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May 30, 2022
Yes, Western sanctions on Russia can be effective without an energy embargo. If "effective" means enough to raise the costs of Russia's war effort and undermine its sustainability, then Western sanctions are already effective. Adding an energy embargo is not only unnecessary but might also get in the way of Western support for Ukraine.
This argument seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, so I will present it as carefully as I can. Objections and counter-arguments are welcome.
Russia is a major exporter of energy to the world, including the West. From the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has been said that by paying a billion Euros a day to Russia, Western economies are effectively paying for Putin’s war. There have been corresponding calls for an immediate Western embargo on Russian energy, despite the wrenching adjustments that this would require.
Who stands to lose more by stopping Russia’s energy exports? When Putin’s war is grinding on far longer than anyone anticipated, the argument that it is paid for out of Russia’s export revenues suggests that Russia must be desperate to keep its place in the world energy market. Meanwhile, most Western powers are working hard towards an embargo on Russia’s exports. They are also expending considerable political capital on efforts to bring backsliders into line, notably Hungary.
Yet Russia itself does not look desperate to maintain its export markets. Rather, the Russian government sets obscure financial conditions for Western buyers, such as payment in rubles, and has already halted gas supplies to Poland, Bulgaria, and Finland.
It seems that both sides are treating Russian exports as their own weapon. While NATO threatens Russia with a stop on purchases, Russia threatens NATO with a stop on sales.
If you find this confusing, then you’ve been paying attention. Too many Western commentators have fallen victim to an old mercantilist error—that the strength of an economy is measured by its ability to attract gold from others through its export trade.
What are the underlying facts?
First, Russia has a large and growing export surplus. The Economist puts last year’s trade surplus at 7.5 per cent of Russia’s GDP . This year, it is expected to rise to 15 per cent of last year’s GDP (this year’s GDP will be smaller by an unknown amount, perhaps 10 or 20 percent, pushing the share of the trade surplus still higher).
The reason for Russia’s growing export surplus is that, while exports are holding up, imports from a broad sample of Russia’s trading partners are collapsing—running at half the level of before the war’s outbreak. Why? There are two possibilities. One is that Western sanctions on Russia’s imports are working. The other is capital flight—holders of ruble balances are converting them into Western currencies, causing the ruble exchange rate to decline sharply and pushing up import prices for Russian consumers. In the short run it does not matter which.
An expert quoted by The Economist finds Russia’s growing trade surplus “disappointing.” Although sanctions on Russia’s imports may be working, it seems we are still buying Russian energy exports at levels similar to before. We are still “paying for Putin’s war”—or so it is said.
To understand what Russia’s growing trade surplus really means, it’s necessary to recall that the money flows are the counterpart of flows of real resources. As money flows into Russian hands, real resources flow the other way. If Russia’s trade surplus will be 15 percent (or more) of its GDP this year, then in terms of the real resources produced Russia is sending the same proportion of its domestic product abroad to be utilized by foreigners.
How does that matter for financing Putin’s war? It is sometimes said that GDP is a measure of a country’s capacity to fight a war, and this is correct—approximately. But when the shooting begins, wars are not fought with GDP. They are fought using the real resources available. For this purpose, exports are not available. What is available is domestic production not exported, plus imports.
The national accounting concept of the resources available to a country at war is not GDP but “domestic absorption”—the total of domestic expenditure, including expenditure on net imports.
With percentage points of last year’s GDP as the units, Russia’s trade surplus of 7.5 units left 92.5 for domestic absorption. This year, absorption will fall by the fall in GDP (say 20) plus the increase in the trade surplus (7.5), so 27.5. A GDP decline by one fifth becomes an absorption decline by nearly one third.
Two things follow. One, the fact that Russia is exporting one seventh of its national income to the rest of the work is weakening, not strengthening its war effort. Two, Russia’s exports are not “paying for Putin’s war.” They are certainly paying for something, but not that. What they are paying for is the accumulation of idle balances of foreign currency. This currency may be held by the state (within Russia) or by private citizens abroad (in the case of capital flight). But, if they cannot be used to import resources into Russia, they are not paying for Putin’s war.
