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Why sanctions against Russia are here for the long-haul

Russia's military intervention in Syria has spurred speculation that a common enemy — Islamist extremists — could soothe tensions between Moscow and the West and help in the lifting of sanctions over tensions in Ukraine. However, both sides are unwilling to step down over Russia's annexation of Crimea, raising concerns that tit-for-tat sanctions are here for the long-run and could even be increased.

"The sanctions with respect to Crimea are here to stay short-term and probably long-term," Ross Denton, a partner specializing in competition and trade at legal firm Baker & McKenzie, said on Friday at a news briefing.

Moscow is viewed as unlikely to give Crimea back to Ukraine any time soon, meaning that the West will maintain sanctions in order to show its seriousness in opposing country rulers with designs on neighboring countries.

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Nonetheless there has been speculation that the West might be willing to step back from sanctions in exchange for military assistance in the advent of a ground move into Syria, or help with the related surge of asylum seekers into Europe. Such speculation has been smacked down by regional experts.

Analysts at political risk company Teneo Intelligence noted that it was "almost imperative" for the EU to extend sanctions in order to uphold its claim that Russia's annexation constituted a breach of international law.

"A full extension (of sanctions) is no forgone conclusion and also remains contingent upon the situation on the ground," said Teneo analysts, Otilia Dhan and Carsten Nickel, in a research note last month.

Last month, the European Union (EU) announced that it was extending Ukraine-related sanctions against individuals and companies until March 2016. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Commerce added a further 29 targets to its blacklist including several Crimean ports, Russia oil giant Rosneft and arms producer Kalashnikov.

Following tense discussions between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin this week, Moscow confirmed its first air strikes on civil war-torn Syria on Wednesday, with further reports of strikes on Thursday. But despite signs of a common agenda, it appears that Putin's main interest is in restoring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — who is considered responsible for thousands of deaths — rather than destroying terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS).

Meanwhile, Russian authorities are stuck in neutral in Crimea. Russia cannot step back from the peninsula without losing face, given the expense and popularity among the Russian public of the annexation, but also cannot move further into Ukraine without involving official ground troops — a move that lacks popular support.

As Putin ponders his next move, the West's so-called smart sanctions are slowly tightening the noose around the Russian economy.

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Unlike earlier broad-brush trade embargoes, the sanctions are designed to hit Moscow where it hurts, cutting off Russian companies' access to technology needed to support the energy industry. The aim is also to cause minimal damage to Western countries with economic ties to Russia, like Germany, Italy and Greece.

"Russia sanctions have been very cleverly targeted to hit what it wants — or what the West thinks it wants: Western technology and technological support for its oil and gas industry, which is only available in the U.S., the U.K., Europe and Australia," said Denton.

"We are very slowly going to see things (in Russia's energy sector) dropping off… It is a much more clinic use of financial sanctions."

Sarosh Zaiwalla, a senior partner at Zaiwalla & Co Solicitors who represents oil majors in both Russia and Iran, said that sanctions had already hit the ability of Russian companies to raise long-term funds and invest the huge sums needed to develop shale and deep-water oil resources.

On Tuesday, Russia's energy ministry announced the postponement of all drilling operations on Russia's Arctic Shelf for up to three years, a move that Zaiwalla said was predominately due to the impact of sanctions.

"Sanctions by the U.S. and EU governments on Russia have severely impacted the Russian oil industry, cutting it off from the international market and causing the industry to turn inward. As a result, major international exploration ventures such as those in the Arctic have suffered, as restrictions on financial and technical assistance have forced oil majors to pull out," Zaiwalla, said in a comment emailed to CNBC on Tuesday.

—By CNBC's Katy Barnato. Follow her on Twitter @KatyBarnato.