Centre for Defence Strategies

Surge Pressure on Russia Now to Leverage Negotiations Later

With the support from

Richard Cashman is an Adjunct Fellow at the Centre for Defense Strategies

A strategically defeated Russia will only gain partial relief from sanctions and political isolation associated with its aggression. Full relief can only come with accountability for their war crimes.

That Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine must end in failure is the correct starting point for the strategy being pursued by Ukraine’s partners, but it does not necessarily provide for an end point where Russia ceases its aggression, especially its illegal missile terrorism and Black Sea piracy. Surging pressure now can create conditions for that later.

Providing Ukraine with the military means to liberate its territory and deter Russia’s Black Sea fleet is one essential component for a stable future settlement. The other component must be the prospect for a strategically defeated Russia of partial relief from unsustainable economic costs and political isolation associated with its continued aggression. Full relief, however, can only come based on accountability for the crimes and damage associated with the invasion, beginning in 2014.

The declining appeal of the “off ramp” for Russia’s leadership began with the realization that the commonly understood basis for it – territorial concessions by Ukraine – was derelict; derelict because it would compromise Ukraine’s viability as a state and reward and encourage aggression against other European states, including NATO members. The bases for an off ramp, however, may be plethora, and holding out the possibility of future circumstances preferable to present circumstances is one that complements Ukraine’s partners’ strategy.

 More than 45 states have already imposed sanctions against Russian entities and individuals. There has been some doubt about their impact on the Russian economy and on the attitudes of both the Russian elite and general population. This concerns their apparent failure to alter the Kremlin leadership’s fundamental intentions, curtail its military capabilities and cause Russian elites and the general population to oppose the Kremlin’s leadership.

That assessment rests partly on unrealistic expectations about what sanctions can achieve in a given period and partly from a lack of reliable information from within Russia. It also underestimates the cumulative effect. The intention when imposing the sanctions was not to crash the Russian economy, but rather to constrain it and its war-making potential. To maintain weapons production Russia has had to return to a command economy and abandon many of its fundamental development targets. The extent of the damage is unclear, however, because so too is Russia’s financial reporting.

That said, by making significant sacrifices, Moscow has been able to increase production of important categories of weapons, especially some types of missile, the debris of which indicates very recent production dates. In the context of Ukraine’s partners preventing Kyiv from using the weapons provided by them to strike at the sources of Russia’s missile terrorism, more must be done.

Partner countries still have considerable ability to apply pressure. This can be directed at continuing to reduce the Kremlin’s revenues and creating dilemmas about how it chooses to spend them, further constraining its ability to manufacture weapons and rendering the status quo represented by the Kremlin leadership increasingly intolerable for both Russian elites and the general population.

The EU has recently agreed to an 11th round of sanctions. The number of rounds is irrelevant; there can be many more. And understanding their effects against a large, cash-rich economy is in itself valuable. The papers of the Yermak-McFaul International Working Group on Russian Sanctions contain many suggestions. Some focus on tightening existing controls, such as access to coalition-made components, while others go significantly further by, for example, prohibiting all exports to Russia from coalition countries. Others focus on denying the remaining access of Russian elites, government officials and their families to partner countries and their financial and legal services.

Beyond those suggestions, even more can be done to plug sanctions holes, remove exemptions and target a much larger swathe of Russia’s industrial production base. Russia’s imminent withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe paves the way for filling up Belarus and Kaliningrad with long-range weapons, thereby leveraging its bargaining position in Europe. First, however, it will need to replenish its severely depleted stocks. Arresting that production and deployment process is also in the interest of Ukraine’s partners.

Applying additional pressure might also include moving from constraining to shocking the Russian economy, specifically its banking system, in a way calibrated to impose identifiable costs for missile strikes against Ukrainian cities. Such measures should have in mind that the Kremlin leadership values most its own survival and fears most dissatisfied Russians, both elites and the general public.

It is questionable how long elites would remain content if their access to Ukraine’s partner countries were meaningfully and indefinitely severed. And though the wider Russian population has indicated little interest in taking to the streets for principles, it might well go for material needs. State countermeasures proportionate to Russia’s crimes and the vast damage resulting are also appropriate and would mean moving from asset freezing regimes to confiscation mechanisms.

All measures should be accompanied by continued efforts to convince “neutral” countries about the merits of Ukraine’s case and incentivize their support for enforcing rather than undermining the sanctions regime. This concerns, especially, countries neighboring Russia. It can include increasing development aid while relaxing the criteria for it, recapitalizing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and working to convince China that a fundamentally weakened Russia is actually in its interests. 

Having these categories of additional leverage in the context of future negotiations is preferable to French president Emanuel Macron’s recent suggestion of offering Vladimir Putin the possibility of relief from prosecution for war crimes at the International Criminal Court, which, indeed, was not for him to suggest in the first place.

Just as a decision was taken at the beginning of 2023 to surge military support for Ukraine, so now is an appropriate time to surge complementary economic, political and diplomatic pressure on Russia.

Source: Kyiv Post