A reality check is available. In two World Wars, the Allies blockaded Germany to prevent the import (not export) of resources. In both wars, Germany responded by confiscating resources from the countries it occupied, just as Russia today is accused of stealing grain and other valuables from Ukraine. In fact, in World War II Germany’s plan of overland occupation of the Eastern territories was designed in the expectation of an Allied blockade German overseas trade. It has been calculated that net imports from Germany’s wartime empire paid for more than one quarter of Germany’s war effort. Net imports, not net exports!
What are the implications?
- First, Western sanctions are working. They are working either directly (by cutting Russia’s imports) or indirectly (by causing capital flight). By the measure of real resources, Russia’s economy is suffering arterial blood loss at an increasing rate
- Second, Russia’s most likely retaliation will indeed be to reduce exports by cutting off energy supplies to the West. The rationale for this will be not only to damage Western economies but also to redirect capital and labour from the energy sector to Russia’s war sector.
It is sensible for Western countries to prepare for this. An efficient way to do so is to impose a tax on purchases of Russian energy, reflecting the risk attached to continued reliance. But it is also wise to ensure that, when the pinch comes, the blame for the disruption is seen to lie where it should belong, with Russia.
- Fourth, by pressing the unwilling, not only in Hungary but potentially in all Western countries, to do without Russian energy before the need arises, we are pointlessly spending NATO’s political capital (and sympathy for Ukraine) while exacerbating the national and social divisions on which Putin relies to make progress.
- Finally, are there risks in allowing Russia to continue to accumulate financial claims on Western economies accruing from energy sales? Yes, but as long as sanctions on Russia’s imports and financial institutions remain in place these risks are long term. The shape of the long term will be decided by the outcome of Putin’s war, which is being decided now.
It is far more important for everyone to do what it takes to win that war now, including focusing on Ukraine’s military needs, than to be distracted by worry about the distant financial implications of continuing to buy and pay cash for Russian energy while we can -- cash that Russia cannot currently spend.
February 25, 2022
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/expertcomment/ukraine_invasion_university
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that Western deterrence has failed. Also, Russian deterrence is working: we daren't help Ukraine militarily because of the fear of what Russia would do next. So the situation now resembles a Cold War nuclear standoff: When the Soviet Union suppressed uprisings in East Germany or Hungary, fear of nuclear war forced the West to accept that this was Russia's backyard. This situation is exactly what Putin wanted when he called recently for a new Yalta agreement – one that would assign the Russian backyard to Russian control.
Was the failure of Western deterrence avoidable? Possibly, although not easily. NATO countries, and Britain in particular, have made at least two unforced errors.
First, we have placed far too much reliance on economic sanctions for crisis management. Of all weapons, economic measures are slowest to work (and, incidentally, have the highest ratio of collateral damage to intended damage). So the adversary that is economically weak but militarily strong will always be tempted to escalate military violence in response. Besides, in the short term, Russia is not weak in fiscal capacity. I heard a government minister claim on the radio this morning [yesterday 24 February 2022] that we are going to strike at Russia's capacity to fund the war, he emphasized the damage being done by the overnight fall in Russian equities. Unfortunately this is nonsense. If anything, the climb in oil and gas prices is making Russia stronger, not weaker.
Second, for the same reasons, economic measures are not a way to avoid conflict. They go with (not instead of) military defence and deterrence. If we engage in economic war with Russia and we don’t have strong military defences, Russia will respond with more war. Britain and other Western European state have underinvested in defence for many years. It is not a good time to say so, given Britain’s needs to fund health care, the courts, and the levelling up agenda. At the same time, we also need to look to our defences.
February 16, 2022
Writing about web page https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqfHEedYv2c
Lukas Smith of the Vienna-based International Center for Advanced and Comparative EU-Russia-NIS Research (ICEUR-Vienna) interviewed me the other day about the present tensions focused on Ukraine (12 minutes 40 seconds here). Part of the interview was focused on what economic sanctions -- or the threat of them -- can achieve in managing the confrontation. Afterwards I wrote up my notes as follows.
