‘Fortress Russia’: Will sanctions work? Expert says Kremlin has been self-isolating

As world leaders announce economic sanctions to punish Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are questions about how effective these measures will actually be.

According to some experts, Russia has spent years isolating itself and preparing for this.

Calling it the “Fortress Russia” strategy, Robert Austin with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto says the Kremlin has built up huge cash reserves and Europe is still heavily reliant on Russian gas, so the West doesn’t have a lot of leverage.

“Moreover, the president of Russia is acting like a madman and his threats don’t strike me as idle anymore. He has reached a turning point that so few people predicted in terms of what he’s been willing to do. And he’s basically wiping a country off a map, so we have to do whatever we can,” he told CityNews.

“I think Russia has been planning this for a long time, a lot longer than when we saw a bunch of troops and more than 100,000 head to the borders,” Austin added, noting, “Russia’s prepared to sit it out longer, and that’s the worrying trend.”

Austin, who is the associate director of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at UofT, says the end goal must be a sanctions regime so punishing that Russia becomes an isolated pariah state like Iran or even North Korea.

“Because a pariah state is what it is,” he said.

The world has made it clear that a military intervention in Ukraine is off the books, for fear of sparking a wider war. Many countries, including Canada and the U.S., have already announced their actions against Moscow.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Thursday a slew of new measures, targeting dozens of people and entities connected to Russia.

U.S. President Joe Biden also announced action with new sanctions, adding he would be sending additional troops to Germany to bolster NATO forces.

Austin stresses governments need to do whatever they can to stop the invasion of Ukraine, though he admits military action is off the table.

“What sometimes gets lost in this story is that Ukraine has over 40 million people and they are being sent to a post-modern form of futilism, which is exactly the system Russia offers. We have to do everything possible to prevent 44 million people from becoming, essentially, slaves,” he explained.

“We can’t do military action right now, it’s impossible for us. What Ukrainians need right now we can’t do, so we’re limited to sanctions,” Austin continued.

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“We need to understand that the Ukrainian political system was filled with shortcomings since independence, but it’s not Russia. So what Russia’s offering Ukraine is basically an end to the future of any type of positive outcome for Ukraine. Putin is a professional stealer of people’s futures — that’s his art and the Ukrainians are being subjected to this, hence their European dreams.”

Some experts have argued sanctions are not the most effective course of action in a situation like the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

One issue is that sanctions, depending on what exactly they are targeting, can “hurt the civilian populations of the country” the measures are being imposed against. Experts note sanctions also take a while to become effective.

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