Ukraine crisis: Sanctions not enough, experts say

The economic sanctions against Russia are taking a toll on its economy but may not be enough to deter further actions in the Ukraine, according to experts on both sides of the simmering conflict.

Economic penalties unlikely to sway Russian behaviour alone

The sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine include asset freezes and other limitations on 17 companies but have so far not including the country's largest banks or energy companies such as Gazprom. Half of the gas Gazprom ships to Europe transits through pipelines in Ukraine, above. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The economic sanctions against Russia may be taking a toll on its economy but will not be enough to change Moscow's course in Ukraine and Crimea, according to experts.

The latest sanctions — imposed Monday by Washington against seven high-ranking Russian officials and 17 companies — are “just a slap on the wrist,” said U.S. Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Corker called for measures aimed at “three or four of the large banks” and at least one of the country’s energy producers, such as Gazprom, if the U.S. wants to deter further action in the region by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

“I just don't think [the current sanctions are] going to have the effect on Putin to change his behaviour," Corker told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. 

The IMF said late Tuesday it thinks Russia's economy has already gone into recession. Last year, Russia's economy grew 1.3 per cent, its weakest rate in the past 13 years with the exception of 2009, when the country suffered in the global downturn. The growth slowed further this year as investors pulled money out of the county amid concerns over Russia's policy in Ukraine

Paul Sanders, a U.S./Russia expert with the Centre for National Interest think tank, said the sanctions “don’t have bite." 

"I think the fundamental problem with the Obama administration's approach is that it is combining sanctions that don't really have a particular bite with rhetoric that makes it very difficult for Russia to be accommodating." 

The sanctions and rhetoric are irritating but,"not really strong enough to persuade them to change their conduct," he said. 

“I’m increasingly worried that the U.S. and Russia are talking past each other and we are witnessing a slow motion train wreck,” between the two countries, Sanders said. 

The 17 companies affected by the latest sanctions include: 

  • InvestCapitalBank and SMP Bank 
  • the gas pipeline construction company Stroygazmontazh (SGM Group) 
  • the Volga Group and a host of its subsidiaries including the soft drink company Aquanika (Russkoye Vremya LLC), the rail freight operator Transoil, and the construction outfit Sakhatrans LLC
  • subsidiaries of Bank Rossiya including CJSC Zest and JSB Sobinbank 

The companies are subject to an asset freeze. Most have also been hit with additional restrictions from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Departments of Commerce and State will also deny or revoke export licenses for any high-technology items that could contribute to Russia's military capabilities. 

The seven officials — two of whom are in Putin’s “inner circle” according to the White House — include Oleg Belavantsev, Russia’s newly appointed envoy to Crimea; and Igor Sechin, president and chairman of the state-owned petroleum company Rosneft. Rosneft itself has not been sanctioned. They are subject to an asset freeze and a U.S. visa ban. 

The European Union stepped up its own sanctions on Monday with asset freezes and visa bans on 15 more Russians and Ukrainians, though their names were not immediately made public.

Russia 'rejects' sanctions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected both the U.S. and EU sanctions on Tuesday, saying the restrictions lacked common sense and were the result of the West's own weak policies.

"We reject sanctions in any of our relationships, in particular those sanctions that were sponsored by the United States and the European Union, which are against all common sense, regarding the events in Ukraine," Lavrov said in remarks in Havana before beginning a closed-door session with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez. 

The sanctions have, so far, untied the Russians by curbing spending and travel abroad by its wealthy elite, according to Sanders. 

“What we have to remember is that sanctions that look like they may cut off the ability of the Russian elite to travel or to keep money in the West, that forces people in the Russian elite to spend their money in Russia and the more time and money they have in Russia as opposed to elsewhere, the more they are subject to pressure from the Russian leadership,” he said. 

“Even if they didn't feel sympathetic to Putin, they're being put in a position where they're more subject, rather than less, to his influence.” 

With files from CBC News