Walking the Talk: Threats and Ambiguity in Western Sanctions on Russia

Down to business: EU heads of state and government meet at Versailles in March 2022 to discuss sanctions against Russia. Image: Reuters / Alamy

One year after Western leaders promised swift and forceful sanctions on Russia, has reality matched the political rhetoric?

As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine grinds towards its first anniversary, alongside the provision of military support, sanctions remain central to the response deployed by allied Western countries. The speed, cohesion and coordination of this response has been frequently hailed as ‘unprecedented’. Concerns that the parochial economic interests of individual states would fragment this coalition have yet to materialise, despite the varied pressures countries face on energy supplies, inflation and wider economic damage linked to their implementation of sanctions programmes.

Yet, more than a year since Western leaders first threatened the use of sanctions against Russia as the Kremlin massed its forces on Ukraine’s border, how have those threats of ‘the toughest sanctions regime against Russia’ fared when faced with the reality of design, designation and implementation? And has the impact of this regime on the Russian economy and those that benefit from or support the Russian government lived up to that promised by Western leaders in the lead-up to the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022?

This article looks back 12 months to identify the themes and narratives adopted on sanctions by UK, EU and US political leaders prior to the further invasion of Ukraine by Russia. A review of media reporting, government announcements, and political debates analyses the political objectives and constraints faced by Western leaders in their deliberations on the use of sanctions against Russia, centring on unity of justifications and threats, adjudication of differential costs, and ambiguity of sanctions measures in the days leading up to Russia’s military mobilisation.

In sum, although there is now clear evidence emerging that sanctions are curtailing the Russian economy, the transition from political rhetoric to reality has been challenging for Western leaders, and the impact and consequences of sanctions for Russia have been less immediate than advertised. Despite shared values and justifications, US, EU and UK political leaders have faced asymmetric costs and domestic pressures; and attempts to achieve and maintain unity of response have constrained the speed of deployment and thus the effectiveness of sanctions, resulting in ambiguous messages regarding what sanctions will be applied to which targets and when.

Ukraine’s allies cannot rest. In 2023, the cooperation and cohesion developed in 2022 will need to be strengthened and broadened as the noose around the Russian economy must be maintained and tightened.

Words Before Actions

From early in the Kremlin’s military build-up, Western leaders responded with their own build-up of sanctions rhetoric. For example, on 25 November 2021, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that ‘any further aggression against the sovereignty of Ukraine would carry a high price’. This was followed by US President Joe Biden, who said on 10 December that ‘If [Putin] moves on Ukraine, the economic consequences for his economy are going to be devastating’. In the UK, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned on 14 December that ‘If Russia were so rash and mad as to engage in an invasion of sovereign territory of Ukraine there would be an extremely tough package of economic sanctions mounted by our allies, mounted by the UK’. The desire of Western leaders to deter Vladimir Putin’s belligerence was clear and united. Countries were aligned on the justification for intervention, including: an emphasis on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; a response to Russia’s violation of the rules-based international order; the importance of Russia complying with existing diplomatic agreements; and a broad desire to support Ukraine against destabilising actions by Russia aimed at changing established borders and legal norms.

Within these widely held justifications, differences in motivation were clearly visible, reflecting the varied exposure of coalition members to Russia. For example, for the Baltic states bordering Russia, the Kremlin’s violation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity was of particular concern; the UK’s narrative, meanwhile, sought to stress its role as a sovereign defender of freedom and democracy, consistent with the government’s post-Brexit pitch. For Germany, energy security and the future of Nord Stream 2 were a source of enduring political pressure and anxiety.

The transition from political rhetoric to reality has been challenging for Western leaders, and the impact and consequences of sanctions for Russia have been less immediate than advertised

A core justification for the use of sanctions was first seen with their deployment by Western countries against Russia in response to the Kremlin’s recognition of the independence of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in the days before the full-scale invasion. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz noted at the time, ‘We cannot accept this… If everyone in Europe starts leafing through history books where borders used to be, then we have a very unsettling time ahead of us’.

As the Kremlin’s provocations mounted in the months before this first overt step towards further violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, Western leaders sought to use the promise of sanctions and the threat of their impact as levers to deter Putin’s plans and de-escalate his apparent military ambition. In December 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen remarked that ‘We want de-escalation and a cessation of all aggression against [Russia’s] neighbours. Otherwise, the European Union will look to intensify its sanctions and take other measures across economic and financial sectors, in agreement with our partners’. Likewise, just days before the Kremlin’s invasion, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that ‘The purpose of sanctions in the first instance, is to try to deter Russia from going to war. As soon as you trigger them, that deterrence is gone’. More vividly, standing beside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that sanctions would be automatically placed on Russia the moment the 'first Russian toe-cap' crossed the border into Ukraine.

Yet despite these threats and promises, several factors may have undermined the West’s strategy. One such factor was how Western leaders seemed to rely on a degree of strategic ambiguity in their narrative. For example, EU Spokesman Peter Stano observed only three days before the full-scale invasion that ‘No decisions have been made about any new sanctions against Russia… Our sanctions will be suggested, discussed and adopted only in reaction to further violation or aggression against Ukraine’. This may have been intended to leave open a path for de-escalation, but combined with the West’s previous anaemic sanctions response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, as well as other acts of defiance in the face of international norms – such as the extra-territorial assassination and poisoning of opposition figures – this may have led the Kremlin to believe that the West’s talk was not going to lead to the sort of ‘unprecedented’ action that leaders promised.

