So far, the German government repeatedly emerged as one of the main proponents for the extension of sanctions imposed on Russia. However, since no end of Moscow’s support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine seems to be in sight, the sanction mechanism is increasingly being questioned by German political scientists and think thanks. Many doubt its success prospects and advocate a shift in Germany‘s policy towards Russia. It is clear – the sanctions failed to achieve many of their objectives. Though, lifting or tightening them would constitute a far more severe failure. Instead, the key to resolving the conflict lies in Ukraine.
In the summer of 2014, nothing seemed to be certain. Will Mariupol be seized by the separatists? Does the Kremlin plan to deploy more troops in the Donbas region? Will the war affect even Kiev and extend into parts of Western Ukraine? These questions unsettled many European journalists and politicians. According to Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the fact that these fears did not come true was mainly due to the imposition of economic and financial sanctions by the European Union. She points out that there was no remarkable expansion of the conflict zone since September 2014. Meanwhile, the most radical separatists were deprived from power. The Russian government was obviously deterred by potentially further painful sanctions. It seems likely that the parallel discussion about the delivery of weapons to the Ukrainian army had a similar impact.
With regard to further objectives of the sanction mechanism, there is little reason for being satisfied. Russia’s fundamental policy towards Ukraine has not changed. The separatists continue to enjoy Russian backing, being supplied with arms and having their passports recognized, while the annexation of Crimea has become an inherent part of the Russian identity discourse. Sabine Fischer traces this dissatisfying state of affairs to a decision taken by the European Council in March 2015. Then, the Heads of State or Government bundled all sanctions and made their lifting depended on the complete implementation of the Minsk agreement. This process, however, has been stymied, as both conflicting parties have opposing standpoints concerning the chronological order of the implementation. Whereas Russia insists on implementing the military regulations first, Ukraine demands to gain control over its border beforehand. In order to overcome this deadlock, Fischer suggests to reverse the council’s decision and to separate the sanctions from each other. They should be lifted step by step in accordance with the improvement of the security situation, thus providing Moscow with an incentive to alter its policy.
Having in mind that Russia has done nothing so far to promote peace in Eastern Ukraine, this proposal remains at least questionable. It seems probable that Putin perceives such a transition to a flexible sanction mechanism as a sign of weakness. He obviously tries to divide Europe and to undermine the sanctions policy. Every time its effectiveness is being questioned in Europe, he moves a step closer to his declared goal. Even more importantly, the prospect of lifted sanctions in exchange for reduced military support for the separatists does not appeal to Russia at the moment. Firstly, keeping Ukraine in a state of instability enables the Kremlin to secures its influence in its neighbourhood, to prevent Ukraine from being accepted to EU or NATO and to show all Russian citizens what happens to a country that experiences a revolution. In other words, Russians shall be deterred from challenging their own political leaders. An unstable Ukraine thus contributes to regime stability in Russia. Secondly, the Russian economy does not suffer seriously from the sanction mechanism. Thanks to the counter sanctions against European foodstuffs, parts of the Russian industry regained important market shares. Lifting the sanctions would imply a renewed and unpleasant competition for Russian enterprises.
How to proceed, if Russia benefits from the sanctions in the end? At least for Vladislav Inozemtsev, former research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, the answer seems to be evident – the sanctions have to be tightened. In particular, his policy suggestion implies three types of action. Firstly, it should be announced that the sanctions will only be lifted, when Ukraine is in full control over its territories which are now controlled by the separatists, making the regular meetings of the European Heads of State and Government superfluous. Secondly, European banks should be prescribed to secede from portfolio investments in Russia and finally, gas imports should be reduced by 10 to 20 percent each year. As further measures he considers prohibiting Russian citizens to found companies in the EU and suspending the issuance of visa to Russian civil servants. It becomes clear, that these sanctions will not target only a small number of Putin’s friend, but the broad masses of the Russian society. Exactly this is Inozemtsev’s intention. In his judgement, Russians will then realise that the country’s main problems are rooted in Putin’s aggressive foreign policy and begin to exert significant pressure on the government.
Inozemtsev, admittedly, remedies various doubts concerning possibly negative economic consequences of his policy proposal for Germany and other EU member states. But he seems to neglect that strengthened sanctions, expectable counter-sanctions and correspondingly worsening political relations might well destabilise the European security situation. Not to mention the global peace order. Solving global problems in cooperation with Russia on a more or less trustful basis seems then hard to imagine. Probably even more significant doubts have to be raised with regard to his assumption that Russia’s society will demand a shift in its foreign policy, being confronted with economic hardship caused by EU sanctions. The current sanctions, at any rate, have intensified the support for Putin among Russians. Using its control over the media, the Kremlin effectively created the image of Russia as a country surrounded by enemies and being the victim of Western Russophobes. It seems plausible that this approach will continue to work in the case of tightened economic penalties. Bolstering their president, Russians will be ready to endure a phase of economic decline, in order to defend Russia’s new leading role in international politics.
Overall, tighter sanctions will hardly lead to the desired effect and cause the Russian regime to change. However, Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, Senior Researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, does not want to rule out the idea of regime change per se. He argues that a sustainable rapprochement between the European Union and Russia and hence progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreement can only be expected if Russia transforms into a democratic country. As long as it remained an authoritarian regime, Putin would constantly rely on periodic crises, external conflicts and the Western bogeyman. But democratising Russia is easier said than done. Heinemann-Grüder concedes that Western external democracy promotion is limited to exchange programmes, town twinning and support of some NGOs. In the long term, trade and association agreements might lead to „change trough trade”, but in general, he is aware of the fact that neither Germany nor the EU is able to transform Russia’s regime. While he focuses only on implementation difficulties, there are also normative concerns. Directly working on Russia’s democratisation, for instance by financing local NGOs, the EU interferes in Russia’s internal affairs. This is regularly exploited by the Kremlin, who accuses the West of violating its sovereignty.
Heinmann-Grüder suggests a policy that removes both the pragmatic and the normative concern. According to him, the key to democratising Russia lies in Ukraine. If Ukraine’s transformation to a developed democracy succeeded, it would most likely positively reflect on Russian citizens. If the transformation failed, Putin’s Russia would continue to profit politically, economically and militarily from the weakness of the Ukrainian state. Consequently, he requests German and European politicians to actively participate in fighting corruption, oligarchy and economic misery in Ukraine. Especially against the similar cultural and historical background of Ukraine and Russia, this proposal appears thoroughly well-grounded. Both countries suffer from similar post-soviet legacies. If Ukrainians manage to solve their political and economic problems within democratic procedures, Russians might consider such a development possible in their own country. After all, a successful democratic transformation in Ukraine would disprove the persistent narrative of the Kremlin that all calls for democratic change end up in chaos.
While tougher or more flexible sanctions do not improve the current situation, the solution lies in promoting Ukraine’s democratic and economic development. Thus, Germany’s policy towards Russia should first and foremost mean policy towards Ukraine.
 Sabine Fischer, „Sanktionen als Dauerzustand? Vorschlag für eine Flexibilisierung der EU-Sanktionspolitik gegenüber Russland.” SWP-Aktuell, 24(8), 2017, 1-8.
 Vladislav Leonidovic Inozemtsev, „Zeit für eine moralische Entscheidung: die EU sollte Sanktionen gegen Moskau nicht aufheben, sondern verschärfen.” Internationale Politik, 71(3), 2016, 20-25.
 Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, „Kalter Krieg oder neue Ostpolitik. Ansätze der deutschen Russlandpolitik.” Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 67(21/22), 2017, 4-10.