Cause for Optimism, Pause for Caution.
While the EU growing some teeth is welcome, the outcome that matters for Ukraine is still out of sight.
Being proven wrong for the right reasons is always welcome. In last week's essay, I criticised the resurgent isolationism in the U.S., reserved particular scathing for the “toothless” EU and its impotent geopolitical manoeuvring with Russia, and condemned the well-wishing rhetoric from national governments in the absence of tangible action for Ukraine. Almost as soon as the publish button was hit, these statements had been rendered obsolete by both national level policy changes and a sweep of economic sanctions proposed by both the EU and U.S.
Had that essay been published a week before those statements would have appeared as a more accurate assessment, the difference in as little as a week a testament to how quickly the current can change with the tides of public outcry. But the question that now begs is whether the current now pulls in the direction of the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. And this is where the primary actions taken require some consideration.
The Case for Optimism
Nothing represents the case for optimism in the EU potentially growing some teeth than Germany tearing up its sacred post-Second World War doctrines regarding military power and engagement. In fact, German policy permeated throughout the EU with regard to Russia, predicated upon the policy of Ostpolitik, the central thesis of which was that economic engagement with Russia would create mutual benefit and cooperation, bringing Russia more into the mainstream European fold and averting future conflict.
German hesitancy and inactivity has been discarded in favour of dealing with reality; that Ostpolitik failed to achieve its desired aims. Over a weekend, Germany committed to doubling its defence budget to the minimum proportion of GDP required by NATO. Certification for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which had rendered Germany mute during the Crimea annexation has been suspended. And Germany has committed, in an act unthinkable for German foreign policy 10-days ago, to the supply of weapons to Ukraine, a region where the Wehrmacht and SS had killed millions, military and civilian, during the Second World War.
In 2011, then Polish defence minister Radoslaw Sikorski stated of Germany:
“I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”
Europe has needed a Germany willing to lead on more than just economic policy, and that Germany has now arrived, willing to expand military capacities to defend democratic values.
This is not an isolated national shift, but it is certainly the most profound. Historically neutral Sweden, and Russia's direct neighbour Finland, both have tight legislation on arms trading that prohibits selling arms to at-war nations, and both have agreed to provide military equipment to Ukraine.
Such optimistic national shifts are not confined to the military realm. While Brexit Britain apparently sees the invasion as an opportunity to obtain some immigrants to pick fruit, Ireland waived visa requirements for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia, have all seen an enormous influx of Ukrainian refugees, with the Polish public mobilisation particularly heartwarming.
Indeed, the public response across various countries has been stirring. From individuals mobilising for donations, to ex-military personnel volunteering to fight for Ukraine, to the hundreds of thousands taking to the streets across European cities in protest and in support, if there was ever a doubt in anyones mind that Ukraine is of Europe, that is unambiguously gone. And U.S. and EU cohesiveness has suddenly been brought sharply back in step after two decades of drifting apart.
But while these steps are emotive and moving, and positive shifts like that of Germany and the renewed unity within both the EU and NATO are reassuring, do these changing tides swell in the direction of the most important outcome?
The Case for Caution
These movements have been met with much self-congratulatory rhetoric in the Western press, an applause for the fact that action is now being taken. But action to what end? It is crucial to have clear and unambiguous sight of the most important outcome: the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and full territorial integrity.
It is not particularly necessary that Putin's regime is overthrown to achieve this end; there is the possibility that he withdraws, claims some Pyrrhic victory (perhaps even retaining Donbas and Luhansk, which could be a tolerable resolution), and continues in power in Russia. However, this voluntary withdrawal equally appears unlikely based on what we know of Putin's self-deluded view of Russia, Ukraine and their people, and his unhinged autocracy.
