russian sanctionsCurrent U.S. sanctions against Russia began in 2014 as a response to the Russian annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

Sanctions are generally an economic tool, though they may also include political or diplomatic measures. Modern economic sanctions have become increasingly sophisticated and are often targeted against narrow groups or even individuals instead of entire nations.

Economic sanctions have a spotty history of effectiveness regardless of how they are applied. They have had an effective political impact in isolated cases, like the heavy sanctions against South Africa’s former apartheid government. However, there are many counter-examples. The U.S. maintained sanctions against Iraq and its ruling Ba’ath party for over a decade after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.  Those sanctions appeared to create no significant policy changes from Saddam Hussein’s government, but had a severe effect on the quality of life in Iraq.

10 quick facts about the current sanctions against Russia:

  1. The Russian sanctions mainly target the energy industry. U.S. energy companies may not do business with Russia, nor may they transfer oil or gas drilling technology to Russian agents. U.S. banks are prohibited from issuing long-term loans to Russian companies for energy-focused projects.
  2. The U.S. Department of the Treasury is the responsible agency for overseeing economic sanctions on behalf of the U.S. federal government.
  3. The European Union (EU) gets approximately 3o percent of its natural gas from Russian suppliers, making sanctions a difficult process for EU nations.
  4. The EU joined the U.S. in levying sanctions against Russia in September 2016 following the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2016. The flight was carrying 206 EU nationals.
  5. Russian sanctions have resulted in more than $1 billion in losses to ExxonMobil, the company formerly headed by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
  6. The International Monetary Fund estimated that the Russian GDP could be 1.5 percent lower in 2016 due to sanctions.
  7. The U.S. Congress passed additional sanctions against Russia in July 2017, reacting to evidence that Russia intentionally interfered in U.S. elections processes in 2016. The updated sanctions bill, signed into law in August 2017, constrains the power of the U.S. President to unilaterally reduce or remove Russian sanctions.
  8. The Russian sanctions affect dozens of specified Russian companies and government organizations, and include specific individuals in high-ranking positions in the intelligence and defense ministries.
  9. Since the imposition of Russian sanctions, the ruble has declined over 50 percent in value relative to the U.S. dollar.
  10. Sanctions have reportedly contributed to a sharp uptick in the number of Russians living in poverty (from 15.5 million in 2013 to 19.8 million in 2016). One foreign policy expert speculated in the Chicago Tribune that sanctions have even contributed to a decline in the Russian population.

Economic sanctions, despite their occasional success, have gained a reputation for harming the most vulnerable members of a targeted nation while often not having the intended effects on its government. North Korea would perhaps be the best modern example of this situation. It remains to be seen whether the current sanctions against Russia will change the behavior of its government without placing an undue burden on the population.

– Paul Robertson

Photo: Google

Water Crisis in Eastern Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine began in the fall of 2013, when Ukraine did not sign an agreement with the European Union. Students and other young people began engaging in demonstrations and protests in the capital city, Kiev, with the objective of fighting corruption in their country. The situation became more unstable with Russian invasions of the Crimea region and violence against pro-Russian rebels in the Debaltseve region of eastern Ukraine, which continue despite ceasefire agreements. The Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine were hit particularly hard by the conflicts.

Over the past two years, approximately 6,000 lives have been lost due to fighting, and a further 13,961 have been wounded. 5.2 million are currently living in conflict areas. 978,482 have been internally displaced, including 119,832 children. 600,000 Ukrainian citizens have fled to neighboring countries, with 400,000 escaping to Russia.

While many have left conflict zones, others have stayed for various reasons. They may have feared facing worse dangers if they tried to leave, wanted to protect their family or property or been physically unable to move. Those trapped in conflict zones are often forced to hide away in basements with little food and no heat or electricity. Many are also lacking one very important resource: water.

There is currently a water crisis in Eastern Ukraine that could easily become worse. 1.3 million have been affected, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk. Damaged and destroyed water lines and water shortages have caused suffering for many. In non-government controlled areas of Luhansk, citizens rely on trucks bringing supplies or must travel to neighboring villages for safe drinking water. The city of Mariupol, located in Donsetsk, is relying on a depleting water storage reservoir.

The situation has worsened over the past month due to little rainfall and hot summer temperatures. The risk of waterborne disease will increase if people are unable to properly store and transport water. It is difficult to move supplies across borders between government and non-government controlled areas, which could be due to rebel forces directly preventing the delivery of aid to certain cities. The need is more urgent than ever.

