We really want this to work. Tighten the screw on Russia with sanctions, hoping it will hurt so bad it brings change. Sorry, but it’s a pipe dream. Sanctions are necessary, but they don’t work. Here’s why.
The media make it sound like heavy strong-arming: Not even the central bank can function because of the sanctions. Huge funds and equities are cut off from their Russian owners, being it individuals, companies, authorities or banks. The flow of money and goods from Europe and other parts of the world, stops. How can this not work?
Of course it will have effect, big effects for some and significant effect on the general Russian economy, possibly including hyperinflation and recession. But it will not stop Putin. Because our analysis of dependency is more wishful thinking than reality.
The clue is China. China is much more than a friend of Russia, it is dependent on Russia. The flow of oil and electricity from Russia to China is enormous, as is the flow of money in the other direction. That flow is unaffected by the sanctions. Of course there are other variables in this equation, wares flowing in both directions – as pointed out very clearly in Umair Haque’s Why Putin’s not Backing Down – He’s Doubling Down (on Medium.com and eand.co). This flow will increase as the pipes between Russia and Europe get shut off. Which means that financially, Putin can keep his war going forever – his own people permitting. And – as Haque points out, our continuing – maybe increasing – business with China is helping Putin. The money-flow passes via China instead of directly. That puts our sanctions in a different light, doesn’t it?
In other words, our hands-off, sanctions only approach will hurt Russia, but not stop the aggression. There are only two ‘forces’ that can stop Putin, and I’ve mentioned both: China’s Xi and Putins own people – his staff/cabinet/generals and/or his citizens, who are paying the real prize for Putin’s ambitions – in addition to Ukraine. The latter will take time given Putin’s hardline approach to protesters. Still, all the small things we do as nations – stop buying product, block athletes from competing, cancel cultural events etc. – send signals that add up and affect the people’s perception of reality.
Which means that – short term, Xi is the key. He can stop Putin in a few days. Now, why would he do that?
Initially the thinking was that Xi would appreciate Putin’s attack on Ukraine. It would legitimize a similar attack on (say) Taiwan, maybe even Korea – North and South. In line with Xi’s obvious ambitions. If Putin’s Ukrainian project went smoothly. It didn’t. In effect, Ukraine’s strength and determination blocked not only Putin and the Russians, but a new world order in which China and Russia could pretty much do whatever they wanted.
That said, a new world order may be coming anyway, and this is the good news in a gloomy picture. Initiated singlehandedly and at high cost to their own people, the Ukrainians may have initiated a world order built on the ideas that formed the UN and NATO – respect, independence and cooperation. Ideas that have been under heavy pressure from neonazis and far-right forces all over the ‘free’ world in recent years. The unique consensus in the UN these days, condemning Putin’s and Russia’s actions and voicing unanimous support from peoples and nations all over the wold, is very encouraging, and may already have slowed down some dangerous right-wing movements.
Back to the key question – why would Xi help the rest of the world? Xi is a dictator, just like Putin. He’s watching his own interests and those of his country. He has enormous resources at his disposal, and he has dependencies. As discussed above, one of these is Russia. China needs Russia. China also needs the West. If Xi has to choose, what will it be?
An interesting strategic question that has been analyzed backwards and forwards for ages, but none of those analyses are relevant, because the world is different and the situation is different. A simplistic – maybe a little naïve – calculation tells me that Xi will choose the West. Why? The Russian resources are required, but without the West, China’s economy would collapse. And – almost like in Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon – Xi can steamroll over Siberia in a month, and secure the resources he needs. Also, and an important difference from Clancy’s narrative, the West will not help Russia.
Does that mean we should cozy up to China even more than we already do? That sounds like a devil’s choice, but it’s one we don’t have to make. If we continue on our current path – unanimous support and help to Ukraine, this is what’s most likely to happen. The incentives are there, the scales are tipping in that direction, and – for now – the Ukrainians are taking all the heat. Literally. Bless their strength and stamina – and their strong leader. Their fight is really ours too – that’s the mindset we need to acquire. And there is always more we can do to help. You and I, all of us.