How will the sanctions on Russia affect university students?

How will economic sanctions on Russia affect the country's higher education?
Civilians protest in different cities to oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has killed over 100 victims so far. Several Western nations have begun to impose economic sanctions on Russia to as a move to halt transactions contributing to military operations. Source: Mandel Ngan/AFP

“Ideological and political intolerance, even with the best and most sincere intentions, produces results that are the direct opposite of those intended,” wrote Mikhail Gorbachev, the last President of the Soviet Union before its dissolution in 1991. More than three decades later, the world is now shaken by the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western powers are now calling for economic sanctions on Russia to cripple the financial structures that directly contribute to its military operations as the disaster in Ukraine unfolds in real time.

How will higher education in Russia fare if harsher sanctions are imposed as the conflict stretches? Presently, the US and 27 countries under the European Union have almost unanimously decided to unleash punitive measures targeting Russian banks and companies linked to military technology, the AP News reports. According to The Guardian, the UK has frozen six Russian commercial banks. The US has blocked dollar transactions from Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank that is popular among international students.

How will economic sanctions on Russia affect university students?

Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia, is a target of the United States’ economic sanctions against the country. Source: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

When a full-scale conflict erupts, it’s easy to overlook how ordinary lives are impacted beneath political theatrics. While the efficacy of economic sanctions on Russia remains to be seen at this stage, its long-term effects could cripple the financial system.

Ordinary Russian citizens – many of whom are opposed to war against Ukraine — and foreign residents will have to pay the price of a war they didn’t sign up for. This includes the lives of domestic and international students in Russia, whose education might be affected by failed transactions and funding cuts resulting from international sanctions.

How do economic sanctions work?

According to the Council of Foreign Relations, economic sanctions are the withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations for foreign and security purposes. They can be either comprehensive to an entire country or a targeted campaign to halt transactions with individuals, groups, or businesses.

Past precedents have shown the detrimental outcome of prolonged sanctions on higher education. America’s ongoing sanctions on Iran, for instance, restrict mobility for Iranian students to participate in certain courses or exchange programmes. They also face financial barriers due to a weak currency brought upon by economic fluctuations. The effect persists to this day, such as recent accounts of Iranian students unable to make wire transfers to Chinese universities to settle their tuition fees, thus jeopardising their enrolment status.

What will happen to students with the current sanctions on Russia?

The current situation developing in Ukraine isn’t an unfamiliar sight. The Euromaidan protests in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea that happened in 2014 foreshadowed the present conflict in many ways, except at a more catastrophic scale.

Then, sanctions on Russia by Western nations had sparked worry among academics in Russia over work collaborations with foreign universities. For the most part, Russian students were able to secure visas to study abroad, with the US State Department iterating that university admissions are a private matter between the students and the university.

How will economic sanctions on Russia affect its higher education?

Economic sanctions introduce many barriers in higher education, including restrictions on student mobility and university research investments. Source: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

The present climate may not be so forgiving, given the casualty witnessed just two days into the invasion. International students in both Ukraine and Russia have either boarded the first plane out amid the heightened crisis, or are pleading with their respective governments for an exit out of safety concerns.

So far, the air in Moscow is still calm, albeit a little tense. “People in shopping centres and on public transportation are calm but are following very closely the news on their mobile phones, and on mounted TV screens in metro stations — but still very, very calm,” says Augustin Vyukusenge, a Burundian medical student in Moscow Technical University of Communications and Informatics.

It’s too early to spell out just how far the sanctions on Russia will affect its higher education, but studies have shown the impact can be far-reaching, even after they are lifted. While becoming the receiving end of sanctions isn’t new to Russia, a blow to its financial structure, especially with its largest bank involved, might inadvertently change the landscape of its higher education if students and academics lose out on opportunities. Not only does it restrict the academic activities of students, sanctions create a fragile university community due to low rates of investment in robust research, which is reliant on international collaboration.