UNICEF is currently helping those in Donetsk and Luhansk access safe water and has assisted 550,000 people since January 2015. 54,000 have also received additional hygiene supplies. However, UNICEF will need to raise significant funds to continue providing these services. Another organization providing aid to Ukraine is United Helping Ukraine. This 100 percent volunteer-based group works on fundraising, raising awareness of the crisis and holding rallies in support of Ukraine’s independence. They also have been distributing food, medical supplies and other donations to families affected by the conflict.

Jane Harkness

Sources: BBC, CNN, Harvard University, Reuters, UNICEF, United Help Ukraine, Voice of America
Photo: Flickr

Poverty in Russia has been a prevailing issue for years now, but a host of causes has finally brought it to its worst point yet.

According to a recent report by Rosstat, a Russian state statistics service, the amount of people living below the poverty line in Russia hit 22.9 million earlier this year. Russia’s population was roughly 144 million at the end of 2014.

Russia’s poverty crisis has worsened steadily over the past few years due primarily to embargos and resulting inflation. As a result of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis, many countries embargoed food imports to Moscow. This caused inflation in the country to rise to 16.9%, its highest point in 13 years.

“Unfortunately, predictions are coming true: According to official statistics, the number of poor people has reached 22 million,” Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets told a Russian television station.

Additional Western sanctions have caused a steep decline in the price of oil, Russia’s largest export, further damaging the country’s economy and job market. In 2014, the amount of social service agency employees in Russia was cut by 6.5%. Experts are predicting that far more job cuts will follow, affecting 33 different regions of the country over the next few years.

Poverty in Russia is also proving to be immensely damaging to education. According to the Accounts Chamber report, 9,500 towns with populations between 300 and 1,500 had no preschool facilities, and one-third of these towns had no public transportation.

Between this year and 2018, 5.6% of Russia’s preschools are expected to close, as well as 6% of primary and secondary schools, 14.7% of orphanages and 16.1% of vocational schools.

As conditions in Russia continue to worsen, work must continue to be done to improve the quality of life within the country.

Alexander Jones

Sources: World Socialist Web Site, International Business Times, Moscow Times
Photo: Business Insider

aid envoy
Hundreds of trucks covered in white tarpaulin began rolling towards the Ukraine-Russia border recently, delivering aid from Russia to rebel-held portions of Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials believe that the aid convoy is simply a “trojan horse,” designed to give rebels necessary arms and supplies to continue their fight against the Ukrainian army. Some reports have indicated that the convoy would stop at the border, and that the aid supplies would be unloaded and distributed to areas of need by the Red Cross.

According to the Russian foreign ministry, the aid delivery consists of 262 to 287 trucks and contains over 1,800 tons of “humanitarian supplies.” They specifically mentioned sleeping bags, medical equipment, electric generators and baby food. However, many in the west have been skeptical about the content and goals of the aid delivery.

The aid mission has caused many to fear an escalation in the already drawn out conflict. Western powers have repeatedly called the aid envoy a farce designed for Russian officials to sneak troops and/or weapons to the rebels, who have been losing ground to the Ukrainian military. Russia has denied these allegations, and has released statements declaring accusations by the West “absurd.” An official statement from Moscow said, “They continue to voice the absurd claim that the humanitarian convoy to help the civilian population of southeast Ukraine could be used as a pretext for Russian ‘military intervention.'”

The legitimacy of the aid envoy hinges on the Red Cross. Russian officials have claimed that the Red Cross has been coordinating with them on this mission, and that no military personnel or weapons are included. While the Red Cross has been working to help increase the amount of humanitarian aid being delivered into the region, they have denied involvement with this specific mission and have told news agencies that they have not been able to investigate the aid delivery.

Andre Loersch, the Red Cross spokesman in Kiev, told the media that “discussions are still ongoing” between them and Russia. He elaborated by saying, “The ICRC needs more details of what is in the convoy. The convoy is on the road and the ICRC has not had the opportunity to check what is inside.”

As of now, the aid convey still remains in limbo, with the full scope of its contents left unknown until the Red Cross investigates.

