russian military fatalities. Russia has gone to extreme lengths to conceal such deaths in the media, such as harassing a BBC team sent to research them.

By acknowledging Russian military occupation of eastern Ukraine and recognising the “independence” of the enclaves, the Russian leadership has killed the “Minsk Process”. The talks were moribund. But consigning them to oblivion after the diplomatic efforts of Macron and Scholz in past weeks is a kick in the teeth to those in Europe – particularly France and Germany – previously prepared to go the extra mile to seek a diplomatic, face-saving solution for Putin.

Sanctions are a process. Just because their targets laugh them off doesn’t mean they don’t hurt. Sanctions will rarely stop a war from happening but will increase its cost. UK sanctions should be expanded if Russia expands the war.

There are two possible outcomes for what comes next. The first, a full invasion of Ukraine. This makes no sense: Putin will achieve nothing other than to impoverish Russia further and generate vast suffering. But leaders do daft things; and with Russian military strength massed around Ukraine, the chances of a larger war are still, unfortunately, high.

The other, Putin has designed the action in the enclaves as an off-ramp from war. He hopes making a show of "occupying" territories Russia invaded eight years ago will look like a more significant military action than has actually taken place. He can declare victory and avoid a costly and uncertain new conflict with Ukraine.

Until we see Russian troops and equipment withdrawn from the forces surrounding Ukraine, the first option feels more likely. 


Leigh Turner is the former British Ambassador to Ukraine and author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”.

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