We can do more to help Ukraine

Nearly two years and thousands of sanctions later, Moscow’s war capacity remains intact, and Russia keeps on bombing Ukraine as much, if not more, as on that fateful morning of February 24, 2022, when the full-scale invasion began. The Kremlin continues its military operations and is launching hundreds of drones and missiles against Ukrainian cities and its people. Russia’s economy has rebounded to pre-war levels and keeps growing, due to massive increases in military spending. Most ordinary Russians, especially those in financially important areas such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, still perceive the Russian war as a kind of reality show, cheering for the aggressors striking Ukrainian homes.

Russia has not achieved its military goals, however, due primarily to the heroic effort of many Ukrainians who are risking so much and sacrificing their lives for their country. They have stopped Russia from expanding the war to other parts of Ukraine and to neighboring European countries. The West has helped by providing arms deliveries and financial and humanitarian support for Ukraine to defend itself. The help from democratic countries has been crucial in strengthening Ukraine’s resistance and has allowed Ukraine to retake some of the territories lost and liberate people from Russian occupation.

Yet, much more can — and must — be done to help Ukraine, given the difficulties of the counteroffensive, insufficient supplies of arms, and increasing attacks from the Russian side, especially as weapons and money continue to flow into the Kremlin.

How is it possible that after the imposition of sweeping Western sanctions, an international call to boycott Russia, and the Kremlin’s isolation on the global stage, Russia is still able to continue waging war as before?

The West has tried to disrupt Russia’s war capacity by imposing sanctions that prohibit weapons sales to Russia, limit its profits from energy exports, and interrupt financial flows. More than 26,000 sanctions in all. At first, things seemed to be working: the ruble collapsed, foreign companies started to leave, and analysts predicted a sharp drop in the country’s GDP. Yet, Russia bounced back, and rather quickly, finding alternatives to Western prohibitions and relying on autocratic allies and profiteers to keep sending weapons and equipment to the frontlines.

While the West has applied an unprecedented number of sanctions, it has not done enough to enforce these measures, leaving many loopholes and pathways for sanctions evasion. Energy sanctions — targeting Russia’s most profitable exports — only came into force on the tenth month of the invasion, and they do not target all the trade. While the EU, Russia’s key gas consumer, buys four times less of Russian pipeline gas, it has increased its purchase of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 40 percent, so while energy profits have decreased, they remain high because of this substitution.

The West did not act fast enough to prevent Russia from finding alternative markets for energy exports. When Western states applied a USD 60-a-barrel price cap on Russian oil, they expected that since Russia transports its oil mostly on Western-owned ships, this measure would be easily enforced. However, Russia is purchasing tankers to create its own independent fleet, often from Western countries like Greece. In the last year, Russians bought more than 100 tankers from different buyers. Often, these are uninsured old ships which carry high environmental risks. This fleet allows them to sell the oil at the higher market price. And even when Russians do use Western boats, which require the price cap to be enforced, the price is too high.

Many profitable sectors, such as gold or diamonds, have not been sanctioned, mostly due to business lobbies and powerful companies in the sanctioning countries that do not want to lose the profits they make from trading with Russia. They have been pushing their governments to delay the restrictions.

The sanctions have not been able to stop the illicit trade of arms and military-related items, such as chips, technology, and drones, which are flowing into Russia through third countries or from companies that illegally violate sanctions. For over a year, Russia has been able to purchase sanctioned products from Western companies, sometimes openly trading with Russia, because of the lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms. Russia also continues to obtain weapons, drones and military technology from China, Iran and North Korea.

Of course, the sanctions have had some effects. Energy revenues have diminished, and Russia has to be more creative in finding the arms it needs. This complicates life for the Kremlin, but it has not curtailed its ability to wage war as before. Ukraine is running out of shells while Russia can buy and produce whatever it needs with the revenues it continues to generate.

All of this brings us to the necessity of doing more to help Ukraine by blocking the pathways of sanctions evasion. Greater efforts are needed to improve enforcement measures. Companies in the sanctioning states that conduct prohibited trade with Russia must be subjected to sanctions and prohibited from doing business in the US and Europe. Companies outside the sanctioning coalition that facilitate sanctioned trade should also be prohibited from accessing Western markets. The countries which never applied sanctions on Russia and enabled war-related trade with the Kremlin should be pressured and persuaded to stop profiting from Russia’s war. Financial sanctions should go beyond freezing major Russian banks toward using frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine.

Western governments have been strong in aiding Ukraine’s defense, but they have been weak in implementing sanctions against Russia’s continuing aggression.  The developed democracies must act together to toughen up the sanctions on Russia.

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