Guns versus Sanctions in Ukraine: But Which Will Prevail?

As Putin launches his war against Ukraine, the West opts for sanctions against selected individuals, banks & the Russian economic structure. Will it be enough to weaken Russia sufficiently before Ukraine is crushed?

Putin insists that his forces are not targeting civilian structures. The evidence shows otherwise.

There are two kinds of war says Richard Haass; wars of necessity and wars of choice. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unashamedly falls into the latter category, to sit snugly alongside other such conflicts as Vietnam, Iraq and the ‘nation building’ part of Afghanistan.

History tells us that such conflicts rarely end well. Putin’s assertion that Russia does not want to occupy Ukraine is not a realistic or viable option if he does wish to retain any sort of control after the fact. And messy occupations can often be drawn out, horribly costly both economically and militarily, and can often result in ignominious and embarrassing withdrawals.

And Putin, with his supposed love of Russian history, will know better than most that Russian wars of choice do not differ from this pattern. Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1969) and Afghanistan (1979) have all been costly, debilitating and, more to the point in this current case, have all had the effect of strengthening the NATO alliance.

However, Putin seems to feel, in spite of all his threatening words and paranoid machinations with respect to shared historical blood ties and a shared cultural heritage with Ukraine, that history is only applicable as a factor in this current conflict when he decides that is so.

But is he ignoring Russian history at his peril? This war may well be ultimately to the detriment of not only the Russian people today, but also the next generations, possibly decades ahead.

Some analysts are asking whether this reckless venture by an increasingly paranoid and unstable Russian leader will be his downfall, with some likening it to the doomed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, a military intervention that was supposed to last just a few weeks that quickly soured to become a bloody occupation that lasted years, leading to a bitter insurgency that severely weakened the USSR and was, in the end, a major reason that led to what Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.”

And in Ukraine Putin plainly wants control one way or another over his Slavic neighbours, and the resistance the Ukrainian forces and people are already putting up, shows that gaining control will not be easy and will not be quick.

Where he has walked into Belarus without firing a shot, Ukraine is already proving to be a very different prospect indeed with (at the time of writing) unconfirmed reports of Russian troop carrying planes downed by Ukrainian forces with what may well prove to be a colossal loss of Russian lives.

Retreating is not now an option for Putin, so sticking it out and facing what could ultimately become a long, protracted insurgency by a highly motivated Ukrainian people who will be backed unflinchingly by the economic might of the G7, NATO and the EU. Russia is in it now for long haul regardless of short-term gains, and it will be a bloody, brutal and expensive business.

Can the West and its friends stop Putin without military action?

The resigned sighs of Americans everywhere, sick of financial hardships after years of pandemic induced strife and now rising inflation, could be heard across the Atlantic in the European halls of power following Biden’s tough words that “the world will hold Russia accountable” for the invasion of Ukraine.

The 21st Century world is no longer the unipolar, US dominated landscape that many Americans now yearn to return to. Back in the 1990’s, in a post-Cold War world, when sanctions were first used as a tool to punish nations that stepped outside of the international order to resolve their issues, the Dollar was untouchable and the power of sanctions carried weight, both moral and financial, dragging on a nations economy like Jacob Marley’s chains with little or no noticeable consequence for Joe Average on Main Street.

And sanctions worked because they cause inflation. They weren’t always a quick fix, but in the end they brought financial hardship and pain at little cost to America. But in today’s multi-polar world, where the Dollar shares the financial marketplace with the Euro, the Yen, Sterling and BitCoin, US sanctions no longer carry the same weight and the effects can be much harder to discern and even harder to quantify.

Plus even the nation issuing the sanctions can now feel the financial pinch almost as much as the nation on the receiving end. In today’s highly interconnected, globalised financial system it is just not possible to cut one financial thread without hurting whatever, or whoever, is on the other end.

This was perhaps brought home to Americans more than ever before when Trump first introduced his ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions campaign against Iran. The harder Trump pushed with his step-wise sanction regime, the more American businesses suffered and the American people felt the hurt.

And these ‘unintended consequences,’ as the Economist calls them, even if they are accounted for, can backfire badly, even inadvertently helping to bolster the economy of competitors and can even lead to escalation with countries under sanction responding with counter-sanctions.

