Western Sanctions and Increasing the Costs of War to Russia – by Joan DeBardeleben

We are all well aware of the high cost that the war has imposed on Ukraine – catastrophic loss of life, health, homes, and infrastructure, and psychological stress. As a nation Ukraine is also at risk of losing its territory and its sovereignty. In this context, it may seem strange to ask about Russian losses, as the Russian state is the perpetrator. Why should we care? We should care because assessing Russian losses may help reveal incentives that Russia might have for a negotiated settlement.

One of the objectives of Western sanctions is to impose high costs on Russia. These costs are of various types but primarily economic. Western sanctions and aid also bolster Ukraine’s capacity to exact high military costs on Russia. Imposing high costs on Russia seems to be the best tool that the West has to influence the outcome. If the war imposes high costs on Russia, this should strengthen the hand of Ukraine at the negotiating table, or, less likely, encourage Russia to withdraw without a settlement. This also may make it too costly for Russia to undertake aggressive action against other countries in the region, whether NATO or non-NATO members.

But will the high costs imposed by Western sanctions actually make a negotiated settlement that is more favourable to Ukraine more likely? So far it doesn’t seem to have worked.

But it could, assuming Putin’s choices are based on a rational analysis of costs and benefits. (This is a big assumption, I realize.) For Russia, any settlement that results in a neutral status for Ukraine (i.e., that sees Ukraine renouncing its NATO ambitions) and/or that changes the international status of Crimea and Donbas in Russia’s favour, even minimally, could be sold to the Russian public as a victory. Such a ‘minimalist’ settlement would be consistent with Russia’s war narrative (i.e., that it is ‘special military operation’ to demilitarize Ukraine and protect Russians in the Donbas). In other words, such a negotiated settlement could provide an off-ramp for Putin and reduce further losses to the country. If, with the help of Western sanctions, the costs of a protracted war for Russia are kept high, that may incentivize Russia to seek an earlier settlement that is more favourable to Ukraine.

A protracted war, where Russia seeks to subjugate all of Ukraine, will impose ever higher costs on Russia, in part due to sanctions but also for other reasons. Such a war will likely be increasingly difficult to sell to the Russian public. Over time, information about the Russian military’s brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians will likely seep inside Russia; the death toll for Russian soldiers will grow; and conscription will be an unpopular necessary. And, alongside all of this, sanctions will take an ever higher economic toll; this could be the straw that breaks the bear’s back and puts regime legitimacy at risk.

Other costs will also damage the country: a brain drain is already underway, in part due to the crippling effect of sanctions and the exit of Western businesses; managing and controlling conquered territory in the face of a resistant population will be costly in lives and rubles; and possibly irreparable damage will be done to Russia’s international reputation and soft power capacity. As countries in Russia’s ‘near abroad’, including members of the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (except Belarus), observe Russia’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine, they will likely find close association with Russia less attractive, even as Russia will likely continue to use economic carrots and sticks to induce compliance. The threat of military invention will be lurking in the background. Exclusive reliance on hard power will impose further stress on an already faltering Russian economy. Other countries that have sat on the fence (such as China, South Africa, and India) will likely find the association with Russia less compelling and less beneficial.

The more protracted the war is or the worse the outcome for Ukraine, the longer the punishing Western sanctions will stay in place. We must hope for a negotiated settlement that is acceptable to Ukraine, remembering that only Ukraine can decide what ‘acceptable’ means. In the meanwhile, increasing the costs of the war on Russia remains, in my view, of critical importance.

~ Joan DeBardeleben

Chancellor’s Professor and Jean Monnet Chair in Politics and Society in Russia and the European Union, Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, Carleton University (joan.debardeleben@carleton.ca)