Russia sanctions matter, whatever the Bow Group says

While Vladimir Putin runs riot through eastern Ukraine, seeks to destabilise any country he pleases, and disregards international law at will, an outfit called the Bow Group, which describes itself as a conservative "think tank", calls for sanctions against Russia to be lifted

Russia's war in Ukraine
Daniel Hamilton
On 14 August 2015 06:22

Yesterday, the Bow Group released a report calling for the lifting of sanctions on the Russian Federation. Its timing, while much of eastern Ukraine remains in flames, the Moscow-backed occupation of Georgia is intensifying, and Russian troops are massing in the breakaway Moldovan province of Transnistria, is profoundly bizarre; the report's contents, even more so.

Without wishing to indulge in hyperbole, inaccuracies are evident from the report's very first line and betray a sympathy for Moscow's stance that runs right through it..

The events of February 2014 which saw the removal of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's government from power were, Adriel Kansonta argues, a "coup".  This was simply not the case.

It is common, in any supposed democracy, for protests to take place against governments of the day, and this is precisely what happened in Ukraine between November 2013 and February 2014.

What had sparked public anger was the last-minute volte face on the part of the Yanukovych administration to abandon an Association Agreement with the EU in favour of membership of the Russian-led Eurasian Union.

Following weeks of peaceful protests, Yanukovych's forces opened fire on protesters in Independence Square on February 18th, killing 26 people. 

Horrified at his gross abuse of power the Ukrainian Rada voted 328-0 to "confer the powers of the President of Ukraine on the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Turchynov Oleksandr Valentynovych, according to article 112 of the Constitution of Ukraine", removing Yanukovych from office.

All of the Members of Parliament from Yanukovych's own Party of the Regions who turned up at the vote supported his removal from office.

Far from being a coup, as Mr Kansonta argues, it was an entirely constitutional process that was conducted fully in line with Ukrainian law.

Amazingly, the second paragraph goes on to describe the annexation of Crimea as a process which is, "in line with international law [and] the UN", referencing Kosovo as a precedent.

Quite apart from the fact Kosovo has not been recognised as a member of the United Nations (something the report fails to mention), the two cases are entirely different.

In the case of Kosovo, the independence movement came about as a result of a campaign of oppression and ethnic cleansing led by former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic. There was no such policy towards the ethnic Russian population of Crimea, who lived as equal Ukrainian citizens with fair access to state positions and full minority language rights.

One must also look at the predecessor "states" of both Crimea and Kosovo.  Under Yugoslavia, Kosovo enjoyed a special status inside Serbia which allowed for substantial autonomy over education and language rights -- rights that were gradually revoked as Yugoslavia collapsed.

In the case of Crimea, the territory's transfer to the newly-established Ukraine did not alter the rights of those on the ground. Historical similarities cannot, credibly, be claimed.

Finally, the independence movement in Kosovo was largely driven by "domestic" action, with western support only swinging in behind Kosovan Albanians when Milosevic's genocidal tendencies ran wildly out of control. In the case of Crimea, there was no meaningful separatist movement prior to Russia's deployment of 16,000 troops to the peninsula in advance of the sham, "referendum".

On the topic of the independence, "referendum" Kansonta makes reference to figures suggesting that "96.77% of Crimeans and 95.6% of Sevastopol voters chose to secede [from Ukraine] and join the Russian Federation".

To reference this as a "proof point" stretched the boundaries of credibility, to put it mildly.

Both the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations were refused accreditation with the only "observation missions" instead conducted by the far-right Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections.

Journalists observing the conduct of the poll have offered numerous examples of electoral fraud such as the bussing of pro-Russian activists from polling station to polling station to register multiple votes, and a lack of voter ID checks.

Following Kansonta's poorly informed beginning, the subsequent chapters focus on dismissing the impact that economic sanctions against the Russian Federation have had on the country's economic downturn, describing them as secondary to the decline in global oil prices.

Indeed, the report even hints that sanctions on the trading of Russian goods have led to a domestic "structural realignment" in trade that may prove beneficial to the country in the long-term. For a supposedly centre-right organisation to wax lyrical about the benefits of what could be construed as economic protectionism is, I would say, bizarre.

Nevertheless, the data shows that sanctions are working -- and the Russian Federation's economy is suffering.

Since the adoption of the sanctions regime, the value of the rouble has all but collapsed, with the dollar to rouble exchange rate shooting from 32.9 in November 2013 to 64 today.  Russian purchasing power abroad has suffered drastically.

Moody's and Standard and Poor's, the two leading global credit rating agencies, have recently cut Russia's debt rating to "junk" status.

Similarly, the country's foreign currency reserves -- upon which many of its investments in military technology and irredentist adventures are based -- dropped from $400 billion in December 2014 to just over $350 billion today. With these reserves now being used to fund basic services in the country, it is only a matter of time before this fund is depleted completely.

Following the economics-focussed section of the pamphlet, the focus rather bizarrely moves to an in-depth exploration of Russian Christian thought, the widely-held view (in Russia) of Moscow as a "third Rome" and the impact of Russian art, music and cinema upon the world.

While these factors may indeed fuel some of Putin's more quixotic pursuits and go some distance to explaining his popularity in Russia, I am at a loss to work out why they ought to serve as an inducement for the west to lift economic sanctions on the country.

The final chapter focuses on economic aid and the need for structural reform in Ukraine. It is both well-written and thought-provoking, yet again offers no real argument as to why sanctions ought to be lifted on the Russian Federation.

The document offers several alarming statistics regarding the state of the Ukrainian economy -- the World Bank estimates its economy will contract by 7.5 percent in 2015, the hyrvnia was the second-worst performing non-global currency last year and the shadow economy is equal to roughly 50 percent of GDP.

None of these statistics ought to come as a surprise; after all, countries which have just emerged from the clutches of corrupt presidents and are engaged in defensive wars on their own territory rarely have strong economic growth, powerful currencies or effective national treasuries.

The intention of the authors is clear: to heighten awareness of the country's failings to western audiences in an effort to exploit latent isolationist feelings, in the hope public opinion will swing wildly against further financial and political support for the region.

Again, while I can see why such sentiments would be of benefit to Russia's objectives in Ukraine, this is not an argument against the continuation of economic sanctions that would sway anyone of any degree of credibility.

Finally -- as if it needed saying -- it is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons these sanctions were introduced in the first place.

They were not motivated by concerns at Russia's domestic human rights record. Indeed, the Putin administration's pursuit of journalists daring to speak out against government policy, state-sponsored persecution of members of the LGBT community and ongoing war crimes committed in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus remain largely unchallenged by the international community. 

Instead, the sanctions were a direct response to a clear violation of international law and the first annexation of the territory of a European country since the Second World War.

Furthermore, the sanctions are a direct response to clear evidence that the government of the Russian Federation has been complicit in the ongoing supply of troops and weaponry to rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, whose armed insurrection continues to threaten the country's territorial integrity.

I have no doubt that the Bow Group paper's authors, the bulk of whom appear to me to have been drawn from hitherto little-known philosophy-focussed academic departments and assorted "cultural organisations" with strong links to the Orthodox Church, are sincere in the views they have expressed.

But, I submit, the numerous factual inaccuracies, gross exaggerations and outright distortions contained within the document render its recommendations null and void.

To end sanctions on Russia would be an affront to the principles of democracy and the concept of rule-based, global diplomacy.

It would also represent a clear signal that the West's bark is worse than its bite -- particularly at time when its fangs need to be very much be on show.

Daniel Hamilton is a Senior Director at a global business advisory firm and an expert on the South Caucasus.  He writes in a personal capacity

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