The Chinese, for example, hit back with painful counter sanctions against the US and the EU after being sanctioned for the widely accepted genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This brought home today’s sanctions reality, and in a tired, indebted West already suffering and struggling to recover from a debilitating and draining pandemic, and now also fighting off rising inflation, the feelings of the voters on the ground become a major factor in any Western sanctions regime for those in power.

Putin however, with Russia’s faux democratic elections, has no such worries. He is however, fully aware of the often fragile, and fleeting life of a Western politician facing regular reelections and a demanding electorate who expect their leaders to keep inflation under control and not add to their woes with costly sanctions that may only deliver scant reward.

Since 2014, when Putin annexed the Crimea and began backing the separatists in the Donbas, Russia has done much to fortify itself against the negative impact of Western sanctions, perhaps indicating that even back then conflict with Ukraine was already on the back burner.

The relatively weak sanctions regime that the West imposed in 2014 hurt, but did not cripple Russia, and in fact gave Putin enough room to manoeuvre, out-think and out strategise the West, and even build economic bulwarks against any subsequent sanctions, should they arise, to the extent that Russia now has some $630bn in cash reserves stashed in the Central Bank, and most of that in currencies other than the US Dollar thereby shielding that money against any sanctions. There is no doubt the architect of this huge transformation was the highly regarded Elvira Nabuillina, the head of the Russian Central Bank and Putin’s prime economic advisor.

But Putin also recognised that whilst Russia was hurting, the West too was paying a price for those highly targeted, precise sanctions it brought. And therein he saw an opportunity that may have played some part in his planning for this current invasion.

Plainly speaking, he saw that if he could outlast the West in the tit-for-tat sanctions game then his desired outcome would become much more likely.

So how did he build up this massive cash bulwark when Russia has an economy smaller than the US state of Texas?

The simple answer is, that under Nabuillina’s guidance, he sacrificed; or, let’s be honest, he forced sacrifice onto the beleaguered, much put upon Russian people through an enforced drop in living standards and by reducing foreign imports of ‘luxury’ items. He pushed Russian businesses to drastically reduce their indebtedness to Western banks and financial institutions, and he massively slimmed down the Russian state apparatus to reduce spending.

In the West it is still poorly understood that Western sanctions will have a not inconsequential cost on the day to day lives of everyone in the West; some more than most.

For example, the Germans and Russians, whose economies are much more interconnected with Russia than say, the UK or France, will feel the SWIFT ban and the closure of the Nordstream 2 pipeline in a far more dramatic and costly manner than other EU nations because this system is used in their purchases of gas and oil from Russia.

That said, whilst Europe will feel the pinch, it will be much tougher for Russians who have seen the Ruble drop some 40% over the weekend in the wake of the SWIFT ban, the EU’s decision to direct buy weapons for Ukraine and Germany’s unheralded decision to invest some $120bn in upgrading their security status.

But in the short-term it is the SWFT ban that will hurt the most. Indeed, back in 2014 when a SWIFT ban was only discussed as a possible sanctions route the West might take, then Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev called such an action as something akin to “an act of war.”

But again Putin has attempted to side step this possibility by building his own equivalent called the System for the Transfer of Financial Messages which will lay outside the purview of Western sanctions. And whilst this will help reduce the dependency of Russian banks on international systems there is no doubt that their ability to refinance will be hobbled.

However, again the cost of the West for this will be immense and will certainly cause unease among many politicians for the concomitant rise in the cost of living that may lead to unrest particularly if this turns into the prolonged insurgent style conflict everyone seems to expect this to become.

Where will it end and what does Putin hope to achieve?

Ukrainian hero, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Image from BBC.

Putin’s illegal and firmly debunked basis for this war of choice has been shown to be clap-trap and little more than that. The rhetorical hypocrisy in his recent speeches overflows with historical and political inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims as well as wildly overstated assertions of the threat posed by NATO expansion.

In the seventy of so years that NATO has been in existence the alliance has made just a single aggressive intervention — in Bosnia (1995) which did not end in an occupation and, in the final wash, brought about a peaceful end to what was a brutal conflict in the Balkans — whilst in the same time period the Soviet Union and, since its demise, the Russian Federation have invaded or intervened illegally in Hungary, Czechoslovkia, Chechnya, Georgia, the Crimea, Donbas and now Ukraine.

