CONFERENCE CALL: West needs new tactics to deal with Russia over Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews January 29, 2015

Robert Anderson in London -



Participants at a bne IntelliNews debate in London expressed frustration with the failure of Western sanctions over Ukraine to modify Russia’s behaviour so far, and some suggested it is time to try new tactics.

“We are reinforcing all the bad traits in Russia,” said Erik Berglof, director of the Institute for Global Affairs at the London School of Economics. “We need to find a way back. We need to find areas where there is a positive sum game. We need to find some kind of conversation where we can engage.”

The former chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said trade talks between the European Union and the new Eurasian Economic Union could offer such an area for a constructive conversation.

Ben Aris, chief editor of bne IntelliNews, argued that talks on a new strategic framework for Europe could also be worth trying, though Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former UK ambassador to Moscow, dismissed this as impractical in the current environment.

Most of the participants in the lively debate – entitled “East-West Conflict, Temporary Lapse or New Normal?” – held at Cass Business School on January 27, agreed that sanctions were seriously hurting Russia and should not be scaled back at the moment.

However, no one expected a quick resolution of the current East-West conflict and opinion was deeply divided on whether sanctions would ever be effective in forcing Russian President Vladimir Putin to modify his behaviour.

Edward Lucas of The Economist argued that it was too early to tell one way or the other, but sanctions needed to be made tougher to be effective. “If we really wanted to impose sanctions we would go after the Russian dirty money in the West,” he said, pointing out that this money meant “we [in the West] were riding first class in the Kremlin gravy train”.

Aris, by contrast, argued that sanctions were reinforcing Putin’s domestic position and were therefore counter-productive.  “Sanctions will not change Putin’s mind at all,” he said, adding: “If anything [they] have only made him stronger.”

This split partly reflected a difference over the end-goal. Lucas and Sir Andrew Wood, another former UK ambassador to Moscow, argued that the goal must be to bring down Putin, while Aris and speakers from the floor warned of the risk that what came after might be even worse.

“The question is when will Russia begin to change its system of government and can it change it without a violent end?” summed up Sir Andrew.

There was more agreement on the need to bolster Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which, if it works, could encourage change in Russia itself. 

“The solution is much more about trying to do the right thing in Ukraine,” said Berglof. “If Ukraine manages to get through this very difficult transition… that is the road to real change in Russia itself.”

The other participants in the debate were Professor Michael Ben-Gad of City University, and Pippa Malmgren of advisers DRPM Group. The debate was moderated by Liam Halligan, editor at large for bne IntelliNews, and attended by around 100 participants.

Watch the full debate:

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