Will Sanctions on Russia Force Putin to Change Course?

by Mark N. Katz

Just a few months ago, everything seemed to be going well for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. After the initial setback of Moscow’s ally, President Viktor Yanukovich, fleeing Kiev and being replaced by a pro-Western government, Putin seized control of Crimea in a surprise move that succeeded very quickly and almost bloodlessly. Small numbers of pro-Russian separatists then took over several cities in eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations. The new Ukrainian government was powerless to prevent this, and its American and European allies appeared either unwilling or unable to help. Indeed, Germany, France, and Italy in particular seemed more concerned about retaining their lucrative trade relations with Russia than with preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Nor did there appear to be any significant barrier to Putin seizing all of eastern and southern Ukraine. The image of a “rising Russia” stood in stark contrast to that of a weak, ineffectual, and divided West.

Now the situation seems quite different. Ukrainian forces have managed to retake much of eastern Ukraine from the pro-Russian separatists. Western public opinion has become increasingly critical of Russia in the wake of flight MH17 being shot down over territory held by the separatists, and over their truly boorish behavior in allowing Western access to the crash site and recovering the bodies. The United States and the European Union have now gone beyond the largely cosmetic sanctions they first imposed after the Russian takeover of Crimea; this week they announced broader sanctions affecting weapons sales, technology transfer, and Russian access to Western capital markets. Many Western corporations have already announced plans to limit further investment in Russia, or even to pull out of the Russian market. More tellingly, Russians themselves are moving massive amounts of money out of Russia to safer havens.

Some have criticized the European Union for only imposing sanctions that do not hurt its own economic interests. The EU has, for example, placed sanctions on the Russian oil industry, but not the gas industry, which it is more dependent on. Nor does the ban on future EU weapons sales to Russia affect current contracts, including the sale of two aircraft carriers that France has been building for Moscow. Still, these sanctions are much stronger than what appeared likely just a few months ago. And both European and American leaders have declared that they could ratchet up sanctions if Putin does not change course on Ukraine.

Will he? Moscow, predictably, has reacted to these new sanctions “with defiance,” as numerous press reports have indicated. These measures cannot force Putin to withdraw from Crimea or end Moscow’s support for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. However, Western sanctions, combined with the Ukrainian government’s success in retaking some territory in the east, have worked to increase the costs Putin must pay for his Ukraine policy. If the Russian leader previously calculated that he could seize Crimea and eastern Ukraine cheaply and easily and that the West would be unable to impose meaningful costs on him because it “needs Russia” more than vice versa, he now has cause to revise his thinking.

In other words, the broader Western sanctions as well as the more effective Ukrainian opposition to Putin’s policies have served to raise questions about whether the benefits of his efforts to take territory from Kiev are worth the increasing costs of doing so. Putin may accept these costs, but his supporters, who have up to now benefited from doing business with the West, might not agree. If they don’t, the Russian president could find himself in serious trouble.

Western sanctions cannot force Putin to change course in Ukraine, but by raising the costs of his aggressive policies, they can undermine support from the powerful Russian economic actors that he has previously relied on. If he is not careful, the glorious victory he has envisioned in Ukraine will turn into a trap of his own making.

Photo: A memorial for the victims of Flight MH17 at the Amsterdam International Airport (Schiphol), July 21, 2014. Credit: Pejman Akbarzadeh/Persian Dutch Network

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com



  1. Personally, I believe the U.S. is playing a game that it shouldn’t be playing. This smacks of the boogieman “One World Order”, that we keep hearing about. The U.S. Military, I believe since shortly after the establishment of same, has been used as a tool by the civilian businesses to enforce its model of commerce, as in “call in the Marines”. Putting other peoples lives on the line, yet denying those same individuals who serve, the services that they may need afterward because of the costs involved, such as the rush to incorporate outside the U.S. to avoid paying taxes, is in itself criminal. This attitude is a recipe for failure in this day and age.

  2. There are many questions about the legitimacy of the violent, Western-supported uprising that forced a democratically-elected president out of office, as there are about the validity of a hastily arranged presidential election held only in some parts of the country in the midst of a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. You also ignore the fact that people in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to join Russia, and that there has not been any convincing evidence that Russian forces or even military equipment entered Eastern Ukraine, apart from some unsubstantiated Western assertions.

    The West is going to impose sanctions on Russia on the basis of those unsubstantiated claims. In the case of the Malaysian airliner that was shot down Russia has been blamed because allegedly Russian-made weapons had been used by the separatists and therefore Russia is indirectly guilty of the offence. Of course, the people who make this charge are totally silent about whether the same standards should be applied to the United States for the Israeli use of U.S. weapons to carry out her carnage in Gaza.

    In the midst of a very uncertain and chaotic world, wars in Gaza, chaos in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere and the rise of the extremely dangerous ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria, all that the West is interested in is to fight a geopolitical war against Russia, while what is needed is the establishment of a multipolar world to cope with all the crises that we are facing in the world.

  3. I continue to think Putin has no need to promote civil war in Ukraine, in order to be sure that country will not join Nato

  4. Russia has been supplying heavy weapons to the separatists in Ukraine.

  5. Putin and with him the Russians will not stay idle in front of the USA and Europe bullies. Russia is not a tiny country that van accept to be scolded and threatened.
    Putin has many tools in his hands to retaliate. The USA needs his cooperation for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in 2015. Winter is coming and Ukraine will be soon begging for gas. Europe will have to start paying Ukraine’s bills while Ukraine exports boycotted by Russia will start to show negative effects on its already sick economy. More internal unrest are looming in West Ukraine.
    Russians is ready to bear and adjust to the sanctions, like Iran did for 25 years, but contrary to Iran, Russia will retaliate against Europe’s already weak economy. The USA and Europe won the first round, there are more rounds to come and Putin is no someone who accept defeat without fighting back

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