Every week The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving world headlines. This time, we speak with Michael McFaul, professor of Political Science at Stanford University and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
There's been much debate over the West's decision to impose sanctions. Critics have pointed out that Russia is still refusing to honor the Minsk II cease-fire, despite the heavy economic burden of the sanctions.
G7 leaders announced this week that they would be keeping sanctions against Russia in place. What's the general scope of these sanctions and whom are they targeting?
The scope of the sanctions are both individuals and Russian companies that are in some way implicated. There are two different rounds of them, first for Crimea and then for what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. If you look at the list, you’ll see these are senior Russian government officials and some of the biggest companies in Russia.
How have these sanctions affected the Russian economy?
It’s a really hard question. What I see sometimes in the debate is that sanctions aren’t working or sanctions are working, but tracing causality on a dependent variable when there’s multiple independent variables is difficult.
So, what percentage of the decline in the Russian economy is due to sanctions versus falling oil prices versus other factors is a very difficult question. I think what’s most interesting is just listening to what Russian government officials are saying. They all say, including Putin, that sanctions have impacted what’s going on there. The fact that Putin is repeatedly looking for sanctions relief, such as on Wednesday when he met with the pope, must mean that they’re having some effect.
If they were as ineffective as some people say, why would he keep calling for them to be lifted? That to me is pretty strong evidence that there is an impact, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the Kremlin has a strategy focused on a small set of countries in Europe to try to get the sanctions lifted. If they don’t have any effect then why are they courting the Hungarians and the Greeks and maybe even the Italians to look for sanctions relief?
The fact that Putin is repeatedly looking for sanctions relief ... must mean that they’re having some effect
Sometimes in international relations you have to take measures to demonstrate disapproval. I believe strongly that had there been no response at all to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and now Putin’s support of a proxy war in Ukraine, that it would encourage bad behavior both by Putin and other international actors.
Have these sanctions changed Russia’s calculus in eastern Ukraine?
Well the cause and effect between sanctions and a change in foreign policy needs to be measured in years and decades rather than weeks and months, because it’s an indirect effect. But sanctions, for instance, have stopped the activities that [Russian state oil producer] Rosneft and Exxon Mobil were planning for the Arctic -- a project that I heard Putin personally say was one of the most important U.S.-Russian projects in the last several years. They just announced they’re not doing that. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s an effect of sanctions. The private capital to support Russian companies has all dried up and that’s a direct effect of sanctions, but to trace those effects onto Putin, that’s a harder thing to do. I would say so far, no he hasn’t withdrawn from eastern Ukraine, but he also hasn’t marched to Kiev.
You also have to remember that Novorossiya, which was an idea people were kicking around very seriously a couple months ago, has disappeared from Putin’s lexicon. Maybe that’s because he’s decided that going forward would be too costly.
But finally, imagine if you called up [Cold War-era American diplomat] George Kennan a year after they adopted containment and said, ‘Well hey George, it doesn’t seem like your plan is working.’ What would that analysis lead to? That policy took decades to show results, several decades. Yet now we all look at containment as this strategic wisdom, one of the smartest foreign policies of the 20th century.
That was a strategy set on patience, staying the course and not rethinking our strategy a couple years into it.
Will this then be the status quo of sanctions being continually implemented and there being a degree of instability in the region for the foreseeable future?
My hope is that Putin rethinks what’s going on out in eastern Ukraine and adopts the Minsk accords, which in my view are very favorable to Russia and Russia’s proxies, and that could be a new status quo.
My worry and my prediction is that the current situation actually benefits Putin’s short-term interests of destabilizing the Ukrainian government and undermining the Ukrainian economy. He wants to see them fail, so having this open, low-level intensity conflict but not a resolution of it adds pressure on the regime. He doesn’t have a lot of short term reasons to change his course, but over the long term and medium term I think that will change.
There’s a lot of people I know in Russia -- prominent business people, even some people in the government -- that don’t like this mess that they’re in.
Let me be blunt, there’s a lot of people I know in Russia -- prominent business people, even some people in the government -- that don’t like this mess that they’re in. There was a different way, a different worldview to make Russia strong and great that was about integrating with the West, developing markets and increasing foreign investments.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.