Ever since Russia escalated the crisis in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea, the Western response has relied on semi-tough talk and sanctions. Western governments ruled out the use of military force explicitly from the outset, and essentially defaulted to sanctions for lack of other policy options. As Russian meddling in East Ukraine intensifies, it is becoming abundantly clear that sanctions are not really expected to deliver much of anything except show that the West is “doing something” to stop Putin. The problem with sanctions (aside from the fact that they provide an excuse not to consider alternatives) is that they can be worse than doing nothing. Yes, that’s right, we might be better off abandoning Ukraine – although I personally think we absolutely should not – than sanctioning Russia.
The scholarly debate on sanctions revolves around their effectiveness: do they work, and if they do, under what circumstances. Whatever the consensus is – and I am not sure we have more than a bunch of “mixed results” – the fundamental shortcoming of this debate is that it fails to consider a third possibility: that sanctions might aggravate the very behavior they are meant to discourage.
First, let’s dispense with the notion that the sanctions can actually force Putin to change course. Even now the limited sanctions are targeted at Putin’s close friends and allies, and so rely on the unwarranted assumption that he is a typical authoritarian leader who must depend on the support of elites. But Russia, owing to its incomplete transition to a market economy is stuck in situation where the oligarchs seemingly control vast wealth but are in fact at the mercy of the state, which owns directly or less so nearly everything and which is responsible for the vast share of the economy. The oligarchs are not going to take a saw to the branch they are sitting on.
As one should have expected, these sanctions achieved nothing, and now the logical next step is … more sanctions, only of a different sort. This time, we are told, “we will impose increasing costs on Russia” until it stops destabilizing Ukraine. The sanctions might hurt the economy by prompting capital flight (although the outflow so far has been from Russian assets – which can be intimidated into staying – and not from reducing inflows from foreign investors). The idea is that by hurting the Russian economy, we will hurt the Russian people, and this will somehow discipline Putin.
We can, of course, immediately engage in the traditional sanctions debate for there is very little reason to believe that the sanctions will have this salutary effect. Putin seems quite secure, so even if sanctions succeed in eroding this support, it is unlikely that his regime would wobble. Certainly not in time to help in the crisis in Ukraine: by the time any such wobbling occurs, Ukraine might have been dismembered.
It is not even certain that the sanctions will seriously hurt the economy despite the capital flight we have seen so far. The usual collective action problem will ensure that the West will not hold the line. Given the strong commercial and energy links between Russia and the European Union, EU cooperation is key but the US and the EU are already split over what sanctions are appropriate. Even worse, the EU cannot coordinate a response internally in part because everyone wants someone else to pay and few wish to antagonize Russia.
We should, however, consider what might happen if sanctions actually do hurt the Russian economy as intended. Contrary to expectations, this will increase Putin’s domestic position and the support for his policies. How can that be? Why would ordinary Russians reward policies that are so obviously directly linked to the deterioration of their economic conditions?
From 2010 until early 2014, economic performance approval had been steady but Putin’s approval had taken a steep dive (although, to keep things in perspective, it never dipped below 60%). One can interpret this, as Daniel Treisman does, to say that “Putin’s popularity remains highly vulnerable to a further deterioration in the economy.” If so, hurting the economy might compel him to change course provided he cares about his approval and provided that he is blamed for that deterioration. The problem is that Russians are not going to blame Putin for this, they will blame the West.
As I have argued here and here, Putin’s regime is by now almost entirely legitimized by the idea of recovering Russia’s rightful place in the sun. His policies have explicitly aimed at overcoming what I call the Cold War Syndrome – the purported illness that has afflicted Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union and that is to blame for all its current troubles at home and abroad. Briefly, with the disappearance of the military might of the USSR, Russia has been unable to resist the victorious West which has relentlessly advanced everywhere, pushing a new Iron Curtain ever closer to the Russian borders. The expansions of NATO and the EU, the increasing commercial and cultural penetration around the globe, globalization itself, all of this has marginalized Russia, depriving it of influence and forcing it into the humiliating role akin to that of former colonies of the West: exporter of raw materials to fund Western consumerism. Russia can only prosper if it counters these tendencies and establishes a zone of influence in Eurasia. It must halt the inexorable advance of the West, which has moved the Iron Curtain east, and this can only be done if it recovers its military posture.
This portrait of the past and prescription for the future are not merely crude propaganda relentlessly prompted by the Russian media obedient to Putin but also widely shared beliefs among ordinary Russians, whose attitudes toward the US and the EU have hardened considerably in recent years, whose estimate of Russian power has reached new heights (and with it, the sense of encirclement), even though many of whom have not seen much of the post-Soviet wealth, do not have much to live on, and live in a world of corruption. In a sense, since the economy has reached the limits with what it can deliver without political and market reforms, and because the export-funded bribes through subsidies are unsustainable, Putin must tap into these emotions for legitimacy.
