“Sanctions Are Not A Substitute for Policy:” Dr. Anna Borshchevskaya Speaks on Russia-Ukraine


Megan Michaels, Contributor

“Vladimir Putin has catastrophically miscalculated the initial outcome of the war,” Dr. Anna Borshchevskaya stated when asked by Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of History Thomas Schwartz about her assessment of the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

On April 2, Vanderbilt’s Alexander Hamilton Society hosted an event, “Eastern Europe on the Road to War: A Conversation” with Dr. Anna Borschevskaya,” moderated by Professor Schwartz.Dr. Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Program on Great Power Competition and the Middle East, where she specializes in Russian policy in the Middle East. She is also a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy and a contributor to Oxford Analytica.

While acknowledging the “astonishing” scale of Vladamir Putin’s miscalculation, Dr. Borshchevskaya also pushed back on the commonly asserted belief that Putin is “crazy” for causing such atrocities. She explained that we gravitate towards this line of reasoning because it is difficult to comprehend what is happening, especially considering the “unprecedented era of peace” that we have been living in since the end of the Cold War. However, throughout human history, “war and violence was a rational choice for many leaders.”  Moreover, although she believes that the Russian military “failed” in its operation by pursuing so many objectives on the ground simultaneously, their attempts to regroup after suffering heavy losses has not been completely unsystematic.

When asked what exactly Russia wanted out of its attack on Ukraine, Dr. Borshchevskaya stated that Russia wanted to play out the Cold War—but with an alternative ending. She maintained that Putin wanted to disrupt Ukrainian sovereignty and challenge the U.S.-led “liberal, rules-based global order.”  This global order—which can be described as an international status-quo that validates the existence of small states and believes that there are limits to what a state can impose on its citizens—is viewed as a “dictatorship” by Putin, who claimed that “few states have true sovereignty.” A victory for Russia would be a situation in which some kind of “peace settlement” turns Ukraine into a rump state and gives Russia time to rebuild and eventually return to Ukraine in the near future. 

On the topic of current sanctions imposed by Western countries against Russia, Dr. Borshchevskaya stated that they “were put in place are meant to put long term pressure on the military industrial complex.” She said that theoretically they could be successful, but that it would require years. Ultimately, she concluded that sanctions cannot stand alone in U.S. foreign policy. While Dr. Borshchevskaya did not dismiss the strategy’s potential, she emphasized that they have little ability to deter Putin.Western foreign policy might have become a bit too over reliant on sanctions as the policy solution, concluding that“sanctions are not a substitute for policy.”

Moreover, Dr. Borshchevskaya warned that Putin’s discussion of nuclear weapons should be taken seriously, considering that Russia possesses the technological capabilities to launch an attack on the United States. However, she amended her answer by saying often, when Russia is involved, the West tends to assume the worst-case scenario. As a result, we often deter ourselves from taking certain steps, in fear that we might escalate the situation. Dr. Borshchevskaya asserted that “we need to stop worrying so much about escalating,” because Russia is not. 

Towards the end of the event, Dr. Borshchevskaya responded to an audience question about the future of Russia, in light of the fact that Vladamir Putin is 70 years old.“Russia is facing a lot of uncertainty,” she said. The answer to that question is unknown and unclear, particularly because Putin has not hinted at any potential successors. Furthermore, anyone who could challenge Putin politically is incarcerated, and she stated that she sees no chance of the Russian people rising up against him. At the end of the day, Dr. Borshchevskaya only sees a “dark future” for Russia.