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Antagonisms to the East: Why EU sanctions against Russia are counterproductive
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“The resistivity of matter is measured by the force required to destroy it.”- Leon Trotsky

To simplify geography, we separate East from West. This seems a natural separation based on the logic of nature: that we are tied to a land that is very purposefully distinct from others. Whole lives and consciousness’ are very often grounded in this distinction, and happily accept the dichotomous principle that familiar equals safe as unfamiliar equals unsafe.

Checking these beliefs against the patterns of history is crucial. If this consideration is neglected, foreign policy is far too often reactionary, reflecting a narrow and biased view of any conflict situation. While it is natural to represent your perspective, this must come with an appreciation that other’s viewpoints will not always peacefully coincide with your own. You need not extend so far as Morgenthau’s claim that human beings have an innate desire to dominate others to comprehend that a sense of belonging that contradicts another’s same belief will lead to friction on some level (1973). This article will attempt to explore why any level of friction is not destined to result in more disadvantageous positions for either party.  

Further, this article hopes to uncover the harms of policy makers being distracted by appeasing the impersonalized ‘voting mass’, rather than considering individuals personal costs. The relations between the European Union (EU) and the Russian Federation will be explored, with an emphasis on foreign policy directives for the EU in the case of Ukraine.

(1) Culture and ethnicity in the history of the Ukraine region

Ukraine has served as a central point of contention for the development of relations between its two bigger bickering neighbors, Russia and the EU. The concept of this conflict has perhaps expanded to serve as a personification of greater power struggle, but Mearsheimer’s statist prediction of potential war and conquest is inappropriately reductive in this case (Huntington, 1997). A civilizational approach that perceives the close personal and cultural links between Ukraine and Russia is worth considering. The fault line that splits a Uniate western Ukraine from an Orthodox eastern Ukraine emphasizes the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic character of a state pieced together from the broken foundations of the Soviet Union (Wilson, 2015). Breaking from the Polish partition at the end of the eighteenth century, Russian influence (and successive communist rule in the form of the Soviet Union) cannot be underestimated. So how does this cultural-historical consideration factor into modern foreign policy for the EU?

(2) The EU sanctions program against Russia

EU foreign policy on the matter has often been is tied to sanctions. Sanctions serve as a tool to further the objectives of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP): democracy, rule of law, human rights and numerous other pleasing liberal ideals (Ginsgerb, 1997). Following Giumelli’s definition of the goals of sanctions, to either signal dissatisfaction, constrain future actions, or coerce governments into changing policy, the success of sanctions against Russia may be determined by the extent to which these goals are achieved (2011). To simplify: the dissatisfaction may relate to Russian support of Ukrainian-separatists, the hoped constrain may concern future Russian involvement, and the coercion would seek a policy of non-intervention by the Russian government. However, evidence supporting the achievement of such goals, or even the possibility of future achievement, is limited. 

Though violence in eastern Ukraine had decreased at times since the 2016 February ceasefire was signed, violations occurred daily and a new surge of violence by separatists should not be dismissed now (Coupe and Obrizan, 2015). The threat of violence is palpable and Russia has not backed down. With a clear lack of success, we must question why they are supported with such vigor.

 (3) Future EU foreign policy on Russia

There is a clear need to steer away from hardline policy motivated by popular mechanical conceptions of any party as an unquestioned threat. Considering both the cultural history of the region and the general history of sanctions, the path towards breaking the toxic dichotomy of ‘familiar equals safe as unfamiliar equals unsafe’ must come through a demonstration of people possessing the power of resolving, restructuring and reconciling in times of conflict.

Three broad arenas of positive diplomacy alternatives exist where the EU can make policy changes: (1) the resumption of EU bilateral and regional cooperation programs with Russia, (2) increased bilateral negotiations between Russia and relevant European nations, (3) gradually lifting economic sanctions and restrictive measures (at each stage of threat normalization) to re-stabilize the negotiation table.

This must be posed with the caveat that blanket ‘diplomacy’ is never a magical solution to all international relations issues. It may be argued that sometimes the ‘bad guy’ just needs to be punished for justice’s sake. While Russian actions on the international stage have a history of being erratic, there is always a case to be made that an actor can achieve greater total benefits from cooperative efforts over being actively hostile. Cooperation does not intrinsically come at the sacrifice of any particular moral or philosophical approach to inter-state politics. There is room to disagree. What matters is that any action taken when this occurs ultimately seeks the least harm possible, if not active advantage where possible, for either yourself or both parties.

If EU sanctions served as a major advantage to themselves, even at the detriment of Russia, then the logic of their policy could be forgiven. But it seems to offer little advantage outside of appeasing the volatile, voting masses of Europe so affected by ideas of external interference that any policy harming the outsider appears attractive. The illusion of retribution, in cases such as MH-17, is initiated to answer the outcry voiced by EU citizens.

Unaltered EU policy will perceptibly result in a patchier and extended post-conflict resolution building process, soured foreign relations between powers that are for better or worse economically dependent on one another (Liuhto, 2015), and another conflict to add to the history books so that future generations can learn from present mistakes. Prioritizing diplomatic means in the interest of both states, while less crowd pleasing for the headlines, is the most advantageous long-term choice.


Jessica Tselepy is studying her Masters in International Security Law at The Australian National University, and Russian language and culture at The University of Queensland. She has a keen interest in the effect of human factors in international decision-making processes, particularly in conflict management, gender equality and the international political economy.



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