No-one yet knows the full extent of Putin’s ambitions, but his thinly veiled, menacing threats of a nuclear response to any nation who interfere’s with his murderous agenda provides some idea that his rabid megalomania knows no bounds.

However, Putin’s unstated aims vis-a-vis Ukraine are now largely understood to be regime change in Ukraine. The Russian plot uncovered and made public by British intelligence last month to install a pro-Russian puppet regime may well have been correct.

In fact all the way down the line prior to the invasion Western intelligence has proved to be factual and accurate; arguably one of the few successes the West can point to thus far.

But…

“…Mr. Putin is determined to upend European stability. Like others before him, he is initiating a war of choice in the belief that the benefits will outweigh the costs. It is up to the United States and its partners to prove he got his calculations badly wrong.”

Richard Haass. NYT Op-Ed.

That history will judge Putin harshly for this huge, world changing miscalculation is hard to argue with, despite Trump’s vile and callous admiration for the dictator.

Criticism however, is irrelevant to men like Putin whose inhuman shell remains impervious to condemnation or opinion and will never form part of his calculations.

But history as we know will be written by the winners. And all of the West’s rhetoric relies on a singular outcome; that the West will prevail.

But what if that assumption turns out to be incorrect? What happens then if Putin wins and gain suzerainty over Ukraine? Would it all end there or would Putin push on into other former Soviet republics?

This current invasion is, I believe, the first step on the route to the holy grail for Putin, and is, in the short-term at least, his first-half game plan.

Such a fearful outcome would change the world in too many ways to mention; and none of them good. To try to list or possibly quantify and collate such outcomes from afar now is not possible; suffice to say that the world would be a very, very dark place should Putin win out.

Europe would suddenly become the most vulnerable and at risk region on the planet and every nation would need to upend its economy, its institutions and its way of life to block further Russian gains.

And Europe, and the EU in particular, are woefully unprepared for such a turnaround. To say that it could lead to the rapid and irreversible break-up of the EU would not be to overestimate the possibilities.

But, as I have said several times of my social media feeds these past months, the final brick in the wall of a revanchist, resurgent Russia would be a Trump victory in 2024. This would surely see the collapse of the liberal world order, the end of NATO as it is now and would result in a highly militarised and different Europe should it wish to survive into the latter 21st Century.

Thus the throw away and ridiculously idiotic comments by brainless, worthless Trump clones such as Ohio Senatorial candidate J.D.Vance who said “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” and then later tweeted that “our leaders care more about Ukraine’s border than they do our own,” surely just do not take into account this possibility, no matter how remote it might seem.

Because for all their fawning over Putin’s ‘genius’ he still holds the US ultimately accountable for all the bad he feels has been done to Russia. Do these Trumpists seriously think that because a few self-serving, low brow, short-sighted saps are willing to bow down and drink from a font of Putin’s making that he will forgive them their sins, as he sees them?

And who then, would America turn to to help hold back the inevitable Russo-Sino tidal wave that would crash into their Pacific coasts?

Under Trump America would burn all its bridges and betray all its long standing friends, and this is surely what is in Putin’s minds-eye for the longer term, and Trump supporters would do well to witness the resolve, fortitude and vigour with which Ukrainians are fighting against the very thing many Trumpists are hoping for.

This is Putin’s end game and this is Putin’s holy grail because it opens the world up to Russia.

And this is something, as outlandish and preposterous as it sounds, that we would all do well to consider as we evaluate the why’s, wherefore’s and costs of supporting Ukraine and it’s heroic President with everything that we can muster.

Whilst the last part of discussion above is in itself a worthwhile and constructive one, and Western strategists will hopefully have been weighing up this possibility, this weekends tidal wave of further sanctions, bans and restrictions around the globe against Russia, Putin and his attack dog, Lavrov, have increased Russia’s difficulties in manifold ways and his chance of claiming a total victory here are dwindling almost by the hour.

One small glimmer of hope right now is the talks that begin today (Monday 28th February) between Ukrainian and Russian delegations in a supposed ‘neutral’ location on the Belarus Ukraine border. However, with the strategic goals between the two being as wide as a veritable ocean, hopes are slim of there being any sort of positive outcome from these talks.

One can but hope.

Thank you. Viva Ukraine!

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Peter Winn-Brown

Peter Winn-Brown

Sports nut with a penchant for international politics & affairs, history and the West's turbulent relationship with Islam.