Are sanctions the best way to help Ukraine?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ukrainian T-90 tanks. Crimea, April 2014. [Jordi Bernabeu Farrus/Flickr]

As the conflict in Ukraine escalates, relations between Russia and Europe continue to deteriorate. In order to help Ukraine to survive, the current situation needs to be understood within  context of Ukraine-Russia relations and Russian self-perception, writes Adriel Kasonta.

Adriel Kasonta is chairman of the International Affairs Committee at the Bow Group think tank. He worked as a UK Project Manager and PA to the UK Chairman at the British Polish Chamber of Commerce (BPCC) in London. He is a law and international relations (Polish-British Strategic Partnership in the EU and NATO) graduate. This article first appeared as part of the Bow Group’s research paper titled “The Sanctions on Russia

Russian officials and companies were hit by Western sanctions – including visa bans and asset freezes – following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the wake of the February 2014 coup in Ukraine. Since then, the West has stepped up its measures against Russia, targeting major businesses and parts of the country’s financial, energy and military sectors. Despite Moscow’s assertions that the Crimean referendum on secession from Ukraine complied with international law and the UN Charter (based on the precedent set by Kosovo’s 2008 secession from Serbia), the West and Kiev have refused to accept Crimea’s legal reunification with Russia. Their position has prompted Russia’s exclusion from key diplomatic gatherings.

For instance, instead of the planned G8 summit in Sochi, a G7 meeting was held without Russia in Brussels. In a similar move, EU countries called for the suspension of negotiations over Russia’s membership of the OECD and the International Energy Agency. Moreover, an EU-Russia summit was cancelled, and EU members abandoned their regular bilateral summits with Russia. Talks with Russia on visa matters and the new EU-Russia Agreement were all suspended.

Late in July 2014, the West announced fresh sectoral restrictions against Russia, putting the blame this time on Moscow’s alleged involvement in public protests in Ukraine’s south east region. A month later, Russia countered with a one-year ban on imports of beef, pork, poultry, fish, cheeses, fruit, vegetables and dairy products from the EU, Norway, Australia, Canada and the US. The result were large-scale punitive measures against Russia in September and December 2014.

Throughout this time, Russia has consistently dismissed accusations that it “annexed” Crimea and, at times, has denied any direct involvement in the hostilities in southeast Ukraine (including Crimea), adding that Crimea voluntarily reunited with Russia under the referendum held on 16 March 2014. In that poll, some 96.77% of Crimeans and 95.6% of voters in Sevastopol chose to secede and join the Russian Federation. Thus, both the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, a city on the Crimean Peninsula that has special status since most of its residents are ethnically Russian, rejected the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government which had claimed power one month earlier. On 18 March 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed this result by signing the reunification into law.

To understand the reasons for these developments, it is worth recalling a little history. Crimea joined the Russian Empire in 1783 after its conquest by Russian Empress Catherine the Great. In the Soviet era, Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the USSR’s Communist Party symbolically “transferred” it to Ukraine as a gift commemorating 300 years of Ukrainian-Russian union. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine and remained so until the 2014 Russian reunification.

On this basis, we can confidently say that part of Ukraine is, and always has been, within Russia’s orbit. And Russia has often had a direct and profound cultural link with both the Russian and Ukrainian speaking populations in Ukraine’s south and east. This was true when Tsarist Russia was an imperial power and again in Soviet times. Significantly, Orthodox Christianity was originally brought to Russia by the Kievan Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich the Great, who was baptised in Khersonesus Taurica (now Kherson), Crimea.

Given that many people in Ukraine actually see themselves as Russian and the justifications for sanctions may have changed, there is a pressing need to revise our approach to what could be considered one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. We could do worse than seek a peaceful resolution to this crisis by engaging EU member states and Russia in a meaningful and inclusive dialogue. This could lead to a lasting solution, ensuring a stable, prosperous and democratic future for all of Ukraine’s people.

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