As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly brutal, with Russian attacks killing and displacing civilians, experts say the international community is shifting its focus from sanctions to helping the Ukrainian military.
That’s partly because the few remaining options that could have a significant impact on Russia’s economy — namely, a European ban on Russian oil and gas — are not feasible in the short term. It’s also becoming clearer that the sanctions, while devastating, are not swaying Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It’s not hurting (Russia) enough to make them stop,” said James Brander, a professor in international business and public policy at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.
“It’s hard to get to that level, whereas what’s really hurting the Russians right now is on the ground in Ukraine, where they’re running into a lot of military trouble. So I agree that helping the Ukrainians on that front is the best short-term strategy.”
What sanctions are left?
NATO leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden, are set to meet for an extraordinary summit in Brussels next Thursday to discuss their response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The allies, along with other leading economies like Japan and Australia, have already pummelled Russia with harsh financial sanctions targeting the economy and key government officials, including Putin. Several Western corporations have pulled their operations, and Russia’s favoured trade status is also being withdrawn by G7 nations.
Canada and the U.S. have also banned imports of Russian oil, which were minimal before the war began. But Europe’s reliance on Russian oil makes a similar ban by the United Kingdom and European Union less likely.
The U.K. and E.U. are looking at ways to phase out the use of Russian energy, which is unlikely to happen quickly.
“Washington and Ottawa may suggest to Europe that they enact a ban, but I don’t think they’ll push very hard because they know how economically devastating it could be,” said Andres Kasekamp, a professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto who has been studying NATO’s response.
“One of the big surprises of this war too is how united the West has been in its response, so they don’t want to show any signs of division or strife.”
The other serious option on the table, Brander says, is cutting off all remaining Russian banks from SWIFT, the world’s main international payments network. While Russia’s central bank and other major institutions have been barred from the system, some smaller banks remain tied to it.
The fear among some countries is that a total SWIFT ban will send Russia into the arms of China to create their own messaging system.
“I think there will certainly be discussions about more restrictions (from SWIFT) that will be led by some countries, but I don’t think it will go much further beyond that,” Brander said, looking at next week’s NATO summit.
That leaves the continued sanctioning of Russian oligarchs and other influential figures in Putin’s circle, which Brander says won’t amount to much more pressure on the Kremlin.
Shifting to military aid
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on the West to further punish Moscow for its invasion, he has also pointed to the need for more military help, particularly as Russia has stepped up its brutality.
Thousands more civilians have been injured by Russian missile strikes and shells hit residential buildings, shelters, hospitals and schools. Entire cities have been destroyed or cut off from heat and water after being surrounded by invading forces.
Military experts say Russia has shifted its strategy to demoralizing the civilian population in order to secure surrenders, after its large convoys attempted to enter and “liberate” cities but were met with fierce resistance. However, while Ukrainian fighters have been successful at destroying Russian equipment and troops, Zelenskyy and other officials say more weapons and aid are needed.
On Wednesday, President Biden approved $800 million in additional military equipment, including tank-busting Javelin weapons, shortly after Zelenskyy addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. That’s on top of tens of millions of dollars worth of lethal and non-lethal equipment sent to date by the U.S., Canada and European nations.
Kasekamp says more military aid is likely to come from NATO allies and the rest of the international community, though it will stop short of some of Zelenskyy’s requests like MiG-29 fighter jets.
“We’ll still be seeing larger and larger quantities of equipment than what we’ve seen sent out so far,” he said. “And that will likely be the case if the war continues to drag on.”
Canada and European nations, meanwhile, have been openly planning to increase their defence budgets — a consequence of the war that Kasekamp says Putin did not anticipate.
“This is … long-term planning that will take years to have any effect, but it’s still significant insofar as Europe, particularly eastern European countries, are taking their security more seriously,” he said.
“So in that sense, Putin’s invasion has backfired in that he’s uniting Europe … which is certainly not what he wants, but it’s what he’s getting.”
Brander says the goal now is to ensure that Ukrainian forces can capitalize on the mistakes the Russian military has made, including an underestimation of how much resistance it would meet.
“Ukraine has been tougher than a lot of people expected,” he said.
“As the Ukrainian armed services get more comfortable with fighting and with the weapons it continues to receive, I think it’s going to be difficult for Russia. And maybe that will force Putin to think of an exit strategy.”