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‘Something went wrong’: How EU sanctions won’t stop Putin getting six more years in power

President Vladimir Putin is all but guaranteed to win six more years of power in Russia’s upcoming elections. Opponents – many of them behind bars, exiled abroad, or dead – say EU officials must intensify their efforts to hit Moscow where it hurts.

Critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin say the EU must do more to help them crack the elite’s grip on power ahead of a presidential election so tightly controlled by the current Kremlin resident that it leaves no room for any opposition to his 25-year rule.

Despite EU efforts to sanction Russian authorities for their full-scale invasion of Ukraine and ongoing crackdown on dissent, the ballot will be held weeks after Moscow gained significant territory in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the ruling elite is getting richer, Russia has been selling oil for more than the price cap established by the G7, Moscow’s army is securing sanctioned military technology via allied countries, and the voice of Putin’s fiercest critic, Alexei Navalny, was forever silenced last month when he died in the penal colony he was held in.

Russia may be the most sanctioned country in the world, but “there were a lot of mistakes” in the restrictive measures implemented by Western allies, Russian politician and opposition leader Dmitry Gudkov told Euronews. Sanctions, he also said, have benefited Putin but are hurting ordinary Russians. 

European officials are just now realising that “something went wrong,” he added.

Last month, a Moscow court barred Putin’s main challenger, Boris Nadezhdin, an opponent of the war in Ukraine, from running in the election.

Gudkov, the leader of the opposition Party of Changes, was exiled to Ukraine in 2021 after being detained— and released shortly after— for what he claims was a “fake” criminal case against him. A Moscow court issued in February an arrest warrant against him under charges of distributing “fake” information about Russia’s military. The former politician faces up to 10 years in prison.

Dmitry Gudkov speaking at Russia’s State Duma in 2015.

For Russian dissidents, Putin’s illegitimacy should not be questioned: the Russian leader has been the subject since March 2023 of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for war crimes committed in Ukraine; the 2020 referendum that allowed him to run for two more six-year presidential terms was considered a sham by international observers; and these elections will be conducted in the illegally annexed territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia

How has the West failed to implement sanctions efficiently?

According to Rasa Juknevičienė, a Member of the European Parliament from Lithuania, the EU does not have an “effective structure” to implement sanctions against Russia due to the bloc’s lack of experience.

The 27-country Union rolled out its 13th package of sanctions against Russia last month to further restrict Moscow’s access to military technologies and prevent sanction circumvention.

But Western leaders, Juknevičienė added, are “afraid to punish Putin, to crush Putin’s regime, and provide all necessary support to Ukraine.”

Forbes announced last year that the overall wealth of Russia’s super-rich had increased by $152 billion (€139 billion) since 2022. It also counted 110 billionaires in Russia — 22 more than the previous year.

Speaking to EU foreign affairs ministers in February, Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said that sanctions have not targeted Russia’s elite enough. She claims they have transferred their belongings to family and friends to avoid the seizure of their assets. “Putin’s friends are simply laughing at you,” Navalnaya said.

Since Ukraine’s full-scale invasion, Russia has been able to sell oil above the $60 per barrel price cap established by the G7 countries in December 2022, according to the Atlantic Council. The Kremlin is moving over 70 percent of its oil “through a shadow fleet,” it said.

report by researchers from King’s College London found that Russia has been able to evade sanctions by importing banned products via friendly countries such as Georgia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

“We see how sanctions do not work, and this is obvious for the West,” Russian dissident Anastasia Shevchenko told Euronews. While she believes the concept of sanctions in general can be effective, Shevchenko argued allies have “a lot of work to do” for them to affect Putin.

How can the European Union help the Russian opposition?

Shevchenko was the first person in Russia to be criminally prosecuted under the Kremlin’s “undesirable organisations” law. While arrested, her eldest daughter, Alina, fell ill. Russian authorities allowed Anastasia to see her daughter only hours before she died.

For Shevchenko, one of the most important things European officials can do in the upcoming elections is to recognise Putin’s regime as illegitimate. “This is a crucial point for us,” Shevchenko told Euronews.

Anastasia Shevchenko at a protest in Rostov, Russia, to demand the release of Oleg Navalny, brother of Alexei Navalny, in 2016.

In the 2018 elections, countries such as the United States, Hungary, and Israel congratulated Putin for his reelection. France and Germany acknowledged his victory but refrained from using the word “congratulate.”

Dissidents also emphasise the need for Western support for Russians that have escaped the regime.

Dimitri Androssow, a Putin critic who currently lives in Berlin, told Euronews that some programmes and opportunities worldwide have been closed for Russians. One of them was an internship in the German Bundestag that changed his career 10 years ago but that was restricted to Russian nationals in the wake of the country’s assault on Ukraine two years ago.

“The West should concentrate on those who dare to show somehow that they are against this regime,” Androssow said. “This is our future. This is that democratic chance for our Russia. Those people who are against this regime and who are not afraid to speak about this.”

Androssow is a board member of Russia’s People’s Freedom Party. He left the country in 2022 due to political persecution.

For the now exiled Gudkov, EU officials should also include Russian dissidents in the policy-making of the sanctions. He claims he has presented some proposals to European colleagues, but they were not taken into consideration.

“Nobody knows Putin better than us. Nobody knows our country better than us. Nobody knows the elites and the civil society in Russia better than us,” Gudkov said. “But unfortunately, our expertise is not considered while some of the sanction policy is being carried out.”

Pushing for change from exile

In the meantime, opposition leaders are calling Russians to show up to the polls on 17 March at noon and write ‘Navalny’ or tear up their ballot as a form of protest. While this might not have a direct effect on the regime, the goal is to “affect the perception of these so-called elections,” Gudkov said. Domestically, it will undermine Putin’s legitimacy, he added.

“We want to demonstrate that a lot of people taking to the street and coming to the polling stations are against Putin and the war,” Gudkov said. “It’s the only safe format for people to demonstrate and express their position without being detained.”

Shevchenko said she already sees a change in Russian society. Images and videos from Navalny’s funeral this month showed hundreds queuing to pay their respects to the opposition leader despite threats of arrests from Russian police.

“When people see how many people like them are around, it helps get rid of fear,” Shevchenko said. “ I think it means that step by step, they stop being afraid.”

Source: euronews

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