And while it may be reassuring to see signs of the EU growing baby teeth, it is too late to bare them when the other dog has already bitten into your neck and won't let go. The reality is that the invasion represents a gross failing of geopolitical manoeuvring and deterrence by both Europe and the U.S. The policy of deterrence amounted to little more than closing eyes, crossing fingers, and hoping that an unhinged autocrat with a historically illiterate view of Ukraine and revisionist view of Russia's imperialism would not use the ~190,000 troops he had spent months amassing on the border in full view of everyone watching.
In July of last year, Putin had published an essay entitled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, all but signalling his ultimate intention. In this timeframe, the Biden administration had lifted sanctions from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, slowed down the shipment of military arms to Ukraine, and appeared to be acceding to the public mood of isolationism from fatigue for the ‘Forever Wars’, and debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal. The U.S. repeatedly, publicly stated that it would not intervene militarily in the event of invasion. Neither would NATO. And the EU would do nothing more than impose economic sanctions. The West all but acquiesced to the invasion.
Given Putin knew there would be no military deterrence, the only real consequence he had to consider was economic sanctions. But as Edward Fishman, Russian sanction lead at the U.S. State Department from 2011-2017, and Chris Miller of American Enterprise Institute, have pointed out, the 2014 sanctions introduced after the annexation of the Crimea may have given Putin confidence that if sanctions were the only response he would face, they would not be so disruptive to the economy in the long-term to deter a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
If economic sanctions were the primary method of deterrence which failed to have effect, now that the invasion has come to pass economic sanctions are the primary ‘weapon’ of choice being deployed in the hopes of ending the conflict. This seems entirely contradictory. The underlying problem with this school of thought is that it represents a Western solution to a problem viewed through a Western lens: economics. Ostpolitik was viewed through an economic lens, i.e., cooperation and mutual benefit would bring Russia into line with Europe; the would-be deterrence was viewed through an economic lens with the threat of sanctions; now the primary ‘weapon’ to wield to end the conflict is viewed through an economic lens.
If sanctions failed to act as a deterrent, how could sanctions act as a remedy? The most obvious answer would be that the economic sanctions being imposed now are not of the 2014 caliber; they are largely unprecedented in scope and intensity. But to quote Fishman and Miller:
“Such moves, however, are not a sign of policy success—despite the impressive transatlantic diplomacy. On the contrary, they represent a failure to deter Putin from invading Ukraine.”
In effect, the sanctions are a reactionary, after the fact intervention. The theory of economic sanctions is that their application will result in a change of political behaviour in a target state, without the deployment of military force. Sanctions tend to take two main forms: trade restrictions and financial restrictions. Both have been imposed with wide scope and intensity on Russian banks and assets, including the Russian central bank. It is beyond doubt that Russia's economy will be crippled. That isn't the question, nor the answer that matters.
Thus, the imposition of sanctions now must be viewed through the primary outcome of interest: will such sanctions lead to the withdrawal of Russian forces and the full restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty? History would suggest that this is unlikely. The crux of the issue may be summed up in a quote from a paper by political scientist Robert Pape:
“economic sanctions have little independent usefulness for pursuit of noneconomic goals.”
Historically, there are two main intended effects from the imposition of sanctions, whether express or implied:
Achieving a specific policy outcome, e.g., the signing of a treaty in exchange for the lifting of sanctions;
Influencing regime change in a target country.
In relation to Ukraine, the specific policy outcome is not a discrete endpoint like the signing of a treaty, but a military outcome: the cessation of conflict, full withdrawal of Russian forces, and full restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity. And regime change would involved the overthrow or removal of Putin from power, which relies on domestic forces within Russia to achieve.
Starting with outcome No.1 above, is there historical evidence that economic sanctions have successfully resulted in an invading military withdrawing from the soil of another sovereign nation? The quick answer is ‘no’. Heavy sanctions on Iraq to force withdrawal from Kuwait did not occur in isolation from military action in the first Gulf War. Sanctions on Serbia during the Kosovo War were not independent of the deployment of U.S. military airpower.
