In Depth

Will EU sanctions force Putin to change tactics in Ukraine?

In Depth: EU votes to extend economic restrictions - but effectiveness is questioned

European Union leaders have extended economic sanctions against Russia until July 2018, in response to Moscow’s ongoing annexation of Ukraine’s peninsula of Crimea and support for eastern Ukraine separatists.

But has anything changed since EU sanctions were first imposed in 2014? And will further sanctions make any difference?

What is the Ukraine crisis?

In 2013, Ukraine appeared to be on the verge of signing a deal to deepen trade ties with the EU. However, then-president Viktor Yanukovych instead struck an agreement with Vladimir Putin for a Russian bailout. The agreement included $15bn in debt relief and a reduction in the price of Russian-supplied gas, The Guardian reported at the time.

Student protesters tried to force the Ukrainian president to sign the EU agreement, leading to the so-called Maidan Massacre in February 2014, when more than 50 protesters were shot dead by armed riot police in Kiev’s Maidan square, the BBC News website explains.

The killings fed the fury that led to the Revolution of Honour, the November uprising that saw the government overthrown and that sparked a counter-revolution in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Seizing the opportunity presented by Ukraine’s instability, Putin annexed the former Soviet territory of Crimea. The Kremlin is also believed to have lent support to pro-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

According to The Guardian, “little green men” in military gear without any insignia “swarmed over the peninsula of Crimea”. Within days, Ukrainian troops were contained or won over. Yanukovych fled to Russia with the assistance of Putin and was replaced by pro-EU leader Petro Poroshenko.

Why were sanctions imposed and what do they involve?

The EU says that since March 2014, it has “progressively” imposed restrictions on Russia in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea and the “destabilisation” of Ukraine. These sanctions include diplomatic and economic measures, travel restrictions and the freezing of assets.

The EU teamed up with the US to roll out coordinated economic sanctions - primarily aimed at Russian financial, energy and defence industries, and at limiting Russian access to EU markets - after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board, says Singapore’s Strait Times. The EU blamed the attack on pro-Russian rebels.

Which countries acted?

The European Council and the US said they would not recognise the annexation of Crimea. Then-US president Barack Obama called it “a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine”.

Other countries including Switzerland, Norway and Australia later joined the US and EU in imposing sanctions. These have been extended every six months since 2014.

The US imposed additional sanctions in late 2016, after Obama determined that Russia interfered in the US presidential election.

The EU has said it will lift sanctions when Moscow implements the Minsk peace agreement, which calls for an unconditional ceasefire and for heavy weapons to be pulled from the front lines in eastern Ukraine.

Have the sanctions been effective?

President Poroshenko has welcomed the EU’s decision to once again extend the sanctions, calling it an “important political decision” to punish Russia “for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity and unwillingness to stop hybrid aggression”.

Yet regardless of the sanctions, the Minsk agreement, “which was drafted in late 2014 and then reworked in early 2015, has been violated almost daily”, says Voice of America.

Forbes also argues that the measures have been ineffective, claiming that “on the streets of Moscow, things look pretty much the same as they did before the first round of sanctions were levied to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine and the Crimea: no shortages in the shops, prices in restaurants actually lower than before sanctions went into effect.”

The sanctions aren’t working outside of Moscow either, says Forbes, because - aside from the occasional oligarch’s lavish dacha - Russia’s rural communities were already impoverished, just as they were “ten, 20, 50 years ago. These are the people who never benefited from the heydays of high oil prices and whose lives, under sanctions, also haven’t changed.”

Untimately, it seems that so far, the EU has largely proved ineffectual in tackling the Ukraine crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says that EU leaders have “prevented an escalation, but we have not [made] enough progress in order to remove the sanctions”.

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