Western energy sanctions have not yet changed the nature of the war in Ukraine, says Professor Helen Thompson, speaking at The Defence of Europe Conference, co-hosted by Reaction and Kings College London. 

That’s not to say they haven’t shocked Putin, adds Thompson, a Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. On the contrary, “I think Putin has been taken aback that there have been any energy sanctions at all.”

More crucially, Thompson says: “I don’t see any evidence that it’s changed any calculation Putin has made during the course of the war so far.”

The problem according to Thompson is that energy sanctions will only change the calculus if they are both “very drastic and very quick.”

The EU has committed to a Russian coal embargo while the US and UK made a “relatively quick commitment” to give up Russian oil – with the US embargo taking immediate effect and the UK by the end of the year. More recently, the Germans have also agreed to phase out all Russian oil by the end of the year.  However, Thompson asks whether those threats to cut Russian supplies have really changed Putin’s behaviour in the short, or indeed, long-term. 

This lag also gives Putin time to transport more petroleum products to Asia. And the possibility of “replacing the European market share with Asian market share will allow Putin to think the risks of the war are worth it.”

Faster, more drastic energy sanctions should not be ruled out, according to Thompson. Yet she says that we must make these decisions with “open eyes” about the major geopolitical consequences. The food and fuel impact of a Russian energy embargo would deliver “a seismic shock to the world economy,” and we can only enact such policies if we have a strategy for how to deal with this, she adds.

Certainly, when it comes to prior views on the politics of energy, the war in Ukraine has been something of a wake up call, says Thompson. Individuals can no longer deny, or play down, the fact that dependence on Russian energy has major geopolitical consequences. “Putin has been deliberately reinforcing European energy dependency over the last decade and nobody can have any illusions about the structural reasons why the price of energy is so high today.”