In a 1997 paper, Robert Pape analysed the use of sanctions between 1914 and 1990 when military outcomes were the intended policy agenda: sanctions had an effect independent of military action in less than 5% of incidences of their application. The table below, taken from the paper, illustrates different situations in which sanctions were imposed, where the ultimate outcome was achieved with with the use of force. Importantly, there is also no correlation between loss of gross national product (GNP) and success of economic sanctions.
Thus, history does not support that the use of economic sanctions has an independent effect on bringing about desired military policy outcomes, specifically the withdrawal of invading forces from the territory of another sovereign nation. In almost all of the historical incidences where sanctions have been imposed, the ultimate outcome has been brought about by other means, often the use of military force. The explanation for why sanctions appear to fail where the desired policy outcome is military is because coercive authoritarian states are often willing to accept high costs, including to their own civilian populace, in order to achieve their desired outcomes. Given Putin's commitment to the revisionist ideal of imperial tsarist Russia, and his views of Ukraine, history makes it seem unlikely that even this maximal imposition of sanctions would force his voluntary withdrawal.
This is where the cards remain stacked in Putin's favour. To quote Chris Miller of the American Enterprise Institute:
“The Kremlin believes it has a far higher tolerance for risk than its American or European counterparts.”
This risk tolerance extends not only to the imposition of sanctions, but to the threat of nuclear war, which is the primary deterrent for the West committing more military resources to the defence of Ukraine. Putin can hold that threat over the West while he pulverises Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Mariupol. If Putin has been willing to risk the effects of sanctions all along, this leaves the military risk squarely tucked away in Russia’s favour.
If the aim of economic sanctions is to force a lowering of Russian military capabilities, this is too little for Ukrainian cities now facing obliteration. Both the war in Georgia and Syria have revealed that the primary strategy of the Russian military is to annihilate cities, and the civilian populations living in them, into rubble. This is clearly the Russian strategy now in Ukraine. Ukraine has become symbolic of the West, and Putin is putting on a display for the world, as we sit and watch, hoping that some oligarchs are upset enough about their confiscated super yachts that they force Putin to call off the dogs.
Which leads us to potential effect No.2 with regard to economic sanctions, i.e., regime change in Russia. In a paper by Justyna Gudzowska and John Prendergast, the authors highlighted certain instances of economic sanctions influencing political outcomes. Sanctions may have played a role in forcing the then-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, to step down from running for a third term and facilitate a peaceful transfer of power, and may have influenced the decision of the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir to form the 'Unity Government' between rival factions. But neither of these scenarios involved the full overthrow of an autocratic ruler.
Sanctions are unlikely to change a bad actor and make a tyrant suddenly repent; but they may help to create an unstable playing field for malevolent actors by targeting the benefactors, beneficiaries, and facilitators, of a regime. The examples that Gudzowska and Prendergast highlighted involved such facilitators lobbying to have sanctions removed in return for a select policy outcome. In the present case, do we think that Roman Abramovich et al. will be able to convince Putin to withdraw troops from Ukraine because it is bad for business? This seems highly unlikely, given Putin's performative press conferences in which he visibly bullied his cabinet into supporting the war.
The reality is that, financially powerful as the Russian oligarch network are (or were, before sanctions), there is scant evidence that they have any influence on foreign policy. In fact, if Catherine Belton, author of Putin's People, is correct, it is the other way around: Putin exerts influence on the direction of oligarch business enterprise. If the implied hope of the effect of the economic sanctions on Russia is regime destabilisation, the fact is that both State repression and control of information to the populace render the likelihood of a bottom-up revolution by the people to overthrow Putin highly implausible. The gamble, then, is that any such regime change would be a top-down affair, an oligarch-orchestrated overthrow. Yet these oligarchs are his vassals, and beneficiaries. Et tu, Brutus? Who would wield the knife?
Nicholas Mulder, a historian specialising in the use of sanctions, highlights that not only do sanctions have broad negative effects on the civilian population of the target country, but they have historically exacerbated existing tensions and escalated conflicts, particularly in the 1930's with the League of Nations sanctions on fascist Italy. Iran currently has all major banks and all major state-owned Iranian businesses with blocking sanctions against them; and blocking of central bank asset have been imposed before on countries like Iran, Venezuala and North Korea. These sanctions have had little to no effect on the course of the respective regimes.
