21st Sep 2023


West doing too little, too late over Russia's aggression

  • Ukraine president Volodomyr Zelensky, at the EU summit in December 2021, flanked by Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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At 3am on Friday, as the missiles were fired from Russian planes flying above Kyiv and the troops were advancing in their invasion of Ukraine, the European Union's leaders agreed that their governments would stop supplying the country attacking Ukraine with aircraft components.

To think that the Russian companies could until Friday count on spare parts for the armed aircrafts, or semiconductors, or oil products, from Europe, just as their country was fuelling the most dangerous security crisis since the second world war, is beyond comprehension.

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Just hours before the European leaders gathered in Brussels for their emergency meeting, the US and the UK governments, too, imposed fresh sanctions on Russia.

Washington agreed asset freezes and export blocks on technology. London expanded its previous measures, targeting some of Russia's banks and individuals close to the Kremlin.

The fresh sanctions were described by Washington as "severe", by Brussels as "unprecedented" and by London as "largest ever". True, the measures are expansive in terms of their size and reach.

They will, over time, make the ability of Russia's firms to do business with Europe and the US much harder and more costly. But the central fact remains that, in the face of the threat before them, the Western leaders are doing too little, too late and without much coordination.

So far, the governments have focused on export bans and measures that pull Russian firms out of the international financial system.

These measures, as unprecedented as they may be, will do little to cripple Russia's ability to profit from the sale of energy and commodities.

On the day that Russia launched an invasion to Ukraine, the EU, UK and the US combined bought more than 3.5 million barrels of the country's oil, worth more than $350m [€311m], and gas worth another $250m. Letting Russia to continue piling cash reserves from its trade surplus in energy, the effects of sanctions will be limited.

Early US, UK intelligence

Nor did the West act soon enough. Despite the intelligence from the US and the UK about Russia's invasion plans, it is only as Kyiv is being defended that the West has chosen to act more decisively. At this stage, the goal of sanctions can no longer be to deter Russia from advancing militarily.

Rather, the punitive measures can now only serve to punish the appalling behaviour that President Putin has shown.

Yet the Russian president does not—at least in the short term—appear to care about the economic pain he will inflict on his people. He might hope that he can use the country's formidable 635 billion dollars in foreign-exchange reserves and golds—or nearly 40 percent of its GDP last year—that the Russian central bank has amassed over the last decade to prop up the rouble in currency markets.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the West's response has been the absence of coordination. It is obvious that if the sanctions are to bite, it is essential for as many actors as possible to act in tandem.

The G7 has until today done nothing by way of coordination of sanctions. Individual governments—even within the EU—have made their own judgements instead. This lack of coordination is weakening the West's response.

Consider, for example, the decision by Washington and London to block Russian banks from dollar and sterling clearing on financial markets. Their impact is being undermined by the reluctance of the European regulators to reciprocate the same ban for euro-denominated clearing.

There is a point in a conflict like this when you decide to go with all you have got—or you don't.

The West has so far chosen the latter and, in doing so, shown that it has not woken up to a new reality in which Moscow redraws Europe's security architecture and strikes the post-Cold war settlement that has allowed sovereign states to choose their own destinies to its heart.

The US and European allies have decided not to use military means to defend Ukraine against Russia. But to hesitate now in rolling out the most punitive sanctions only strengthens Moscow's hand.

The West must go further in its collective resolve. At stake is not just Ukraine's, but also Europe's future.

Author bio

Anton Spisak is a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute. His work focuses on international economics, trade and UK-EU relations. He writes in a personal capacity.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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