Ukraine crisis: the West in search of the right level of sanctions

► What have Westerners decided in response to Putin’s escalation?

The condemnation was unanimous. Washington was the first capital to draw the sanctions, on the night of Monday to Tuesday February 22, when Moscow had just recognized the “republics” pro-Russian separatists. US President Joe Biden has issued an executive order banning all commercial and financial exchanges with separatist regions.

→ ANALYSIS. Ukraine: by recognizing the Donbass, Putin challenges the West

The next day, the European Union, which urgently called together its foreign ministers, proposed to ban the Russian authorities from accessing European financial markets and services. Like the United Kingdom or Norway, the EU has also announced a targeting of banks close to the Kremlin involved in these separatist areas.

But it was undoubtedly Berlin which took the strongest action on Tuesday. The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, hitherto cautious on the subject, has resolved to suspend the authorization of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, linking Russia to Germany. The infrastructure has been completed since November but has not yet been commissioned. While Germany remains 55% dependent on Russian gas, this announcement shows that the Ukrainian issue comes before supply difficulties, which the government is trying to circumvent by diversifying its sources of liquefied natural gas (LNG) via ports Zeebrugge (Belgium) and Rotterdam (Netherlands)… while waiting to have its own facilities by 2026.

► Is the Western response appropriate?

Vladimir Putin tried to muddy the waters as the sanctions fell. The Kremlin said to itself ” open “ to diplomacy, while the Russian president denied wanting “rebuilding an empire”. Westerners are walking on a crest line: the sanctions must be sufficient to be taken seriously, without compromising a scenario that would avoid making arms speak.

“The chance was given to dialogue, with attempts at mediation, in particular that of Emmanuel Macron, which failed. We are now moving to the pivotal moment of coercive diplomacy, to get Moscow to change its behavior,” considers Charles Tenenbaum (Sciences Po), specialist in EU external action and conflict resolution. The researcher expects the dialogue to close in the short term: “If we don’t do this, then the very logic of sanction is no longer credible. »

► Have the sanctions in place since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 produced any effects?

They barely made it possible to maintain the status quo. In eight years, the list of Russian companies or personalities with frozen assets has grown with no real hold on Vladimir Putin. “The effect of these sanctions is very difficult to assess. The situation might have deteriorated more quickly without them, but the results are quite mixed,” continues Charles Tenenbaum.

→ ANALYSIS. Ukraine crisis: Joe Biden must review his copy on sanctions against Russia

The “restrictive measures” remained bearable for Moscow, which had time to adapt its economy. In recent years, Russia has accelerated the “dedollarization” of its economy and international trade. Russia’s central bank, fueled mainly by hydrocarbon exports, has assembled a ” treasure “ 560 billion euros, in euros (32%), in gold (22%), in dollars (16%) and in yuan (13%). Moscow is increasingly looking to Beijing for financial and trade outlets.

The United States has a major trump up its sleeve: Washington could cut off Moscow’s access to the Swift interbank network, an essential cog in global finance used by 300 Russian organizations. This option is considered the most devastating economic weapon. But the effect that Washington can expect is diminishing over time.

► Are Europe and the United States able to speak with one voice?

Joe Biden had publicly admitted a weakness of the Western camp, on January 19, in the event of a Russian military intervention in Ukraine: “A minor incursion would lead to us arguing over what to do or what not to do,” even if aggression were condemned in unison. The European Union, which must vote on its sanctions unanimously, finds itself regularly torn between member states divided over their link with Moscow. Viktor Orban’s Hungary, to name but one, has relied heavily on his doctrine of“opening to the east”.

But this time, the differences are silent. “We are seeing the emergence of a united diplomatic front that goes beyond the disagreements existing within the EU, and with other actors”, comments Charles Tenenbaum. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first to judge “unacceptable” the recognition of the pro-Russian separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, putting in the background the numerous disputes which oppose it to its allies. The Brussels-London alignment is perfect. The West should experience the greatest test of cohesion since the end of the Cold War with the imperative to remain united over time against Moscow.


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