Over the last few months, several European politicians and business leaders have called for a partial or full lifting of the EU’s economic sanctions against Moscow. More often than not, these voices fail to specify the conditions the Kremlin would have to fulfill to benefit from such relaxation.

This contradicts the position of the European Council–representing the unanimous view of the 28 EU member state governments–which has linked the lifting of the economic sanctions to the “complete implementation of the Minsk agreements.” The latter would involve a full reversal of Russia’s illegal military presence in Ukraine’s Donets Basin, or Donbas, region. Most of the sanctions’ critics do not even mention Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, or de facto occupation of Moldova’s Transnistria region or Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Without a complete implementation of the Minsk Agreements, any lifting of economic sanctions would be an unwarranted act of appeasement.

Often, the proponents of a softer Western stance towards Russia try to shift the debate away from considerations of international law, European security and Western unity, and towards calculations of commercial interests. They portray themselves as more pragmatic and realistic than their supposedly idealistic opponents. They often downgrade the national security concerns of Eastern European states, in favor of the ostensibly more tangible benefits of better business relations with Russian entities. Many of their arguments center on the Russian market’s presumably high importance today and supposedly large potential in the future. This vision leads to permanent complaints, from EU businesses and their lobbyists, about allegedly high costs resulting from additional extensions of the sanctions regime.

Yet, how much damage have the sanctions actually caused to the European economy, as a whole? How important is the Russian market for the EU’s foreign trade today? And how relevant would the Russian market be in a hypothetical future, in which sanctions are indeed lifted, in part or in full?

In the last two years, EU-Russia economic ties have undergone a sharp downturn. According to Eurostat’s balance of payment statistics, the EU’s exports of goods to Russia peaked in 2012 at 122.1 billion euros, and stood at just 73.1 billion euros in 2015 – a fall of around 40 percent. EU exports of services to Russia peaked in 2013 at 30.3 billion euros, falling to 24.4 billion euros in 2015 (a fall of 19 percent). Investment income (inflows) from Russia into the EU went from 26.7 to 19.1 billion euros between 2013 and 2015 (a fall of 28 percent).

At first glance, these figures could suggest grave effects of the Western sanctions and of Russia’s so-called counter-sanctions on the EU economy. But this is not the case. First, the EU economy has come out rather well. While some sectors and businesses have suffered more than others, the EU economy as a whole has shrugged off these developments as other markets have, to varying degrees, filled the gaps. Overall, in spite of the Russian economic downturn, the EU’s total goods exports rose from 1,692 to 1,785 billion euros between 2013 and 2015. Over the same period, services exports increased from 700 to 811 billion euros, and investment income from 541 to 580 billion euros.

Second, the sanctions were not the leading cause for the fall in trade with, and the fall in income flows from, the Russian Federation. Most of the decline was driven by Russia’s recession and by the depreciation of its currency, both of which occurred primarily due to the steep fall in oil prices that unfolded from late 2014. Structurally, Russia’s economic problems have far more to do with the country’s high dependence on revenues from raw materials exports (chiefly crude oil, oil products, and natural gas) as well as a lack of competitiveness in other areas of economic activity. The latter situation is exacerbated by institutional weaknesses, unpredictable state interventions in the economy, high levels of corruption, and a worrying decline in Russia’s working age population. Western sanctions, and Russia’s partly self-defeating ban on Western food imports, have played a lesser role.

The most cited estimate of the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy comes from the IMF, in its August 2015 Russia country report. It suggests a fall in GDP of 1 to 1.5 percentage points for the first year of the sanctions. These figures should be put in the larger context of Russia’s 2015 recession, in which real GDP shrank by 3.7 percent. Russia’s current equilibrium growth rate, assuming a stable oil price, appears to be around 1.5 percent. The total size of Russia’s 2015 downturn, as compared to that equilibrium, was therefore somewhere around 5 percent. Thus, the impact of sanctions may have amounted to between a quarter and a third of the total downturn.

As mentioned, losses to the EU have been well contained as the Union’s total exports and investment incomes have gone up, not down. The Russian market’s current importance for the EU is thus low. Official balance of payment statistics reveal a picture at odds with the rhetoric of Kremlin-friendly lobbyists. In 2015, Russia’s importance for the EU, as a percentage of the world total and excluding intra-EU flows, was 4.1 percent for goods exports, 3.0 percent for services exports, and 3.3 percent for investment income. For comparison, the United States’ share in the EU’s revenues from foreign economic relations stood, in 2015, at 21.3 percent for goods exports, 26.1 percent for services exports, and 28.5 percent for investment income.

