COVID-19 as an excuse for lifting sanctions on Russia?

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

A handout photo made available by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (R), wearing a face mask, visiting an Ukrainian army position near the contact line with Russian-backed separatist rebels, outside the village of Petrivske in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, 11 April 2020, during the coronavirus [EPA/EFE]

There has been an increased number of calls for rolling back the EU sanctions against Russia in order to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, but this idea is dangerous, argues Inna Sovsun.

Inna Sovsun is a Ukrainian MP and deputy head of the “Golos” party.

In a time of crisis, old diseases might mutate and hurt you even harder than before. Like the Russian government trying to hide aggression in Ukraine under a “we fight coronavirus” blanket.

There has been an increased number of calls for rolling back the EU sanctions against Russia to contain the spread of the coronavirus. During the G20 summit on March 26, Vladimir Putin suggested that G20 leaders impose a moratorium on economic sanctions on countries most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

That same day, a “Declaration on Solidarity in Countering COVID-19” was submitted to the UN General Assembly by the Russian delegation, which calls to “abandon trade wars and unilateral sanctions adopted in circumvention of the UN Security Council”.

Several days earlier, Russian politician Konstantin Kosachev, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council (Russian parliament’s upper house), suggested that the abolition of the EU sanctions policy on Russia is as important as the invention of a vaccine against COVID-19 as it can free the potential for developing the medications, building hospitals and creating new jobs.

Russian officials were not the only ones to express the idea of waiving sanctions.

The members of German Bundestag Waldemar Herdt and Klaus Ernst have stressed that lifting anti-Russian sanctions can boost global cooperation in fighting the coronavirus, while UN Secretary-General António Guterres mentioned that sanctions during the pandemic increase the health risks for the pooper countries and weaken the global effort to battle the coronavirus.

But why lifting sanctions against non-democratic regimes, particularly Russia, is such a dangerous idea?

Coronavirus pandemic has shown once again that Russia doesn’t value the lives and wellbeing of its citizens. Although the first cases of coronavirus in Russia were identified at the end of January, it took almost 2 months to introduce safety precautions to fight the spread of the disease.

On 13 March, Russia restricted air traffic with the European Union, while Moscow introduced free school attendance and banned holding mass events. A week after, three-week holidays until 12 April were announced in schools. On 25 March, Putin cancelled the workweek from 28 March to 5 April and postponed the “citizens’ vote” on constitutional amendments.

Although the Russian government clearly cannot cope with the coronavirus crisis, Russian politicians are already expressing the idea of lifting sanctions. This is what Russian politics is about: they don’t care about their citizens’ wellbeing, but do care about keeping and strengthening their spheres of influence.

Russia is manipulating the world’s biggest problem. The EU imposed sanctions on Russia not because of coronavirus, but because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Accordingly, they can only be related to Russia’s fulfilment of its obligations in the context of peaceful settlement and de-occupation of the Ukrainian territories of Donbas and Crimea.

Putin is arguing that the coronavirus epidemic leads to an economic recession, thus all sanctions need to be lifted in order to counteract the economic effect of the crisis. In the past 6 years, Russia has spent $1 billion to $2.7 billion in subsidies to the annexed Crimea.

The war on the East of Ukraine has put even higher pressure on the Russian federal budget. All that money could have been spent on Russian citizens. Yet, it still can be spent on the Russian citizens: all Putin has to do is to stop the war in Ukraine and give us back the Crimea.

This will release billions of dollars for the Russian state to fight against the coronavirus.

Ukraine has been suffering from Russian military aggression for the past six years. If our Western partners succumb to Putin’s plea and lift the sanctions, this will inevitably aggravate Russian military aggression in Ukraine and lead to more deaths of the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.

Furthermore, when this will also mean that Ukraine will have to reallocate its resources from fighting the coronavirus in Ukraine to fighting a full-scale war. Thus, resulting in more deaths.

Although the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in Ukraine is still ahead, Russian aggression is no less of a threat: since the beginning of 2020, 41 people have been killed in Eastern Ukraine, while 69 people have died from COVID-19.

Easing the sanctions regime against Russia will lead to the reinforced dictator who will prosper after the coronavirus outbreak. Therefore, keeping the sanctions during these uncertain times is not less important than fighting the coronavirus.

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