Ukraine is an integral part of any zone that Russia can hope to influence. If Ukraine goes, this entire policy will be in shambles, and Putin’s regime will be dangerously discredited since it will have failed to deliver on the thing it itself had identified as the most important prerequisite for prosperity. Trying to keep the West out of Ukraine is thus seen not merely as a legitimate foreign policy goal, but as a vital necessity for the future of Russia. If our sanctions succeed in inflicting harm on the Russian economy, the inevitable conclusion will be that Putin was right all along and the West is punishing Russia for pursuing its only chance of prosperity. This can only bolster the popularity of his regime and strengthen its determination to continue its aggressive policies.
Doing nothing might embolden Putin so it has its own drawbacks. But hurting the Russian people will surely make things even worse, for the Cold War will resume.
Branislav L. Slantchev is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego.
Sweden, Russia, and the New Cold War: Stockholm Syndrome
On Thursday, Swedish intelligence reportedly picked up a distress call from an unknown vessel in its waters off Stockholm. The call, in Russian, may have been from a Russian submarine.The Russians have denied having any naval assets in the area. Since then, Swedish naval forces have been trying to locate the vessel, and have warned commercial traffic away from the search area.
If this were an isolated incident, and it weren’t in Swedish waters, it could be written off as the sort of routine encounter that navies have from time to time. But the location and the fact that these events are occurring regularly proves that Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia has resumed one of its principal habits from the Cold War.
During the Cold War, Russian aircraft frequently probed American defenses at home, in Europe and elsewhere to gain intelligence on which of our forces would react, in what strengths and how quickly. Their navy shadowed ours – and vice versa – for the same reason. But the number of such incidents is increasing steadily. Last month, for example, a Russian “fighter drag” – in military parlance, a tanker aircraft flying along with several fighters to refuel them on a flight far outside their normal range – was intercepted off Alaska by US Air Force fighters.
The apparent incursion in Sweden’s waters is almost certainly another example. Though the emergency radio broadcast to Russia may have been a distress call, one source – an expert on the Russian military – suggested that it is more likely a test of the submarine’s ability to evade Swedish forces and escape. (He also said that the submarine in question might be a relatively small Russian special forces sub known as the “Losos Class” which were supposedly scrapped in the 1990s, or a new version of it.)
The increasing tempo of these incidents, and the West’s failure to react to them, comes at a time when Russia’s economy – dependent on oil and gas sales, especially to Europe – is threatened by a major drop in the price of oil. But Russia appears undeterred. Its military spending – though undisclosed – must be enormous judging by its actions and its development and production of major weapon systems.
Last week, President Obama said that the sanctions against Russia could be lifted if Russia pursued peace and diplomacy. He was answered on Sunday by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, who mocked the failed Obama-Clinton “reset” of Russian-American relations. Lavrov said, “We are absolutely interested in bringing the ties to normal but it was not us who destroyed them. Now they require what the American would probably call a 'reset'.”
This is the sort of rhetoric Putin uses often. It is not just reminiscent of Soviet Cold War rhetoric, it is identical in tone and intent. Both he and Lavrov – and their Soviet forebears – always blamed the West for what was wrong and denied any fault. They mocked Western words and actions in a manner calculated to make the West always the supplicant. And they always declared their only interest was in peace. We came to be used to that in the Cold War, but the new generation of national leaders – Obama, Britain’s Cameron, France’s socialist Hollande and Germany’s Merkel – have neither judged Putin’s Russia as the neo-Soviet adversary it is nor have they undertaken any policy or strategy to combat Russia’s revived hegemonistic ambitions.
It’s not hard to diagnose them as suffering a new version of “Stockholm Syndrome,” the psychological effect in which hostages sympathize with their captors. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and subsequent quasi-invasion of Ukraine was condemned, belatedly, by some governments and minor sanctions put in place that have proved to be entirely ineffective in changing Russia’s behavior. It is as if these leaders believe they are Putin’s captives. Ronald Reagan used to commemorate the enslavement of the Soviet Union’s conquered satellites in “Captive Nations Week.” Now the West is more interested in appeasing Putin than in ensuring the freedom of Ukrainians.
The NATO Treaty doesn’t requires any member nation to spend any specific amount of its gross domestic product on defense and none - except for the United States – spend more than a token amount. It’s no wonder that they suffer from a national version of the Stockholm Syndrome. If they don’t believe in investing in their own defense, why should they believe they can stand up to any aggressor?
Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H. W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research and the author of several books, including "In the Words of Our Enemies," and "The BDS War Against Israel.
When a state sends more than a thousand troops with mobile artillery and heavy equipment into a neighboring state and takes control of territory, that’s an invasion, right?
Not according to NATO, which reported the Russian military movements in Ukraine this past week but depicted them only as increased Russian “interference.” And not according to President Obama, who saw Russia being only “a little more overt” in its support of secessionists in southeastern Ukraine. And certainly not according to President Vladimir V. Putin, whose lieutenants simply denied everything and labeled the evidence a Western “canard.”
