Russia: An Ongoing Dilemma

In 2014, Ukraine dominated news headlines around the world.  Ukraine’s President at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted from office after weeks of bloody protests.  Not long afterwards, Russian soldiers, wearing unmarked uniforms, entered Crimea and illegally obtained control of the Ukrainian territory. Then, in Eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed Separatists instigated a civil war.

These actions led Western leaders and organizations to denounce Russian aggression, in the form of strict economic sanctions.  

Former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, even made a direct statement to President Vladimir Putin that he should “get out of Ukraine.”  

Still, neither publicly denouncing Russia’s actions nor imposing economic sanctions have impacted Russia’s foreign policies. A ceasefire was agreed in 2015, yet casualties still occur, and the Russian-backed Separatists maintain control in Eastern Ukraine.

Over time, the conflict has faded to the background of the 24-hour news cycle.  However, the Russian-backed war in Ukraine recently made international news headlines, following Russia’s direct attack on Ukrainian naval ships.  The country claims that Ukrainian naval ships entered Russian territorial waters, while Ukraine maintains that the attack was unprovoked and in international waters.

When it comes to Russian and Ukrainian relations, there is nothing new about this charade: Russia continues to deny its involvement in Eastern Ukraine and, for an extended period, denied that it was Russian soldiers who initially entered and occupied Crimea.

At this point, the origin of the conflict is less important than the need to act against Russian aggression. Without NATO membership, Ukraine cannot extricate the rebels from their eastern foothold – let alone confront the whole Russian military. Ukraine needs assistance of some kind.

Since the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the proxy war in Ukraine, most Western countries have imposed strict sanctions on Russia.  However, these sanctions have not had the impact that many believe.  The claim that Western sanctions have been effective has overshadowed other contributing factors impacting the Russian economy, such as a decline in oil prices. Moreover, the Russian economy was in decline prior to the first round of sanctions, in 2014.

Russia’s GDP Quarterly Growth


A lot of this can be attributed to a declining oil sector, which has been the largest contributor to the Russian economy, and poor internal decision making, which has contributed to the outflow of foreign direct investment from the country.

Price of Russian Crude Oil (USD/bbl)


Economic growth started to decline significantly in 2012.  In 2013, GDP growth had declined to 1.8%. This decline continued into 2014, at which point growth rates were below 0%. The annual GDP growth did not recover until 2017; before that, GDP continued to decline between the years 2014-2016, by approximately 3% per annum. The International Monetary Fund estimated that even without the 2014 sanctions, Russia’s GDP would have declined by 1.5% instead of the 2.5% decline with sanctions.

Russia was also removed from what was then called the G8 Summit. So far, the Western strategy for dealing with Russia has been to isolate it completely: offering no trade, no relationships, and no assistance or exchanges of any kind.

Still, despite pressures from the global community, Vladimir Putin remains in office, and Russia continues to impose itself on nearby countries, with the Russian economy benefiting from recent growth.  Clearly, sanctions are not sufficiently impacting Russian foreign policy.

This provokes a question: what other policies might deter Russia, and favour Western interests? Sanctions, diplomacy, and exclusion have been the default policies for the West since before the Second World War.  However, as recent developments show, none of these are working.  I would contend that these actions have antagonized Russia even more.  Combine recent sanctions with NATO’s long-held ‘enlargement policy’ – which has encouraged the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders – and it seems plausible that Russia is indifferent to or perhaps even enjoys political and economic isolation.

But does this mean that we should stand by and let Russia do what it wants?  No.

Western nations ought to get more involved – not to provoke another World War, but to discourage future acts of aggression.  Whether or not NATO should insert itself remains unclear, but Western Countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, should arm Ukraine with more defense capabilities.

Following the Sea of Azov confrontation, Western Governments have once again denounced Russia’s actions and are considering more sanctions.  The Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, publicly declared that Ukraine will tackle Russia alone, if it must.

However, Ukraine cannot do this alone.  If the West wants to discourage Russian aggression and maintain Ukrainian sovereignty, along with the sovereignty of other former Soviet Union states, it ought to take a more active role.

War is not necessarily the answer, but it is clear that Western nations’ current strategies are not working. Western foreign policy towards Russia ought to be re-examined, with the Ukrainian situation calling for more serious commitment. Sanctions and public denouncements are no longer enough.