Putin’s Ukrainian war, sanctions, and the tragedy of the Russian people

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

Russia’s Ukrainian military campaign has many origins. One of these is Putin’s on-going failure to govern Russia to create better outcomes for those living and working in Russia. Another reflects the failure of all governments, including all European states, the US and China, to impose effective sanctions on Russia in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and in response to the Salisbury 2018 Novichok poisoning.

Vladimir Putin is concerned that Russia is no longer treated as a superpower. His actions in Ukraine are one response to ensure that Russia is taken seriously, and the interests of the Russian people are no longer ignored. It is important to distinguish between Putin’s interests and the interests of the Russian people. These are two very different things.

Putin wants to ensure that he creates a legacy as the great leader of the Russian people who was solely responsible for ensuring that Russia reclaimed superpower status. For the Russian people the key issue is about everyday living conditions. There is an important point here in that Putin’s concern with Russia’s standing in international affairs deflects investment away from activities that would produce better outcomes for all Russian citizens.

It is essential that there is a coordinated response by all nations to Russia’s invasion of an independent nation. There must be an immediate cross-cutting response that impacts on the lives of all Russians. This will be a tragedy for the Russian people, but this is occurring at a time when Ukrainians are being slaughtered by the Russian military. This response needs to be extreme as it must represent a warning both to Russia, and other countries, over any actions that result in the illegal annexation of territory.

The current response is to impose sanctions on Russian banks and oligarchs. Russia has also been stripped of the honour of hosting the 2022 Champions League final. However, these sanctions are nowhere near the level needed to deter this type of illegal military action. The sanctions that are imposed must impact on every Russian citizen. The level and degree of impact required would be a tragedy for the Russian people. The question is what sanctions are available and what strategy should be adopted?

The strategy should be to develop a structured approach, but it is an approach that needs to be coordinated. Sanctions should include business, finance, educational, sporting, cultural, and travel activities.

It is not enough, for example, to shift the location of the Champions League final. No Russian citizen should be permitted to participate in any international sporting event. By this I mean ‘no Russian’. It is not acceptable to permit Russians to participate under an alternative arrangement. Thus, no Russian could participate at any Olympics, and this would include representing the Russian Olympic Committee. This exclusion would be permanent until Ukraine becomes a free and completely independent state. This would be a tragedy for all those Russians who have devoted their lives to training to compete in all types of sports. Nevertheless, it must be recognised that an illegal military action by a state has consequences for all citizens of that state. The same exclusion must also be imposed on all international activities in which Russian citizens participate including all cultural activities.

Money matters and foreign earnings are important for the Russian economy. Thus, effective sanctions are required that would disrupt and stop these flows. Countries must agree to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas with immediate sanctions imposed on Russia’s energy sector. These sanctions must include all major Russian exports including wheat.  It must be appreciated that such sanctions would impact directly on the Russian people, but they would also have extreme negative impacts on the global economy. This level of sanction would result in rapid energy and food price inflation, including energy shortages across Europe and elsewhere. Any attempt to reduce the impacts on the global economy would, however, ultimately encourage further conflict to occur either led by Russia or other countries.

For sanctions to be effective they must have a major negative impact on the everyday lives of all Russian citizens. There is a triple tragedy here. First, we need always to remember that innocent Ukraine’s are being killed by the activities of Russian soldiers. Second, there is the tragedy of the Russian people as effective sanctions must disrupt their everyday lives. Third, there is the tragedy that will come from imposing sanctions on Russia including increased energy and food poverty in other counties. Nevertheless, without effective sanctions there will be other military annexations made by Russia and other countries.

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