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Why is Russia Immune to Economic Sanctions and how should Georgia act?

According to academics, the ineffectiveness of Western economic sanctions against Russia based on various sanctions theories. They think that the following factors detriment the impact of sanctions: i) the Russian authoritarian regime is, usually, less sensitive to emerging economic problems since it manages to protect supporting elites from economic hardship; ii) it also effectively controls public opinion and manipulates perceptions about sanctions among its populations; iii) high probability of conflict between Russia and the West makes losing of face extremely undesirable for both sides.

The third factor is particularly important in sanctions’ success. This theory was developed by Daniel Drezner 15 years ago. According to his theory, if an initiator and a target of sanctions expect frequent conflicts with each other in future, economic sanctions, usually, do not work. In such reality a target state may concede only insignificantly regardless of the harm its economy sustains from sanctions. This is true because a target considers this dispute a mortal combat in which even a minor concession may result in serious, negative consequences.

The case of economic sanctions against Russia is a good proof of this hypothesis. The Kremlin sees the West as a rival and conflict expectations between the sides are quite high. Moreover, Russia considers Ukraine and former Soviet states (except the Baltic States) an exclusive sphere of its interests, where the expansion of Western influence is highly undesirable. Russian foreign and security policy aims at denial of NATO’s enlargement in this region. This position is expressed in official state documents (for example, the Military and the Naval Doctrines of Russian Federation) as well as actual steps taken by the government of this country. The Ukrainian case has even special feature for Russia in terms of potential threat for the regime of Vladimir Putin. Violent overthrow of Victor Yanukovych could serve as a model for processes in Russia, therefore, punishment of the initiators of Ukrainian revolution became crucial for the Kremlin. It was a signal for domestic groups in Russia that are not loyal to the current government.

Therefore, the prospective of Western economic sanctions does not look hopeful. Moreover, the Kremlin, apparently, understands that the West is incapable or reluctant to take more serious measures (like military actions) against Russia even in case of further escalation of conflict in Ukraine. This factor significantly weakens the impact of economic sanctions.

Current processes taking place in Ukraine should be of special interest for Georgia as well. A top foreign policy priority of any government is to avoid foreign threats and maintain state sovereignty. The war with Russia in 2008 showed that the battle for Georgia’s independence and security is still ongoing and we should still expect real threats coming from the northern neighbor. However, there is no need of overestimation of risks.

Many years ago a vast majority of Georgian citizens made a decision on our country’s foreign orientation by voting for Euro-Atlantic integration. Due to this, a change in policy in this regard will not be in the interests of any government. However, we should think more about a strategy how to achieve this goal without losing the independence. Russia, of course, is a number one threat in this regard.

Since the West has limited capabilities for putting pressure on Russia’s decisions, we should carefully take further steps. It is obvious that the Kremlin is trying to reflexively exclude Western influence in a region of post-Soviet states that it sees as its own exclusive sphere of interest. Nevertheless, Russia does not seem to have a standard stance on all countries. For example, the Kremlin forced Armenia to refrain even from political cooperation with Europe. The same happened in the Ukrainian case when Yanukovych was urged to refuse the signature of the Association Agreement with the EU and after his overthrow militarily intervened in Ukraine. In contrast, Russia did not do anything significant in order to urge Georgia and Moldova not to sign the Association Agreements with EU. It could be explained by the fact that, first, the Kremlin did not have many non-military leverages on these countries and, second, it did not see the urgent necessity of the use of force against them.

  • Alexyei

    I think the author is underestimating the impact of the sanctions. In the past couple of years Russia has tapped into its reserves at an alarmingly high rate and has drastically cut its budget to accommodate for its deficits. Yes, the economic sanctions will not destroy the Russian regime, but it sure does cripple them and kill any hopes of their currency stabilizing. This will have very serious repercussions in the long-run, both in economic and political terms.