March 2022

By Étienne Bodard

Russia’s egregious invasion of Ukraine has prompted a global wave of anger and condemnation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Europe, where many countries spent decades under Russian occupation. The invasion has prompted members of the European Union (EU) to react at an unprecedented speed to impose massive sanctions on the Russian leadership and economy. The jury is still out on the long-term consequences these measures will have on the conflict and on the Kremlin. However, the speed and scale of the EU’s response show that Europeans are determined not to be mere bystanders in this war.


Speed and scale:


As early as February 23, the European Council agreed on a package of measures to sanction Russia’s decision to recognize the separatist-controlled Ukrainian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. All 351 members of the Russian State Duma had their assets frozen and were banned from travelling to the EU. Two days later, Brussels froze the assets of Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov. In addition to these targeted sanctions, EU members states agreed to pass sanctions targeting Russia’s financial and energy sector. The most significant step here was the exclusion of seven Russian banks from SWIFT on March 2, essentially cutting these banks off from the global financial market. Finally, Europeans also agreed to ban Russian state-owned outlets from broadcasting in the EU.

Just as remarkable as the all-encompassing nature of these sanctions is the fact that the EU did so in a completely united manner. Internal divisions about how to best go about sanctioning Moscow evaporated when Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of their neighbor. Even the Kremlin’s traditional allies like Hungary have rallied behind Brussels over the past ten days. More broadly, the EU has coordinated its measures with a large coalition of like-minded partners including NATO allies like the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, as well as democracies further afield in Japan, South Korea, and Australia.


Moscow undeterred – for now:


On paper, the sanctions have the potential to cripple the Russian economy. The European Council made it clear they aimed to “impose massive and severe consequences on Russia for its action.” However, these restrictive measures will only be effective if they are fully and strictly implemented.

Firstly, it will be up to each member state to make sure that the sanctions are enforced properly. It remains to be seen whether all member states will be equally scrupulous in ensuring that their companies do not circumvent the new measures. Secondly, the sanctions will have to be sustained on the long-term. Already, some European leaders are warning about the negative externalities the restrictions on Russia will have for their own economies. It is imperative that Europeans stand fast when the sanctions inevitably cause financial pain at home.

In addition, one cannot ignore the broader question of sanctions’ effectiveness as a foreign policy tool. Following the 2008 attack on Georgia, the EU and United States have imposed successive waves of sanctions on the Russian economy, without successfully deterring the Kremlin’s aggression. Since then, Putin has sought to reinforce his country’s economic autonomy, for instance by cutting Russia off the global internet on several occasions since 2017. It remains to be seen whether these efforts will allow Russia to successfully weather the storm. For now, the Kremlin has reacted defiantly and shows no sign of winding down its invasion effort.


Next steps:


Putin’s apparent unwillingness to back down begs the question: what now? Conscious of the risk of internal divisions reappearing as the sanctions start to bite back on European economies, the EU is already working to shelter its members from the worst consequences of the new restrictions, as well as from potential Russian countersanctions. Exceptionally high gas prices show no signs of abating, and particularly gas-dependent countries like Italy are already pushing for Brussels to shoulder part of the burden. 

Turning off the gas tap is only one of the new measures envisaged by the EU to escalate things further and ramp up pressure on the Kremlin. Even as the full consequences of the SWIFT restrictions are yet to manifest, the European Council wants to ensure that existing measures are not circumvented, for instance via the use of crypto assets, and is working on new sanctions targeting Russian ports, as well as oligarchs’ families and trust funds. The upcoming Council summit on March 10 and 11 should shed more light on European leaders’ next move.

The fact that Europeans have moved so quickly on so many fronts without anyone breaking ranks has resurrected talk of a “geopolitical Europe.” The fact that a country like Germany is overcoming historical taboos around defense spending shows that Europeans have realized that they cannot “take security and the protection of people for granted.” A few days ago, the German Economy Minister opposed a ban on Russian energy imports on the grounds that it would “endanger social peace.” Given how fast mentalities are changing, EU member states could yet come to the conclusion that letting up the pressure on the Kremlin carries even higher risks for – not just social – peace on the continent.