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Sanctions and the Future: David Riley and Will Pomeranz on Russia and Ukraine

Round table talk

November 19, 2015

The week of October 5th brought two fascinating and high profile visits from the world of foreign affairs policy in Washington D.C. to the halls of the University of Washington. William Pomeranz, Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute and expert in Russian trade law, delivered a thorough explanation of the economic situation in Russia and the near east since the conflict in Ukraine began. David James Riley, First Secretary of Foreign Affairs at the British Embassy, reviewed the stages of increasing tension between the EU and UK and Russia in regards to Ukraine. Their talks, although related in subject, provided different perspectives on the same issue, exposing various dimensions of a complex international situation. You can hear their talks in full  by subscribing to Ellison Center podcasts.

David Riley | Thursday, October 8

by Michael Brinley

David Riley

David Riley, 1st Secretary, Foreign and Security Policy at the British Embassy to the United States, talked about UK/EU post-Crimea policy toward Russia from the perspective of a policy practitioner.

To put it lightly, the last two years of international relations with Russia have been ominously dynamic. Since the day Victor Yanukovych backed out of the European Union Association Agreement up through the recent Russian activities in Syria, Russia in the eyes of the West has only grown more polemical and foreboding. The decisions of longtime Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, are considered with great scrutiny and little optimism for a bright future.

In his recent address, First Secretary of Foreign Affairs at the British Embassy in D.C., David Riley, explained how we got to the current situation. Deftly summarizing important turning points in the geopolitical situation and giving a practitioner and British policymaker’s perspective, Riley walked through the Euromaidan, the ousting of Yanukovich, the annexation of Crimea, the emergence of conflict in the Donbass, and the effects of the various Minsk Agreements. Riley proceeded to explain the evolving British position in regards to punishing bad Russian behavior and encouraging reform and development in Ukraine. Kicking off the question and answer segment, Riley asked a Rooseveltian rhetorical question: “What’s the greatest threat to Ukraine? Ukraine itself.” Riley identified the struggles that the newly minted Ukrainian government has faced in overcoming entrenched patrimonialism and corruption. It has had a hard row to hoe: “By the time Yanukovych fled Ukraine, he had stolen $10 billion from the Ukrainian people.”

[pullquote]By the time Yanukovych fled Ukraine, he had stolen $10 billion from the Ukrainian people.[/pullquote]

Riley answered questions about Russia’s pivot to China and underplayed the significance of the relationship or the probability that China would be a dependable partner for Russia in the years to come. He addressed some of the institutions at the root of Russia’s attempt to become the spokesperson for a “multi-polar world.” Riley asserted, “Without Ukraine as a member, the Eurasian Union is no more than a pet project for Putin,” pointing out that since the conflict in Ukraine, the other two major members, Belarus and Kazakhstan, have been only tepid supporters of Russian policy.

Audience members heard from a civil servant in the employ of queen and parliament, and Riley deftly avoided commentary on internal political circumstances. He did however manage to make a Yes, Minister reference, likening himself to the popular BBC miniseries’ character, Bernard Wooley.

Will Pomeranz | Friday, October 9

Both of the talks were given just days after Russia began its bombing missions in Syria, directly joining the coalition against ISIL but on the side of supporting the Assad government, causing serious distrust among Western observers about Russian motives. The immediate prognosis was that the bid had been a gamble and ultimately a long-term foible for Putin. In coming out with force in support of the Assad regime, Putin was alienating the majority of the Muslim population in Russia and on its borders who are Sunni, in addition to putting his most sympathetic Western European country, France, on his bad side. Russia has been a long time supporter of Bashar al-Assad, the Alawite London educated ophthalmologist-turned authoritarian leader.

Will Pomeranz talk

Graduate students, faculty, and community members attended the talk by Will Pomeranz and many had an opportunity to ask questions of the Kennan Institute expert on Russia.

William Pomeranz, delivering an address on the effectiveness of the sanctions regimes on Russia rallied together an impressive range of statistical evidence that the sanctions were certainly weakening the Russian economy. Without a doubt the other crucial factor in Russian economic decline is the current relatively low global oil prices. The windfall of energy money that Russia has received from oil and gas has historically proven to be a crutch that has “kept Russia from innovating” economically. Pomeranz’s talk was all gloom for the current state of the Russian economy. He pointed out the various sectors where they were getting hit the hardest: “What ails the Russian economy? Take your pick: pensions keeping pace with inflation, regional governments are broke (up to 20 of the 85 are in default), utility rates are about to increase dramatically, car manufacturing is down, ruble decreased by half in the last year.” In addition, “Deutsche Bank is closing its Moscow office.” Russia has always been a good market for the Germans and this symbolic move carries some significant portent.

Pomeranz also spoke about the future of Ukraine. He began by admitting that in nearly all the same ways that things are looking grim for Russia, in Ukraine they are looking worse. Pomeranz, having just returned from a trip to Ukraine concluded on a hopeful note stating: “Ukraine has what Russia doesn’t havethat is politics.” It has held presidential elections during a time of war. One can find a series of reforms that have begun to take effect: energy industry, foreign debt reduction, growth of hard currency reserves, there have been examples of decreasing the bureaucracy, and they have begun to bring a new generation into office.” The main issue seemed to be: “Is Ukraine changing fast enough?”

Both Riley and Pomeranz fielded questions about the value of sanctions and a destabilizing Russian economy. The affirmative stance on the effectiveness of sanctions seems to stem from a principled approach to international politics, as an overt gesture of dissatisfaction with bad behavior on the Russian part, but also connected to what seems to be a hope for the ending of the current “power vertical” system in Russian politics, i.e. the end of a Putin regime. When asked whether they wanted to see a break-up of the Russian Federation, as many fear might happen should Putin leave power, neither Riley nor Pomeranz responded in favor of such an option, nor did they seem very worried about such a prognosis. 

[pullquote]Ukraine has what Russia doesn’t have – that is politics.[/pullquote]

One of the significant impending issues marked by Pomeranz, is the fact that the EU will have to renew their sanctions come January. While the U.S. sanction regime will not change quickly or lightly, there is significant fear that should Russian participation in Syria help assuage the migration crisis in Western Europe and should the de-escalation in Eastern Ukraine continue relatively uninterrupted, that the European Union will likely remove their sanctions from the Russians. This could result in a new divide between the EU and the US, who have been “getting along quite well” since the advent of Russian aggression. Trying to forecast two weeks into the future of global politics is difficult, let alone six months, but both Pomeranz and Riley delivered level-headed, clear analyses of the current situation in Russia and Ukraine and gave their audiences much to think about.