Alignment and Tension

Although there was, on the whole, an alignment of rhetoric, alignment of strategy and execution on sanctions was harder to discern, perhaps partly due to the desire to maintain strategic ambiguity, but also because of the mixed messages emanating from some Western leaders. Thus, a further reason Putin may have doubted the ability of Ukraine’s allies to deliver the sort of sanctions regimes they were threatening may have been a belief that aligning the actions of EU member states and other Western countries would be challenging, particularly with spoilers among their number.

For example, having met with Putin in early February 2022, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban observed that Russia had faced down earlier sanctions regimes which had, in his view, damaged the Hungarian economy more significantly given the resulting loss of market access. He thus asserted that sanctions were ‘an unsuccessful tool, a tool that is doomed to failure in international politics’.

More broadly, EU leaders acknowledged differing costs to member states as a source of potential tension. Germany, at the time the largest consumer of Russian gas in the EU, deliberated on its future energy security and sunk costs in Nord Stream 2, a $11 billion pipeline with Russia; early political signals from Germany emphasised negotiation and de-escalation, arguing that the newly completed project should not be singled out in a potential sanctions response. As one unnamed senior EU diplomat remarked, ‘There's no free lunch. We have a deep relationship with Russia so there will be economic pain, and for some more than others’. President Biden, steward of a US economy with far less exposure to Russia than most economies in Europe, seemed at times less willing to accept this consequence, expressing a strong desire to ‘limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump’. In contrast, Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, was more sanguine in his assessment of the potential damage to the UK, asserting that saying ‘this could be a bit damaging to London as a financial centre’ simply was not an argument that held water.

Walk the Talk

Whether Putin did not believe the threats and promises made by Western leaders, based either on past experience or his belief that Western economies could not afford to follow through on the threats, particularly given their energy dependence; whether he believed (or was being advised) that the Russian economy was sufficiently resilient to withstand the promised Western sanctions; or whether he paid no attention and focused unwaveringly on implementing his belief that Russia and Ukraine are ‘one people’, allied attempts to deter him failed on 24 February 2022.

As Western energy reliance on Russia declines and as Ukraine’s allies tighten their implementation of sanctions to ensure restrictions bite, the outlook for the Russian economy is surely bleak

Despite teething issues, including the challenge of aligning 27 EU member states, the bottlenecks in the UK’s designation process, and the apparent lack of unity in allies’ sanctions target selection, the rollout of the West’s sanctions programme has indeed been swift and forceful. Has the Russian economy been ‘decimated’? No, not yet – but equally, the constant denials from Moscow, such as Putin’s assertion that ‘the strategy of the economic blitz has failed’ and is triggering a ‘deterioration of the economy in the West’, are not true either. And, as time passes, as Western energy reliance on Russia declines and as Ukraine’s allies tighten their implementation of sanctions to ensure restrictions bite, the outlook for the Russian economy is surely bleak, however much it adopts a ‘war footing’.

The Road Ahead

Having threatened ‘massive’ sanctions in a failed attempt to deter Putin’s invasion, Western leaders have followed through on their promised barrage of economic and trade restrictions, constantly identifying new targets in their effort to restrict the Kremlin’s ability to fund and resource its war machine.

Shortly before Russia’s tanks crossed the Ukrainian border on 24 February last year, the former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, observed that the route to successful application of sanctions is to constantly ratchet up the pressure they exert. Over the past 12 months, Ukraine’s allies have sought to do just that – but there is a long road ahead.

As Western leaders are discovering, sanctions are easier said than done. For many countries, previous sanctions regimes have been against more distant targets and have required limited action given the lack of connection between sanctions targets and those making the designations. A lack of effective implementation has thus been of little consequence. Where sanctions have previously been deployed closer to home – such as against Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea and against Belarus following the fraudulent presidential election in August 2020 – they have been lacklustre and of limited impact. If one purpose of sanctions is ‘to send a message’, then it would seem that the messages being sent by Western leaders 12 months ago in the lead-up to Russia’s military mobilisation were not viewed as credible, or of any consequence, by the Kremlin – despite public unity in their political rhetoric and economic threats towards Russia.

In the 12 months ahead, the challenge is for these allies to remain united and to find further measures by which to restrict Russia’s military funding and resourcing. These must include identifying additional means of reducing Russia’s ability to earn foreign revenue and to source the components required to replenish its military activities; identifying and shutting down loopholes through which Russia circumvents the West’s own financial and trade restrictions; and addressing loopholes and sanctions evasion opportunities offered by third countries that have yet to recognise the importance to their own security of adopting sanctions in the face of Russian aggression.

Throughout Russia’s military build-up in the months prior to the invasion, sanctions were held out by the West as a critical tool in responding to the Kremlin’s aggression. Critical though they have been, it remains to be seen whether they will ultimately have the effect promised and wished for by so many political figures in their rhetoric 12 months ago.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to commentaries@rusi.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.


Tom Keatinge

Director, CFCS

Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies

View profile

Jane Ngan

View profile


Explore our related content