Western sanctions are aimed at isolating Russia politically and weakening it economically so that it can no longer finance this war. As correct and important as that is, the plan has a catch.
Almost three months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, two things are becoming clear: The Russian leadership has started a war under false assumptions that it cannot win. War and instability in Eastern Europe will keep Germany and the EU busy for some time, even if the intensity of the fighting changes. Like Vladimir Putin, the West underestimated Ukraine’s defense capabilities and overestimated Russia’s military capabilities.
However, we should not now be subject to the assumption that Ukraine can win this war for the foreseeable future and drive Russian troops out of the country. While Russia is running out of soldiers, Ukraine is short of weapons, ammunition and fuel. In this regard, it is likely that Moscow will order at least partial mobilization in the Russian territories bordering Ukraine.
At the same time, Ukraine’s defense capability depends on the volume, quality and speed of Western arms deliveries, the preservation of transit routes and the training of Ukrainian soldiers in modern weapons by NATO countries. The decision by western states led by the US at the meeting at the Rammstein military base at the end of April to train and supply Ukraine with western weapons indicates that Washington is also preparing for a longer war.
The question arises, how long can Moscow hold out this war? Western sanctions are aimed at isolating Russia politically and weakening it economically so that it can no longer finance this war. Even if a consistent and tough reaction to the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the European security order is important, it will hardly be possible to persuade Vladimir Putin to give in in the short to medium term.
According to the Russian central bank, the Russian economy will shrink by ten percent this year and imports will collapse by 40 to 50 percent. Inflation can rise to 30 percent by the end of the year, with negative effects on income and private consumption. At the same time, the Central Bank of Russia has stabilized the macroeconomic situation and the ruble almost at pre-war levels. Even if many Western companies leave the country and modern technology and important components for Russian production are missing due to the massive sanctions, the Russian economy will survive. Most companies will continue to work and job losses will be limited.
Russia is not North Korea or Iran, it is not possible to completely isolate the country and decouple it from the world economy due to its importance for the global oil, gas and commodity markets. However, the standard of living of Russians will continue to fall, which will lead to further exodus from the country.
Even if the collective West tries to isolate Russia politically, Moscow remains a member of the UN Security Council, an important player in the negotiations for the Iranian nuclear deal, in Syria and in parts of Africa. Russia’s military dominance in the Black Sea region has massive implications for European security, Turkey and the Middle East.
China will not support Russia militarily or financially, but Xi and Putin have struck a long-term cooperation to weaken US influence around the world. Both will have an interest in setting their own norms against US dominance, and quite a few states could support that. India, South Africa and Brazil, like many other countries, have not joined Western sanctions and are more likely to take advantage of cheap Russian oil prices.
dr Stefan Meister is an expert on Russian domestic, foreign and security policy as well as EU-Russia relations. He is head of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
The West is currently reacting in a united manner to Russian aggression, and NATO is expanding to include Finland and Sweden in northern Europe. Other important states are reacting cautiously to completely isolating Russia. Russia will emerge from this war weakened economically, politically and militarily, but will be strong enough to create instability in its immediate vicinity and use this against the EU states. Putin will not give up on bringing Ukraine under control, even if his country is weakened in the medium to long term in terms of technology and the massive exodus of the knowledge elite.
It seems all the more important to get out of a reactive policy, for which the federal government stands, and to develop a long-term approach to a weakened but dangerous Russia. In the long term, Ukraine must be integrated into the EU economically and in terms of energy policy, and it must be militarily capable of repelling any Russian attack.
If this project fails and the Commission does not declare candidate status in June, the EU will fail to stabilize its neighbourhood. NATO is becoming the central core of European security and the ability to deter Russian aggression. With Sweden and Finland joining NATO and the modernization of the Bundeswehr with a special fund of 100 billion euros, there is an opportunity to integrate the European states more closely in terms of security policy and to better distribute the burden of future defense tasks. At the same time, the three million Russians who have left their country since the beginning of the year should be better integrated and the progressive part should be systematically worked on to create a different Russia after Putin.