Spin, of course, is an elemental political tool, and for the West to call the invasion an invasion would require a response that neither Washington nor other Western capitals nor NATO are prepared for. But an invasion it is, and the fundamental challenge to the liberal world order that it poses will be high on NATO’s agenda when its leaders gather in Wales this week.
As for Mr. Putin, the lie is an honored Soviet propaganda tool he has used since the start of the Russian campaign against Ukraine. The Russian leader is aware that acknowledging an invasion would not only sharply elevate the level of tension with the West, but would carry considerable domestic repercussions. Polls show that only 5 percent of Russians would support sending their troops into Ukraine.
When Russia acknowledged that Ukraine had captured some Russian soldiers — Moscow said they accidentally wandered across the border — mothers and girlfriends of the prisoners immediately and loudly began demanding an explanation.
The implausibly deniable invasion of Ukraine, to play on an old C.I.A. term, is not the only unconventional war facing the United States and NATO. There is also the question of what to do about ISIS, the brutal jihadist outfit marauding through Iraq and Syria.
In brief comments on Ukraine and the Middle East on Thursday, President Obama said the United States had not yet formulated a strategy for dealing with ISIS inside Syria, but he confirmed he had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for options. But however reluctant he and the American public were to get militarily involved abroad, it was clear that neither the United States nor NATO could ignore the two threats.
As NATO grapples with armed conflicts, international health authorities will be fighting their own unconventional war against the Ebola virus, which spread to a fifth West African country, Senegal, and, according to the World Health Organization, could eventually infect 20,000 people.
In this struggle, too, finding a strategy was not always easy. Liberia’s misguided attempt to quarantine the squalid West Point neighborhood of the capital of Monrovia, the African city hit hardest by Ebola, created a reaction arguably as dangerous as the infection, with residents crowding together and battling surrounding soldiers and the police.
The Convenient Lie
The crisis in Ukraine has been underway now for half a year, and the Russian involvement, from the outright annexation of Crimea in March to the men, arms and convoys repeatedly reported spotted in the fighting in the southeastern industrial belt, has been obvious. But something seemed to change in the past week, when Mr. Putin amiably shook hands with President Petro O. Poroshenko on Tuesday, just two days before NATO reported that more than 1,000 Russian soldiers with artillery and other heavy weaponry were on the march inside Ukraine, and as rebels poised themselves for a new thrust along the Sea of Azov.Until now, Europe, and to a lesser degree the United States, had publicly sustained the myth that Russia was intent only on destabilizing Ukraine to deter it from shifting westward politically, rather than to gain control over its eastern provinces, and that Mr. Putin could be brought to the negotiating table through sanctions and censure. But the Russia-backed rebel drive toward the port of Mariupol could also open a land route from Russia to Crimea, underpinning Russian control of a broad section of Ukrainian territory that Mr. Putin has provocatively called by its old czarist name, “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.”
The West has been reluctant to acknowledge that Mr. Putin may be seeking actual control over the Donbass region, in part because breaking with Russia would endanger a major European energy source and lucrative trade deals, including the French sale of two Mistral-class assault ships to Moscow. More broadly, defining Russia as an enemy would mean an end to the post-Cold War world order based on the international rule of law — an order in which a democratizing Russia was to be a partner in integrating emerging economies, fighting terrorism and reining in rogue states.
Mr. Putin has craftily assisted Europe in its illusions by consistently denying any role in the Ukrainian fighting, regularly referring to the Europeans as “our partners,” pinning the blame for the crisis on American “unilateralism,” and posing as a mediator between Kiev and the pro-Russian militias. His actions, however, reflect a primitive and aggressive brand of geopolitics that was not supposed to have survived the Cold War.
In his comments on Thursday, Mr. Obama seemed intent first of all on restraining expectations of what the United States might do about either Ukraine or ISIS. Russia’s actions, he said, were “not really a shift,” and he was vague about tightening sanctions.
Yet the pressure for intervening more directly in Ukraine by supplying the government in Kiev with weapons and intelligence is bound to grow, both within the Obama administration and among Eastern European states.
The Islamic State
That challenge extends to Iraq and Syria, where the latest iteration of fanatical Islam, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has established a virtual state straddling the two countries through military prowess and ruthless cruelty.
While Washington has agreed to airstrikes against ISIS inside Iraq to protect threatened minorities and to give the Baghdad government time to marshal its badly battered and fractured forces, President Obama emphasized on Thursday that no decision had been made yet on dealing with ISIS inside Syria.
But there was a growing awareness that ISIS could not be curbed so long as it could flee to bases in Syria. Officials were said to be debating whether to use drones or fighter jets, and whether to target ISIS forces or specific leaders.
Mr. Obama did not address the actual choices before him. His message was not the action the United States or its allies might take, but rather the inadmissibility of any mission creep.