Cyber war or gas ransom? How Russia could react to sanctions

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev

Russia says US and EU sanctions are 'absolutely unacceptable' and warns of reprisals

LAST UPDATED AT 13:15 ON Wed 23 Jul 2014

Russia has reacted angrily to the EU's resolution to expand sanctions on Russia following the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, describing the measures as "absolutely unacceptable".

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has promised "reciprocal measures" for the new round of sanctions. But what can Moscow do in response to Western embargoes and financial restrictions?

Like for like

President Vladimir Putin has warned that any sanctions on Russia will have a "boomerang effect" that will harm the US and EU. Medvedev says that in response to the new round of restrictions, "reciprocal measures against foreign companies and individuals" could be introduced. Russia's foreign ministry says that any sanctions will be met with reprisals on American and European businesses. "If Washington has decided to ruin Russia–US relations, then it will be on its own head," the ministry said in a statement. "We do not intend to tolerate blackmail and we reserve the right for retaliatory measures".

Confiscation of property

Russian ministers are currently working on a bill that would allow the state to confiscate the property of US and European companies. Senior government spokesperson Andrei Klishas, told the RIA Novosti news agency that the bill was designed "to help the president and government protect our sovereignty from attack". However, political analysts have dismissed the move as "intimidating rhetoric unlikely to turn into action," according to the Moscow Times. Legal experts suggest that asset confiscation is unlikely because it violates Russian and international laws.

Cyber warfare

Professor Mike Jackson, a computer security expert at Birmingham City University, warns that Russia may retaliate against EU sanctions with cyber warfare. "Traditionally the response to sanctions has been the denial of essential supplies to those imposing the sanctions – for example ceasing to supply oil to Germany. In today's electronic age the response might be to electronically disrupt the workings of government and industry," Jackson says.

According to Jackson, cyber spies, thought to be sponsored by the Russian government, now function across Eastern Europe. Some of those spies are known to have infiltrated computers in a number of governmental departments. "It is thought that primarily they are fishing for secrets but there is no reason why their networks could not be used to disable IT operations and cripple government functions," Jackson says.

Political disruption

Experts warn that increased sanctions may result in Russia becoming increasingly obstructive on the world stage, particularly in relation to international efforts on Iran, Syria and North Korea. Russia could potentially use its veto power in the UN Security Council to block international initiatives, such as the recent Australian push for a resolution granting international investigators full "unfettered" access to the MH17 crash site.

Withholding gas

Europe is bracing itself for a "gas crisis," says the Daily Telegraph, in anticipation of the possibility that Russia may cut off its gas supplies to the continent. "There would be a problem for European industry in several countries if Russia were to retaliate with energy sanctions," Adrian Karatnycky, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, told USA Today. "What they fear is Putin shutting off gas supplies to Europe".

Analysts say Russia is unlikely to cut off gas supplies "because this would trigger a fiscal crisis in Russia itself and cause Europe to switch permanently to other sources", the Telegraph notes. "Yet the political temperature is rising". · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.