– Andre Gobbo

Sources: Al Jazeera, NY Times, ITV
Photo: Presstv

While the Ukrainian government has denied any use of Grad rockets — a high explosive rocket that can reach up to a range of 20,000 meters — a recent Human Rights Watch investigation proved both government and separatist forces have used the rockets in recent attacks.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Ukrainian government has killed more than 15 civilians and wounded numerous others in at least four separate attacks between July 12 and July 21. Separatist forces aren’t so innocent either. According to a statement made by the Pentagon last week, Russian forces were planning to transfer “heavy-caliber multiple-launch rocket systems” to Ukraine separatist forces. The rockets, which are in the 200mm+ range, pose as a looming threat for a country already proliferated with terror.

The use of unguided rockets in populated areas is a breach of international and humanitarian law and could result in war crimes. According to HRW, these crimes could be faced by both government and separatist forces. While the report certainly condemns government and separatist use of these rockets, it further criticizes separatists for not taking proper measures to avoid encamping in densely populated areas.

Senior Emergencies Researcher for Human Rights Watch, Ole Solvang, condemned commanding officers on both fighting sides for using the rockets, claiming that “[G]rad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn’t be used in populated areas.”

These most recent accusations come just a few weeks after the July 17 downing of the Malaysian Airlines Jet, MH17, in Ukraine. The crash, which was caused by a “massive explosive decompression” from a rocket, resulted in 298 deaths. The downing, which is still under investigation, was immediately addressed by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who hinted her suspicion that the attack may have been a war crime by the separatists.

More than 1,129 people have been killed and at least 3,442 others have been wounded as a result of the Ukrainian conflict since mid-April. The anti-government protests, which came as a result of former President Yanukovych’s failure to partner with Europe over a trade deal, have resulted in increased division among the country.

Fighting in Ukraine has only further exacerbated the country’s economic problems. With many families forced to vacate cities in major turmoil, displacement has caused an inevitable increase in unemployment and, predictably, poverty. One such city is Lugansk, which — at once a city of 420,000 — now occupies less than half of its original population.

Those left in the city are faced with an incredible lack of medical supplies, lighting and electricity. Those still living there, including retirees or families with small children with hardly any money, are basically trapped. Lugansk — and other Ukrainian cities — citizens are forced to endure inhumane conditions of fighting, violence and medical neglect. While a cease-fire from both ends is the country’s primary solution, Ukrainian citizens will continue to suffer until the violence is halted.

Nick Magnanti

Sources: Huffington Post, SOS Childrens Villages, RT
Photo: WN

russia cuts off gas
On June 16, 2014, tensions between Russia and Ukraine worsened after Russia’s state-owned company, Gazprom, cut off gas headed for Ukraine.

June 16 was the final day for Russia and Ukraine to come to an agreement about the gas dispute. Representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the European Union met over the weekend but were unable to reach an agreement.

With no agreement about the unpaid $2 billion debt installment the company demanded for June 16, a portion of the $4.5 billion total debt that Ukraine owes the company led Gazprom to declare that  it will only deliver gas that has already been paid for.

Ukraine disputes the amount that Gazprom has stated it owes and also requests a new future price.

The main cause for the dispute can be traced back to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia that led to an 80 percent price increase of gas, reaching $485.50 per thousand cubic meters of gas in April. Although some reductions were made following recent talks, they were still above the average $377.50 per thousand cubic meters Gazprom charged other European countries in 2013, and more still than the previous $268 per thousand cubic meters Ukraine used to pay.

Russia has stated that it will continue to provide oil for the rest of Europe. More than 30 percent of Europe’s demand is supplied by Russia, of which half must pass through Ukraine.

Since the cut off has occurred in June, the vulnerability of Ukraine and the rest of Europe to a possible shortage are low. However, as the cut off continues, the urgency to find a resolution increases. When July comes around, Ukraine and the rest of Europe generally begin to completely fill their storage tanks in preparation for the winter.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have continued to increase in the backdrop of the failed deal. In addition to escalating violence in Ukraine, Gazprom has attracted controversy with its decision to build an exclusive gas route despite violating Europe’s open access laws.

With the continuing escalation, it is unlikely a resolution to the gas crisis will occur in the near future. Although E.U. leaders are expected to discuss the crisis during the summit in Brussels on June 26, the E.U. has told its members to conduct stress tests to examine the potential effects of a disruption.

A potential disruption could bode poorly for those in poverty throughout Europe, especially in the winter months. Hopefully an agreement will emerge before the cold comes.

— William Ying 

Sources: CNN, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC
Photo: CNBC