Russia Sanctions Put West in 'Juggling Act' to End Ukraine War

As peace talks between Ukraine and Russia continue, the West aims to strike a balance between making a deal to end the war and sending a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin against his invasion—but experts say that balance could be tested should Russia demand an end to Western sanctions.

Negotiators from both countries met this week to reach an agreement to end the Russian-led invasion of Ukraine that began at the end of February. The war has devastated Ukraine while also leaving Russian leaders frustrated at their lack of progress, placing a peace deal in sight for the first time in over a month.

During these negotiations, Western leaders are practicing a "juggling act" of trying to broker a peace deal while also sending a message to Putin against international aggression, Robert English, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, said in an interview with Newsweek Tuesday.

He said he believes Russia will eventually demand an end to the sanctions, explaining peace talks could come in multiple phases—with an immediate emphasis on demilitarization while later focusing on Ukraine's neutrality and sanctions.

Many in the West will initially react "very negatively" to the demand, arguing aggression should never be rewarded, he said. But he cautioned against such a hardline approach, warning it could prolong the conflict.

"If you want the satisfaction of seeing Putin removed from office, destroyed, killed or arrested, you might cost another 5,000 Ukrainian lives for that satisfaction," he said.

Western nations have sat down with other world leaders viewed as adversaries to "make a deal with a devil" in the past, English noted. He specifically pointed to the 1995 Dayton Accords, in which leaders negotiated a peace agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

English said he believes Western sanctions have inhibited Russia's ability to engage in further conflicts by showing Putin how the West would react to any future aggression and also shattering his military.

Other experts on Russia disagreed, including Maria Popova, a professor at McGill University.

"The West should not even think about lifting sanctions until every last soldier has left Ukrainian soil," Popova said in an interview with Newsweek.

Popova said it is "extremely" premature for negotiators to even begin discussing sanctions during their peace talks in Turkey. If Russia were to bring it up, it would be "shot down at this point" by the West, she said.

The only negotiation should be Ukraine's position in international systems including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a commitment to not pursue nuclear armament, Popova said.

Popova said she believes it is too early at this point for Russia to commit to any serious deal because Putin has not "given up" on his goals in Ukraine. She warned against the West caving, saying they cannot send a message that Ukrainian territory will be used as a "bargaining chip," pointing to the wider context of the conflict.

"What is happening right now is not only Ukraine safeguarding independence, but also the international rule-based order by not allowing interstate aggression to be rewarded," she said.

While sanctions have not yet been a focus of negotiations, leaders from Ukraine and Russia have indicated they may be open to compromise on topics such as Donbas, Crimea and Ukraine's neutral status.

Sanctions so far have been widespread, applying to Russian banks, companies, oligarchs, lawmakers, defense companies and ships. Several countries, including the U.S., also ended the import of Russian oil, a major sector of its economy.

Experts speak on Russian sanction
As peace talks begin between Ukraine and Russia, experts offered opposing views on whether the West should lift sanctions imposed onto Russia. Above, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in Moscow on March 10, 2022. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the sanctions, Russia continued their invasion of Ukraine. But there are signs that sanctions caught Moscow off guard. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov admitted the Kremlin was surprised by the scope of the Western sanctions.

"When the reserves of the Central Bank were frozen, no one who was predicting what sanctions the West would pass could have pictured that," he said in a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

The war has so far upended the lives of million of Ukrainians, creating what has been labeled a humanitarian crisis. At least 1,179 civilians have been killed—with Russia facing international condemnation for attacks on civilian areas including schools and hospitals, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, millions more Ukrainians have been displaced by the conflict.

Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment. This story will be updated with any response.