In March 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexed Crimea, and Western nations were in shock (Rutland & Middletown, 2). The move had been unexpected, not the least of reasons due to Russia having signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which confirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory for giving up on nuclear technology (Rutland & Middletown, 2). Russia has weapons of potential mass destruction; therefore a military response was not a consideration. Sanctions were therefore chosen to apply pressure on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.

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In November 2013 the Ukrainian President Yanukovych suspended signing an agreement with the European Union in favor of determining whether a better deal could be found with Russia. The response to this was protests in Kiev. The government in the Ukraine ordered protests to stop, however such demonstrations spread across the country. A major theme of these protests was for President Yanukovych to resign (Wang, 1). The Ukraine Crisis Mediation Agreement was signed February 21, 2014 by President Yanukovych and opposition leaders, with mediation by Russia and the European Union; however the opposition breached this agreement the next day and seized power (Wang, 1). This was February 22, 2014; President Yanukovich fled Ukraine, and in Crimea pro-Russian gunmen began to take over public spaces and buildings (Rutland & Middletown, 2). In the east of Ukraine pro-Russia protests erupted to support separation from Ukraine (Rutland & Middletown, 2). On the first day of March the use of Russia forces were authorized to enter Ukraine by Russian authorities, and on March 16 a referendum in Crimea supported joining Russia (Rutland & Middletown, 2) Russia’s justified its use of force and the annexation of Crimea at the cause of self-defence in terms of protecting the Russians in this area. It is alleged that Russia has had a policy of passportisation in this area which included issuing Russian passports on demand (Green, 3).

The US and Europe immediately froze assets and issued travel bans on the 21 authorities who participated in authorizing and implementing the invasion and occupation of Crimea. Russia was not deterred, and on March 18 Putin joined Crimea to Russia in law (Rutland & Middletown, 2).

Economic and political sanctions have not always been an effective tool to pressure foreign governments. European sanctions in 1989 against China after its actions in Tiananmen Square are an example where there was little harm to the Chinese economy and therefore little pressure (Emerson, 1). There have been successes using sanctions, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa, but the progress has not been as fruitful with Iran or North Korea. Sanctions are intended to damage the economy of the nation, and they can have unintended consequences. They can cause harm to the nations applying the sanctions, cause an aggressive response to the country that is the target of sanctions as well as hurt individuals and family within that country who bear no blame with regard to the political action found to be offensive (Rutland & Middletown, 2). Sanctions require multilateral implementation in order to be effective, and even then they only succeed about one third of the time, according to some academics (Rutland & Middletown, 2). Some further question whether sanctions alone meet objectives, or whether they require other policy supported actions. The use of “targeted” sanctions has been a response to criticism of sanctions in general. Rather than simply generalized measures that hurt the public without affecting leadership, targeted sanctions are directed pointedly at responsible persons and economic sectors (Emerson, 1). Examples of such sanctions include preventing travel and freezing foreign assets of the elite individuals directly involved in decisions which are found offensive by the Western community of nations.

Sanctions may be seen as effective political statements which are the last resort prior to considering military action and contribute to the international political debate on an issue (Emerson, 1). To that end, economic sanctions are critical to ensuring that the views of the United States, Europe and other Western nations are clearly heard with regard to Russia’s actions in Crimea. European and American sanctions against Russia have targeted individuals through freezing assets held overseas and preventing issuance of travel visas as well as targeting specific economic sectors and use of the global financial system (Emerson, 1)

The Magnitsky Act was passed by the United States in 2012 to target sanctions against the 18 Russian officials who were involved in the 2009 death of corporate lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (Rutland & Middletown, 2). Russia responded with the Dima Yakovlev law which forbid adoptions by Americans, and sanctioned 18 Americans for their participation in the Guantanamo Bay Center and prosecution of Viktor Bout, a Russian entrepreneur specializing in arms (Rutland & Middletown, 2). The Magnitsky Act was a precursor to the sanctions put in place in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. On March 20th, two days after Putin signed into law the bill which confirmed Crimea as part of Russia, President Obama added to the list Putin and those with top political power who had participated in the decision to invade Ukraine (Rutland & Middletown, 2)

In Europe the sanctions have been applied due to Russia’s breach of the Helsinki Treaty of 1975 by destabilizing the situation of Crimea in Ukraine (Emerson, 1). The Helsinki agreement had been negotiated between the Soviet Union and Europe and was significant historically (Emerson, 2). The Russians also conducted a propaganda campaign in Ukraine, referring to those in power as fascists, and silent on the Russian force used in Crimea and East Ukraine (Emerson, 2).

While sanctions against Russia have had an impact on economic development, Russia continues to have political stability and unity. Further, Russia has mitigated the impact of sanctions through diplomatic relations with nations in Asia (Wang, 2).

Russia has broken agreements and it has failed to respect the sovereignty of another nation. This is a great cause of concern, and the bigger the response by the West the less likely Russia is to repeat the action. It would be of grave concern if Russia was determined to rebuild an empire similar to the Soviet Union by force. The European Union, the United States and all nations concerned with order and justice on the international stage are stakeholders in ensuring that Russia suffers sufficiently for its actions against Ukraine. For this reason the US and the EU should increase sanctions, including “blunt” strategies that affect all Russians, in order to increase pressure on the Russian government and overcome the support of the Russian people for the action of Putin and his forces. The use of counter military force is not an option, as it could quickly escalate in a world war; economic and travel sanctions are therefore the best choice before those nations which support sovereignty and freedom and oppose the unilateral action of Putin’s Russia.

  • Emerson, Michael. “The EU-Ukraine-Russia Sanctions Triangle. CEPS Commentary, 13 October 2014.” (2014).
  • Green, James A. “Editorial Comment: The Annexation of Crimea: Russia, Passportisation and the Protection of Nationals Revisited.” Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 1.1 (2014): 3-10.
  • Rutland, P., & Middletown, C. T. (2014). The Impact of Sanctions on Russia. Russian Analytical Digest, 17(157).
  • Wang, Wan. “Impact of Western Sanctions on Russia in the Ukraine Crisis.” Journal of Politics and Law 8.2 (2015): p1.