In the context of the present dispute between Russia and NATO over the status of Ukraine and the stationing of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, I am in favour of the use of further economic sanctions to limit Russia's aggression. Promised sanctions can act as a threat and a deterrent, and they can be a countermeasure in the event of conflict.
But . . . there's a large "but."
I'm concerned that the public, and maybe politicians too, often lack clarity about what sanctions can achieve and what are the risks. When we contemplate sanctions, the starting point should always be: What is the adversary’s best response?
Too often we think: Economic sanctions will impose an unaffordable burden. The adversary will be deterred – end of story. In practice economic sanctions take time to work and can often be predicted. The adversary always has ways to work around the sanctions or to neutralize them. It’s true that the countermeasures may be costly. But, all too often, the costs of the countermeasures turn out to be quite affordable.
One way to think about this is that sanctions have an immediate effect and an ultimate effect. And the ultimate impact of sanctions is never the immediate impact as it seems at first sight. The ultimate impact will be to force the adversary to pay the cost of countermeasures, and generally the ultimate costs will be smaller than the immediate costs appear.
Another factor is that the adversary might become more ready to pay the costs than appeared beforehand. The reason is that an attack on the adversary’s economy is still an attack, and it is usually experienced as warfare. In the short run, at least, warfare tends to stiffen national feeling and makes people more ready to pay the price of war, even if they were unready beforehand. You can see this today. Because Russia has threatened NATO, the NATO countries today are more unified and more ready for war than they were yesterday. The question is: is Russia also becoming more ready for war?
What are the countermeasures to Western sanctions available to Russia? Russia’s leaders can make the Russian economy less dependent on the West for markets, currencies, payment systems, and internet technologies. They can strengthen ties with China. They can also wage economic warfare against us. They can frighten foreign investors out of Ukraine. They can blockade Ukraine on land and sea, and they can throttle back gas supplies to the EU. Most of these things are already happening or beginning to happen.
But Russia’s countermeasures might not be confined to the economy. There is also a military response: to escalate violence. To escalate, not de-escalate. History suggests a number of examples, but the clearest case might well be found in 1940.
In 1940, the United States wanted to stop Japan’s war of aggression and conquest in China. America imposed oil sanctions on Japan, which were expected to be extremely costly to the Japanese economy. The Japanese response is instructive. Japan’s leaders did not say to each other: “We cannot afford this. We must either wait for our war capability to be ground down, or we must give up now.” Instead, they launched a surprise attack on the United States in 1941 at Pearl Harbor. They knew that this was an outrageous gamble, and in fact the gamble failed, because the United States went on to win the war in the Pacific. The point is that Japan’s leaders preferred the gamble to the alternative, which was certain defeat.
As I said before, in the present context, I favour economic sanctions against Russia, especially if a wider war is realized. But we should understand that economic sanctions are not a cheap way to avoid military conflict. They are not a substitute for military force. They are a phase of conflict, not an alternative to conflict.
In particular, economic sanctions can contribute to deterrence only if they are combined with a strong military defence. If we wish to achieve our foreign goals without violence, strong defences are also necessary.
If we signal to the adversary, which today is Russia, that they are strong militarily but we are strong economically, the signal can have an unfortunate effect. We might make Russia’s leaders more likely to turn to their strength, which is the capacity to escalate the confrontation by violent means.
In short, the threat of sanctions has to be complemented by strong defences. Without those strong defences, the effect of sanctions can be exactly opposite to what what we wanted in the first place.
August 29, 2015
Note: When I published this column yesterday for the first time, I referred to "Robin Corbyn." Goodness knows where that came from. One of the disadvantages of writing a blog is that there is no editor to stop you and tell you not to be so bloody stupid. So, my readers have to do it instead. I have corrected my mistake. I thank those that brought it to my attention. I apologize to Jeremy Corbyn, and also to all the Robin Corbyns, wherever they may be.
Away from England's shores, I have watched Labour's leadership contest at a distance and, so far, in silence. But I will be home imminently, and the prospect has given me words. They came to me as I read Jeremy Corbyn's recent remarks concerning the situation on Ukraine's borders, reported by Laura Hughes in the Telegraph. In these remarks, Corbyn set out to clarify exactly what he does and does not believe.
