Sanctioning Russia’s science community: at what cost?

Sanctioning Russia’s science community: at what cost?
Vincenzo Palermo, National Research Council, Italy” by scienceeurope is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western states, such as the US, UK and Germany have engaged in intense discussions about how to sanction Putin’s Russia most effectively. In the name of the West’s isolation strategy, numerous sanctions have been imposed, including on Russia’s science sector. A closer look at Western sanctions against the Russian scientific community suggests that the West’s isolation strategy might entail unintended effects, such as undercutting any long-term hopes for a more liberal Russian society, rolling back years of scientific collaboration on climate change and eventually, pushing Russia further into a codependent relationship with China.   

Western sanctions on Russia’s science sector

Within days of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, European countries sanctioned the Russian scientific community. Germany reacted the fastest and most severely, announcing only one day after the invasion that Berlin would categorically halt any existing and long-standing scientific collaborations with Russian research institutions. The national research councils of several other European countries, including France, Italy, and the Netherlands, followed suit, cutting off existing partnerships with their Russian academic peers. Various other European governments have strongly urged their national scientific institutions to immediately abandon academic partnerships with Russia. 

The biggest blow to Russia’s research community occurred as the European Commission declared that Russian projects will be suspended from the Horizon Europe initiative, the EU’s flagship funding programme with a budget of €95.5 billion. This decision effectively ends any EU-Russia partnerships in the sectors of science, research, and innovation. 

What are the intended effects? 

These sanctions intend to further place Russia into a vacuum of isolation, and they are starting to show effects. Russian scientists have spoken out about their new demoralising reality, reporting that Western sanctions increasingly leave them without equipment and technology, as well as access to international data and the ability to share and discuss their work with their international peers. As a result, long-term Russian research initiatives could be unable to survive the international freeze and may have to be abandoned outright.

While we must wait to fully assess the sanctions’ impact, a first glance at the chart below suggests that Russia’s scientific community will be severely harmed. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian scientists primarily depended on bilateral collaborations with mostly European countries. In fact, Western countries accounted for nine out of the ten most important scientific collaborators with Russia, a statistic that will have to be revised after the imposed sanctions.

The decision by the West to curtail or halt scientific ties also intends to politically frustrate the Kremlin. Putin’s government has long made the expansion of Russia’s scientific sector a top priority, pushing its universities to play an active role in the international science community. In fact, over 50 research and innovation programmes have been approved by Putin in the last decade, with the Kremlin spending almost one trillion rubles on innovation efforts between 2006 and 2020. Thus, the sanctions imposed counteract Putin’s political goal of transforming Russia’s rent-based economy, which is centred on oil and gas revenues, into an innovation-driven one.

What are the unintended effects?

The sanctions, however, not only hurt Putin’s political ambitions, but also Russian scientists, a group of people who are arguably most likely to critically evaluate and reflect upon their government’s political and military aggressions. Despite the likely consequences of arrest and detention, individual scientists have reported on their efforts to directly or indirectly protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than 7,500 graduates, students, and staff members of Moscow State University, the country’s oldest and most prestigious university, have anonymously signed a declaration underscoring their categorical condemnation of Russia’s brutal aggression on Ukraine. Statements like this one emphasise that Western sanctions against Russian scientists not only undermine Putin’s political objectives, but also weaken a key segment of the already weakened Russian protest movement, undercutting any long-term hopes for a more liberal Russian society. 

Furthermore, while Western sanctions may make political sense, eliminating scientific engagement with Russia is a lose-lose situation from a scientific standpoint. The pressing threat of climate change is the best example to demonstrate that the international community necessitates international scientific collaboration. Because of its enormous size, including the Arctic and Siberia, Russia is a significant collaborator in climate change research. International scientists have acknowledged that the world community is reliant on Russia because without access to Russian territory, crucial empirical data would be unavailable. As such, the current sanctions on Russia’s science community could roll back years of collaboration on climate change, and are likely to interrupt scientific measurements at some stations in Russia’s Arctic. 

Due to the closure of communication lines and the cancellation of research excursions between Western and Russian scientists, the Russian scientific community will have to re-calibrate – and will likely migrate east. Not only is China Russia’s third-largest Research & Development partner, it is also one of the few countries that continues its scientific collaboration with Russia unrestrictedly. The Russian-Chinese science cooperation has further consolidated in recent years. In 2020, the two countries collaborated on roughly 800 different science projects, whilst Russia is a key participant in China’s ‘Alliance of International Science Organisations’. In the long-run, Western sanctions on Russia’s scientific community are likely to further catalyse closer scientific and potential political collaborations between Russia and China. 

Looking ahead

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine needs to be met by Western allies with severe economic sanctions that cripple Putin’s ability to continuously finance the war. However, an all encompassing isolation strategy that categorically imposes sanctions on every single Russian sector may result in friendly fire. Thus, the main challenge remains to strike an effective balance between freezing all Western-Russian collaboration that could aid Putin’s government to continue its war in Ukraine, while also maintaining partnerships and communication channels that aid our international community in solving global threats.

As such, Russia’s science and research sector should be treated particularly carefully. The continuation of science projects relating to climate change in the Arctic, for instance, is unlikely to leverage Russia’s position in the war, but has proven paramount in the global science community’s efforts to better understand climate change, humanity’s biggest existential threat.

Categories: International, Security

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