What is it all for?

Well, he did it. The amassing of some 160,000 troops on its borders was a clear sign of intent to invade Ukraine. Still, the feeling of shock expressed by so many at the actual event is genuine because of the enormous ramifications and import of the most significant military ground offensive in Europe since World War Two. Before that, however, Russian troops seized Ukrainian territory three times – in 1913, 1939 and 1944. Even a cursory glance at 100 years of history shows it has a habit of intervening in the country.

But this invasion is a direct assault on the post-1945 agreement that international borders should not be changed by war and that the rule of law in international affairs should be adhered to.

True, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia was bloody and involved military intervention from the US and others under the auspices of the United Nations to save lives and help restore peace. Moreover, the old Soviet Union intervened in countries in its orbit, notably Hungary in 1956.

Putin has intervened militarily in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, and further afield in Syria. Hence, it was not a surprise that this invasion could happen. But it is a shattering of the belief that the world (perhaps a parochial view that Europe held despite its history of war.) had changed sufficiently to make it very difficult, morally and psychologically, to act in this way – not to mention economically damaging.

However, there is a legitimate point perhaps about the post 9/11 actions of the US and NATO. Those actions seem to have eroded the acceptance of rules via international law that limited the ability of powerful states to intervene in other countries militarily, with impunity and little sanction. When one thinks of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the considerable civilian casualties that ensued, it would be naive to think that authoritarian states were not paying attention and have used them to their advantage. Was NATO’s expansion a mistake (or are recent events proof that it was needed)? Should there have been greater generosity towards Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union? It is now too late for these what-ifs; the reality is that major war has returned to Europe after a hiatus since 1945.

A focus on sanctions

The focus is on sanctions because a ‘hot’ war with Russia in Ukraine – sending troops from foreign countries to fight Russian troops directly – is simply out of the question. As US President Joe Biden said, a confrontation between US and Russian troops could quickly escalate into World War Three between two of the world’s most heavily armed nuclear countries. Moreover – harsh though it may seem to write this – Ukraine is not vital to US national interests.

But a proxy war – supporting those Ukrainians fighting Russia with weapons provided by the West is what will – and to the extent already is, happening in Ukraine. It seems highly unlikely that Ukrainians will accept a ‘puppet’ regime should one be installed, so insurgency will persist.

However, I’m afraid the question has to be asked whether the sanctions goal of forcing Russia out of Ukraine will work. Unfortunately, history tells us that sanctions don’t work if the aim is to bring down a regime or force a meaningful behaviour change. Think of the more than 50-years embargo on Cuba by the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world. It has not worked. Think of Iran or North Korea. Their leaders remain firmly in power, perhaps more firmly than if those sanctions had not been in place.

Embargos and sanctions create difficult conditions, even if carefully targeted at the wealthy. They tend to create poverty, shortages and lower living standards. But it impacts those at the bottom of the income scale, the innocent and the less well connected. Indeed, it entrenches those in power because it gives the well-connected influence and patronage.

It also gives convenient excuses for economic mismanagement and a host of other ill-judged policy decisions. Since 1945, there have been about 1400 cases of countries being either threatened with or hit by sanctions. But few, if any, led to any meaningful change.

Often people quote South Africa as an example of a country that seemed to be changed by sanctions on the apartheid regime. However, deeper analysis shows that the real reason for its collapse was the rise of the powerful black South African unions, the inability of a tiny minority to control what was, in the end, a popular uprising and economic mismanagement. The reality is that the sanctions were an inconvenience but no game-changer. Domestic events were far more important, despite what the myth says.

Russia’s economic and military size argue for diplomacy

But the other economic reality is the sheer size of Russia. It is the largest country globally by landmass – nearly twice the size of Canada, the next biggest. It has an abundance of natural resources, a history of fighting off attacks from outside, and a history of not being able to depose despotic leaders easily (the 1917 revolution is an exception rather than a rule).

True, it is ‘only’ the 11th largest economy in the world (5th in Europe) and 64th in terms of per capita income, but it makes up for that in other ways. Moreover, when did being poor make a country succumb to sanctions or the will of outsiders? There are too many examples to cite – even in recent memory – of countries poorer than Russia, defying the will of more prosperous, more powerful nations.

Moreover, while not an economic powerhouse, Russia is a nuclear superpower. Exports of military equipment are second only to the US, and it has a cutting-edge high tech and space industry. Moreover, it is a significant exporter of oil, gas, and a range of crucial metals, minerals and agricultural products. It will find many buyers for its products, sanctions or not. Neighbouring large countries such as India and China may still be ready markets for its products.

That said, there will be an impact from the monetary, economic and other trade sanctions for sure, but they will not force Russia out of Ukraine unless it wishes to leave. Hence, the political economy of Putin’s Russia forced out by sanctions does not add up.

Reaching a deal with Vladimir Putin, who history suggests is highly unlikely to be removed from office by the elite or the military, will be required. A popular uprising that removes him cannot be ruled out if hardship bites, of course, but at this time, it too seems unlikely and more like wishful thinking.

Sanctions will remain and possibly intensify as the war reaches a tragic, messy conclusion and ongoing instability, ensuring that no one will come out of this a ‘winner’.