Looking to the mid-term future, most economic forecasters assume that sanctions will be lifted at some point. These assumptions are not political predictions, let alone political opinions. Rather, they are part of the working assumptions that need to be plugged into the mathematical models that economists use for their forecasts. For example, in its latest World Economic Outlook from April 2016, the IMF assumes, implicitly, that conditions will return to “normal” from 2018. The IMF also assumes that the average price of oil will be US$34.75 a barrel in 2016 and US$40.99 a barrel in 2017, and will remain unchanged in real terms over the medium term.

Using the IMF’s projections for Russian GDP growth and for the ruble exchange rate, we construct a rough estimate of the EU’s future income flows from Russia in 2020, as compared to its income values from the rest of the world. For each type of flow separately (goods exports, services exports, and investment income), our assumption is that the ratio between the size of the flow in euros at current prices, and an EU partner’s GDP in euros at current prices, will be the same in 2020 as it was, on average, between 2010 and 2015. These ratios are then multiplied by the IMF’s forecasts for Russian GDP, and for world GDP, in 2020, converted into euros. Our approach assumes that the EU’s market penetration ratios, in Russia as well as in the world economy as a whole, will be at similar levels in 2020 as they were over the 2010-2015 period.

On the basis of these projections, we suspect that even if sanctions are fully lifted, trade and investment income flows with Russia are unlikely to recover to, let alone surpass, their peak levels of 2012-2013. For instance, we estimate that goods exports to Russia could be below 100 billion euros at current prices in 2020, as compared to the peak level of 122 billion euros in 2012. Immediately before the escalation of the so-called “Ukraine crisis,” Russia’s share in the EU’s foreign trade revenues was 7.1 percent for goods exports, 4.3 percent for services exports, and 4.9 percent for investment income. Our projections point to a steep fall—even if sanctions are lifted by 2018—in Russia’s relative importance for the EU in 2020 to around 3.9 percent for goods exports, to around 2.4 percent for services exports, and to around 2.4 percent for investment income.

The main reason why our 2020 projections are so low is that, according to the IMF’s forecast, Russia’s GDP, when expressed at current prices and converted into euros, could still be lower in 2020 than it was in 2013. The IMF forecasts a positive but quite subdued recovery in Russian GDP when expressed in rubles, in combination with a slow and incomplete recovery in the value of the ruble. Of course, caveats, as always, apply. Above all, the oil price could recover much more strongly than the IMF currently assumes. As a result, the Russian economy, and its currency, would recover more strongly. Our predictions are also speculative insofar as they proceed from a ceteris paribus condition—that all other factors will remain equal. Many things could, however, change in the next five years.

Russia’s large geographic size and prominent role in international diplomacy should not mislead Western decision-makers into seeing opportunities that are not there.


We nevertheless make the following four conclusions. First, the Russian market was, in comparative terms, of limited importance to the EU even at its peak in 2013, when the price of oil was above US$100 per barrel and the ruble was strong. Second, this already small Russian share in EU trade has been further reduced by the combined effect of the oil price slump, Western sanctions, and other repercussions of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, its Syria campaign, and its clashes with Turkey, as well as various other economically damaging actions. Third, a partial recovery from the low levels of 2015 is possible in the medium-run, but cannot be taken for granted. Fourth, whether a recovery happens or not, Russia’s relative economic importance for the European Union—its share compared to other markets—will, for many years, be below or even far below what it was before the Ukraine crisis.

Western politicians and business leaders should take note of these realities. Extrapolating dated experiences into the future leads to illusory expectations. Policy recommendations should not be based on loudly circulated misperceptions. Russia’s large geographic size and prominent role in international diplomacy should not mislead Western decision-makers into seeing opportunities that are not there, at least in the near future. A possible lifting of sanctions, if discussed, should thus follow a political and security-based logic, rather than one based on narrow commercial interests. Specific EU businesses would almost certainly benefit from a relaxation of sanctions, but the effect on the EU economy as a whole would be very marginal.

To be sure, post-Soviet Russia’s considerable human and natural resources contain great promise. However, Moscow’s current rulers were not able to bring this potential to fruition in the recent period of favorable conditions. During the first decade of the new century, although energy prices were high and Western countries were eager to develop partnerships, Russia did little to modernize itself before the window of opportunity closed in 2014. For more than ten years, high oil and gas prices enabled the Kremlin to paper over the deep structural defects in the Russian economy. This period of (self-)deception is now over, both for the people of Russia and for their foreign partners. The Russian market they knew does not exist anymore, and will not reappear in the foreseeable future.