Ukraine crisis: West's sanctions target Putin, not policy, Russia insists

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the West's sanctions are aimed at promoting regime change, a view that analysts warn will make compromise over Ukraine even more difficult.

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters/file
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, seen here at a news conference in Moscow last week, said Friday that the West's sanctions on Russia are a "destabilizing" effort to inflict damage on the country.

Russia sees no connection between sanctions imposed against it by the United States and the European Union and the deepening crisis in Ukraine. Instead it views them merely as a "destabilizing" effort to inflict damage, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists Friday.

"Specific facts have been stated that signal that the unilateral sanctions introduced against us are illegitimate and undermine stability of the global economy and have nothing in common with the goal of de-escalating the Ukrainian crisis," the official Tass agency quoted Mr. Lavrov as saying.

Some analysts warn that this view of the sanctions, which is becoming increasingly ingrained, makes Russia less likely to compromise with the West over Ukraine.

In a speech last week, Lavrov argued even more explicitly that sanctions were part of a US-led campaign to oust Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than an effort to find peace in Ukraine.

"Western leaders publicly state that the sanctions must hurt [Russia's] economy and stir up public protests," he said. "The West doesn’t want to change Russia’s policies. They want a regime change. Practically nobody denies that."

Lavrov appears to be confirming a view many Kremlin-connected experts have been expressing for some time: that Washington has had it in for Russia ever since Mr. Putin returned to power in 2012 and began strongly asserting Russia's national interests, including by opposing US policies around the world.

Russia-US relations have sharply deteriorated ever since. Pro-Putin analysts argue that even if the Ukraine crisis had not erupted, something else would have triggered the sanctions war against Russia.

"Many people [in official circles] believe that the sanctions package was prepared well in advance, and Ukraine was the pretext for launching it," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal.

"There is evidence to support the view that the US has decided that Russia under Putin is a revisionist power, bent on challenging US positions, and that it should be firmly dealt with now. People in Moscow have come to believe that US sanctions will not be lifted for a long time, regardless of whether peace breaks out in Ukraine tomorrow, and we should dig in for the long haul. It's about containment," he says, referring to the cold war policy that contributed to the eventual collapse of the USSR.

By imposing a credit squeeze and tough curbs on technology imports, the sanctions have visibly hurt Russia's economy, including a plunge in the ruble and a spike in inflation. But they've also had unforeseen impacts, such as bolstering domestic political support for Putin and accelerating Russia's drift toward an economic alliance with China.

Another consequence of the Kremlin's hardening view might be to make Russia far less likely to compromise with the West or Kiev as Ukraine's own internal crisis deepens.

"Since Russia doesn't believe the sanctions are connected with Ukraine, there is no feeling of pressure to do something about it," says Mr. Lukyanov. "It's a very convenient pre-emptive explanation."

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