Importantly, the consequences of economic sanctions are primarily felt by the population, not the regime. In fact, the regime may benefit. Hadi Kahalzadeh, an economist for Iran’s Social Security Organization from 2002 to 2011, highlighted that the poverty rate in Iran rose by 11% between 2018 and 2020 after the U.S. imposed maximum sanctions; the average wage fell from $260/month to $70, and food poverty increased to 40% of the population, while education spending decreased by 30%. What effect have the imposition of maximal sanctions had on the trajectory of Iran? Increasing poverty for the poor, a dwindled middle class, and an emboldening of the hardline reactionary faction within the Revolutionary Guards.
As David S. Cohen, former Deputy Director of the CIA , and Zoe A.Y. Weinberg have outlined in a paper the use of economic sanctions:
“The logic of coercive sanctions does not hold, however, when the objective of sanctions is regime change. Put simply, because the cost of relinquishing power will always exceed the benefit of sanctions relief, a targeted state cannot conceivably accede to a demand for regime change....when broad-based economic sanctions are imposed in the quixotic pursuit of an impossible goal such as regime change, they are, in effect, purely punitive.”
What we have to ask is, if the success rate of economic sanctions in pursuit of the types of outcomes desired for Ukraine is so low, why are we suddenly optimistic about their use this time? The only answer to that is “well, you never know...” And while this is no doubt true - Putin may decide that to retain power, a tactical withdrawal may best serve his self-interest - it is also betting against history, a gamble which seldom pays off.
Hope vs. Reality
In the applause about the imposition of economic sanctions, there is scant discussion about the possibility that economic sanctions could be an effective means to the ends of Ukrainian independence and restoration of territorial integrity. In effect, the West's strategy is to apply everything but effective military force to hope to end a military invasion and conflict. Yet there is little in the literature and commentary pertaining to economic sanction use that suggests this is a genuine possibility. The reality is that in similar situations to the current crisis, military power was required to bring about a military outcome.
Just as the strategy of the West prior to invasion was simply to hope that Putin would not invade, now hope lies at the core of the strategy that economic sanctions, coupled with a supply of missiles and steady stream of grand rhetoric, can remove Russia from Ukrainian soil. For as much hope as we have seen in the responses of individuals and nation states in the past 10 days, and as draconian as the economic sanctions on Russia are, this all may be insufficient for the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty. Yet, as I was happy to be proved wrong that the EU was entirely toothless and watch it grow baby teeth in as little as a week, so I would be happy to be proved wrong again about this strategy.
While the reality remains grim, there is still cause for hope. The very idea of Europe is being reborn in Ukraine. Eastern Europe has long suffered the brunt of Europe's struggles for itself, the tragedy of empire and colonisation, of the respective barbarism of Nazi and Communist ideology. No European country has done more to embody the foundational ideas of Europe more in the last two decades than Ukraine; the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Maidan Revolution in 2014, and now the unflinching defence of their sovereignty from the crosshairs of yet another psychotic Russian tyrant. After decades of appeasement, Ukraine is waking the world up to a reality expressed by Moisés Naím of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
“Worse, disoriented by the multiple layers of dissimulation that modern autocracy involves, democratic societies have not even fully grasped that they are in a fight to protect their freedoms. This is a key strategic advantage for autocratic leaders: they know that they must undermine democracy to survive, whereas democrats have yet to realize that they need to defeat the new autocracy if they are to survive.”
And the reality is that, while the shift in direction for Germany and the EU is welcome, and the reengagement of the U.S. is reassuring, history suggests that Ukraine needs more help to expel Russia from its territory than economic sanctions. It isn't just that Ukraine may need this; they deserve it. Europe owes it to Ukraine for fighting for what the European ideal is all about.