US, Britain weigh new sanctions on Russia. But have the old ones worked?

Though Russia's economy has suffered in recent years, due in part to Western sanctions over Russian activities in Ukraine, the Kremlin – and the Russian public – have shown little sign of yielding.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Business Russia Congress in Moscow on Tuesday.

For more than two years the US, the European Union, and other allies have been ratcheting up financial, economic, and political pressures against Russian individuals, banks, and institutions deemed to be connected with Kremlin's Ukraine policies. The hope was to generate enough pain to cause Vladimir Putin to change his mind, influence the Russian public to turn against Kremlin policies, or at least cause sufficient economic dislocation to force Mr. Putin to let go of Ukraine.

Now, the US and Britain are mulling the idea of slapping more punitive sanctions on Russia over its bombardment of eastern Aleppo, Syria's second city. Washington is also talking about retaliating against Moscow for its alleged interference in the US presidential election campaign.

But as they weigh once again employing the sanctions weapons against Russia, have their previous attempts really discouraged the Kremlin's activities in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere? And will new ones be likely to have any more impact?

Q. What kind of sanctions were imposed?

Following Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the US and EU started by targeting dozens of Russian and Ukrainian politicians, separatists, and businessmen known to be close to the Kremlin. The asset freezes, travel bans, and other measures were meant to push their recipients to appeal to Putin to alter course in Ukraine.

The sanctions were stiffened a few months later, as leading Russian state banks, arms companies, and energy corporations such as Rosneft and Gazprom were prohibited from raising long-term financing in the West, or from refinancing their existing loans. Russia was banned from importing any civilian items that might have military applications, and technology vital to the development of Russia's oil industry was blacklisted. Critics at the time worried that the West was pulling its punches, since Moscow's main source of revenue – exports of oil and gas – remained sanctions-exempt.

Russia responded with its own sweeping "counter-sanctions" against Western agricultural imports in mid-2014, hoping to enlist political support from European farmers who had become big players in the Russian market over the past two decades.

Q. Has Putin changed course as a result of sanctions?

No, the Kremlin has visibly not backed down on its annexation of Crimea or its policy of aiding Ukrainian separatists. Plus, a year ago, Putin added to the West's list of grievances by intervening militarily in Syria.

One place the sanctions might have made a difference – though it is not clear they did – is in convincing Moscow to come to the bargaining table with European leaders to find a path to peace in Ukraine. But the two agreements hammered out among the parties in Minsk seem to largely favor Russia's interests by requiring Kiev to grant "special status" to two pro-Russian rebel republics and engage in decentralizing constitutional reforms.

"It should be clear to everyone by now that the West cannot force Russia to do anything by applying this illegal pressure of sanctions. It's not even worth discussing," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.

Q. What has been the impact of sanctions on Russia's economy?

It's hard to say, since around the time sanctions started to bite in late 2014 Russia was also hit by a catastrophic collapse in the global price of oil, its main foreign source of revenue. The oil price drop seems to be the main culprit in the near-halving of the Russian ruble's value and the spike in inflation to nearly 20 percent in 2015. Experts in the US estimated that sanctions shaved up to 1.5 percent off Russia's GDP in 2015, a very bad year for Russia, in which the economy shrank by almost 4 percent.

But in late 2016, Russia's recession appears to be ending. Inflation is down to 6 percent. Experts project a return to moderate growth next year, despite the fact that oil prices are less than half their peak almost three years ago, and sanctions remain firmly in place. Sanctioned Russian banks and state corporations have managed to pay down their international loans, even though their access to foreign capital markets is still restricted.

Claims by some Russian officials that sanctions actually helped Russia by stimulating economic diversification remain largely bravado. Only in the agricultural sector has there been a significant upswing, thanks to the low ruble and the banning of competitive foreign food imports.

Western interests have not escaped unscathed amid the sanctions war. Some European farmers have indeed been hard hit by the loss of Russian markets, while the global oil producer Exxon reported this week that it has lost nearly $1 billion due to the sanctions-mandated closure of its Russia operations.

Q. How has the Russian public reacted to sanctions?

If one goal of sanctions was to demoralize Russians and turn them against their leaders, it appears to have backfired.

A tracking poll in March 2014 by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 56 percent of respondents were either "very" or "somewhat" worried about Russia's international isolation due to the Kremlin's Ukraine policies. By August 2016, that number had fallen to 40 percent. The numbers of Russians who said they weren't "particularly worried" or were "completely unconcerned" rose from 39 percent to 58 percent over the same period.

And with oil prices showing a modest rebound, there is little reason to think that additional sanctions would be more likely to change Russian minds.

"People are becoming less and less worried about sanctions, and seem to just accept them as part of life nowadays," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center. "Asked whether Russia should continue with its political course, regardless of any sanctions, more than two-thirds of Russians now say 'yes' it should."

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