The new international economic reality that Russia found itself after February 24 has already been in existence for more than half a year. An analysis of what happened during this time leads to several thoughts.
The calculation of the Western countries was to cause sudden and devastating damage to the Russian economy, which would force Moscow to reconsider its foreign policy priorities. It is safe to say that many politicians in the West did not at all expect this crisis to be prolonged. Rather, it was assumed that within Russia, the reaction of the Western community would find a sympathetic response among ordinary people, and sanctions would be able to contribute to the destabilisation of the country. This, it was argued, would ultimately lead to a change in Moscow’s political course. Neither of these goals were achieved.
Paradoxically, the West is well-aware that sanctions pressure on the state to change its political course is doomed to failure. Researchers are aware of many cases where sanctions were applied in order to change the political course of a country. Sanctions have also been imposed against Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Iran in order to destabilise their governments. In all cases, they have not achieved their goals: states cope with foreign policy pressure with varying degrees of effectiveness, and in some cases — for example, Cuba and Iran — sanctions have not prevented these countries from pursuing an active foreign policy. Moreover, the sanctions have only created an additional source of legitimacy for their national governments.
Historical examples should neither inspire optimism among the contemporary architects of sanctions. For example, Russia has previously faced pressure from the international community — the purpose of which was to destabilise and, at some time, eliminate the regime. In the case of Soviet Russia (1917–1922), through an economic blockade and diplomatic isolation, the Entente countries sought to effectively eliminate the Bolshevik regime, which they considered unsustainable. Failing to succeed in the face of the effective tactics of the Bolsheviks (on the one hand, aimed at the gradual expansion of cooperation with countries not interested in the blockade, and on the other hand, with national financial and economic players in the West), the states of the West switched to recognising the Soviet government. A big debate remains regarding South Africa — whether it was the economic sanctions (which Pretoria successfully circumvented) or the inefficient economic model of South Africa itself that were the root cause of the fall of the apartheid government in 1994.
Perhaps one indisputable example of the success of sanctions pressure is the change in Libya’s foreign policy strategy, including the rejection of weapons of mass destruction and the missile program. Lacking the technology or investment capital to develop its own oil sector, the backbone of Tripoli’s export potential, the country was forced to abandon its foreign policy in 2003. However, Russia in 2022 is incomparable with Libya in 1996, when foreign policy pressure on the government in Tripoli reached its peak.
Knowledge of history hasn’t saved the architects of sanctions from banal miscalculations. For example, public support for President Vladimir Putin today exceeds 80%. The West also misjudged Russia’s ability to counter sanctions with economic measures. Russia has maintained its financial stability, switched to payments for mineral fuels in national currencies, and is actively integrating its own payment system with other national systems. The plans include the transition to a digital currency, including in settlements with counterparties, which cannot be “cancelled” by sanctions. Russia has managed to diversify its oil and gas supplies to the world market. The West froze part of Russia’s financial assets, Russia in response froze some Western assets on its territory. The systematic abstention of the West from Russian energy resources has so far only led to an explosive increase in prices for them, with an unclear prospect of replacing the departed pipeline supplies with liquefied natural gas.
The strategic miscalculation of the sanctions architects also lies in the fact that after the end of the military crisis, the West will receive a much more polycentric system, levelling the effect of the consolidated sanctions pressure. In this regard, Russia’s relations with the countries of the East are indicative — China and India, despite apparently playing along with the sanctions, are in no hurry to comply with them. These two countries are important partners for Moscow because they are economic centres in Asia. Iran, which has been pursuing an independent foreign policy course for decades, has ample experience effectively circumventing sanctions, and retains its importance in Russia’s foreign policy guideline. Iran is significant for Moscow as a co-author of a common infrastructure to counter sanctions. Turkey, despite being a member of NATO, does not impose sanctions against Russia, but rather serves as a platform for diplomatic interaction between the parties.
There is also a deeper miscalculation, the consequences of which have not yet made themselves felt in full. The refusal of Russian energy supplies marked the end of the well-being growth of ordinary European citizens, which had been observed for the preceding thirty years. That is why the calls of European politicians to save electricity and fuel are absolutely unprecedented for the average European, who would rather blame his government for what is happening, and not “Putin’s inflation.” The consequences are obvious: in Europe we see a series of political crises followed by a change of governments. With the onset of winter, the situation will only worsen. This is perhaps the most significant miscalculation of the West, which believed that time was on its side.