Whether or not the West’s sanctions against Russia have been a success depends to a considerable degree on what one thinks the sanctions were meant to achieve and how quickly. More than a year on, Crimea remains occupied, Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, and the longer-term goal of forcing the Kremlin to accept and abide by the accepted norms of international behavior remains out of reach. The Russian economy is suffering, but more because of low oil prices and structural economic weaknesses than the impact of sanctions, and Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have concluded that the costs are bearable.
So what now? Should the West simply be patient, or is it time for a change in strategy?
One of the reasons that the sanctions regime has not been more effective is that Moscow believes it can easily strike back at the West, dividing the allies and undermining their will to maintain the current restrictions. So long as Moscow believes an end to sanctions is on the horizon, it will not be tempted to enact any substantive change.
The West should ensure not only that it is as resistant as possible to Russian manipulation, but also that it is seen as such. Measures such as accelerating the development of the European Energy Union can minimize Russia’s ability to use its oil and gas supplies as leverage against the West. The energy union may not exist fully until 2030, but by simply giving it priority, Europe can communicate its commitment to denying Moscow markets and options. This is, after all, a war of signals and symbols as much as it is one of concrete action.
So long as Moscow believes an end to sanctions is on the horizon, it will not be tempted to enact any substantive change.
The rest of Russia’s leverage comes from propaganda and the buying of influence—especially through Moscow’s often-covert support for political movements abroad that undermine Western unity, from anti-federalist parties
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