One year of western sanctions against Russia: We still live in different worlds

Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from an op-ed originally written for Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, a Berlin-based journal on current international affairs published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

The United States and the European Union have now both announced that they are extending the economic sanctions they first imposed against Russia in March 2014 for its actions in Ukraine. One year on, the West thus remains committed to a policy which has failed so far and which has no chance of succeeding in the future. The sanctions policy was destined to fail because it was based on false assumptions about how most Russians think—in particular, how they think about security. 

We and the Russians are fundamentally at odds on what sanctions are all about. The current official Western view is that sanctions are a way to punish Russia for violating the rules of the international order and to thereby correct its behavior in the future. The Russians believe the sanctions are designed to weaken Russia and reduce its ability to defend itself. These diverging views are only the tip of the iceberg of mutual misunderstanding between Russia and the West, misunderstanding that is rooted in our fundamentally different views of how nations can best ensure their security in today’s world. Angela Merkel famously said that Vladimir Putin “lives in another world.” The meaning was that he has a completely different frame of reference, and as a result, that he does not views events and actions the same way that we in the West do. What Merkel said of Putin applies to the majority of Russians. This is certainly true as regards concepts of global and national security. The West and Russia are worlds apart on what constitutes a security threat, on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and on what sanctions represent.

Our Western view is that security in an interconnected world has to be based on cooperation, dialogue, and trust. It can only be guaranteed by everyone adhering to a rules-based system. Russia rejects that idea of security. It believes that the only real guarantee of its own security and sovereignty is its independent ability to defend itself. No multinational or supranational organization can guarantee that. 

We disagree completely about what led to the current standoff in Ukraine. In Putin’s world, he acted to defend Russia by neutralizing an imminent security risk. Russia, he believes, is under assault by the West. Russia could not allow Ukraine, with which it is so deeply integrated economically, to be brought fully into the sphere of influence of its enemy. Ukraine would be in a position to be persuaded—or compelled—to act against Russia, and Russia would have no way to counter that pressure. For us, by stark contrast, Russia’s violation of the rules threatens our entire system and therefore the security (and prosperity and freedom) of all.

Western leaders explain that sanctions are intended “to change Putin’s calculus.” This assumes that there are some gains he would be willing to forego in return for easing the pain of current or future sanctions. Yet when we apply this cost-benefit model—which is one adopted from the realm of the economics of crime and law enforcement—we fundamentally misunderstand what is at stake for Russia. Ukraine is not loot from a robbery, whose value Russia weighs against the cost of seizing it. In its own view, Russia acted in Ukraine to defend against an existential threat. 

By applying sanctions, we think we are pressuring Russia to shift its behavior towards a more acceptable form. Russians see us as forcing them to choose: either accept a political and military situation that will threaten the survival of their nation or be subject to a constantly intensified campaign of economic warfare. For Russia, this is not a choice. It is defeat in either case.

We are therefore caught in a trap, one of our own making. We adopted a policy that could never work as it was intended, namely, as a way to force Russia to change its behavior and obey the rules of our order. Russia will never respect those rules as long as it remains convinced that our order prohibits Russia from guaranteeing its own security. Sanctions can therefore not solve our “Russia problem.” Russia will act as it has in Ukraine, and worse, as long as it feels insecure and still remains capable of defending against threats.

If “winning” in this conflict for us means that we force Russia to acknowledge that our version of international security prevails over its version of security, there is only one way we can win. Russia must collapse completely. There are, of course, those in the West who think Russia is headed for collapse internally, perhaps sooner rather than later, and that sanctions will hasten the day. This is a very dangerous bet. Because if we merely put Russia at risk of collapse, it will feel compelled to act preemptively. As long as Russia has retaliatory capability (across the full range of its arsenal from nuclear and other military weapons to its energy and cyber weapons), it will use them all before capitulating. If our strategy is to force Russia to renounce all goals of independently guaranteeing its own security and sovereignty, then we have to be prepared to fight to the end. We have to have a plan of how to neutralize all of Russia’s weapons, or be prepared to survive them.

If this is not where we want to go, what are our options? A nonmilitary outcome can only be achieved by resolving our basic clash over notions of security. Putin is interested in security. So are we. We have fundamentally different notions. Ultimately, reconciling these differences has to be the real subject of negotiation between us.