First, what Corbyn does not believe. He does not believe (or at least, he rejected the suggestion that he believes) that NATO is to blame for Russia's aggression against Ukraine. When asked, he replied:
I didn't say that, come on I've never said that.
Second, what Corbyn does believe. He believes that Russian aggression against Ukraine is a tit-for-tat response in a game in which NATO was first mover. He went on:
So please, the point I am making is that if Nato sets itself an open target of expansion, the Russian military then say to their leaders 'we've have (sic) to expand to counteract Nato'.
If you take this sentence as it was intended, as the essence of Corbyn's thinking about Ukraine, it crystallizes a particular model of international relations. To show you how the model works, I'll have to put some words in Corbyn's mouth, so he might perfectly well turn around and say "I didn't say that." And that would be true. However, in order for him to say what he did say, and believe in what he said, there are certain things he must also believe because, if he did not believe them, what he said would make no sense. These things are what I mean by the Corbyn model of international relations. I'll write them down as four propositions.
Proposition no. 1. International relations is a game. That is, all the players are engaged in an interactive relationship that requires each of them to calculate their best move based on what they expect others to do, so the first problem of each is to understand the others. This is clear from Jeremy Corbyn's clearly expressed desire that we (or specifically NATO) should first understand Russia. I want to say that this is an excellent start. A multi-player game is exactly the right way to conceptualize the problem of international relations. Of course this is the only a start. The next thing is to identify the players correctly.
Proposition no. 2. Only great powers are players. In the game of international relations as Jeremy Corbyn sees it, there are only great powers or great-power alliances. Small countries exist, but they do as they are told. I base this on Corbyn's view of the Ukraine crisis, which he describes as arising from the interaction of Russia and NATO, and no one else. On his interpretation, NATO expansion is a process in which the smaller countries that have joined or might wish to join NATO have no agency. Ukraine itself is only a place where the game is being played. He implies, by not saying anythhing else, that Ukraine's politicians and people are just doing the will of NATO, on one hand, or Russia, on the other.
A particular view of NATO's past enlargement is also implied. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia's western neighbours, were suddenly freed from the constraints of Soviet rule and obligations to the Warsaw Pact. Until that time, they could not make sovereign decisions over their own security. When they could, they chose NATO and begged to be admitted to NATO membership as soon as possible. In the short run, at least, the applicants confronted NATO with increased defensive obligations out of proportion to the assets they placed on the table, so NATO responded with understandable reluctance. In the end, however, it was politically impossible to refuse them. In the Corbyn model, this is described as "NATO expansion," a process driven by NATO, and aimed at Russia, one in which the security aspirations and sovereign decisions of the small countries on Russia's borders had no weight.
Although the Corbyn model correctly presents international relations as a game, the game it imagines is far too simple; it is not just NATO against Russia. The model does not try to understand the smaller countries that are in Russia's neighbourhood.
Proposition no. 3. Understanding ourselves. According to Jeremy Corbyn, NATO has an "open target of expansion." Again, this oversimplifies. Under Article 10, NATO has an "open door." The door is open, but not all may pass. Two conditions are required. Applicants must be willing. And all the existing NATO member states must also be willing, because the treaty explicitly requires their "unanimous agreement." Thus, it is not just NATO that must have the "target of expansion" but enlargement must be based on the sovereign will of every one of the NATO member states and each one of the applicant members.
On this score, too, the Corbyn model is too simple; it does not try to understand the relationship between NATO and its sovereign members. The small countries of Europe do not do what NATO tells them; it is the other way around.
Proposition no. 4. Understanding others. Jeremy Corbyn suggests that Russia has agency, but not initiative; its leaders act only in response to NATO moves. This is clearly wrong; it is the common desire of the many small countries bordering Russia to move out of alignment with Russia to which Russian leaders are now responding. Indeed they are trying to reverse it. But even this is not the root of the problem. The root cause is Russia's past treatment of its neighbours, a historic pattern to which Russian leaders are now reverting.
Proposition no. 5. Understanding others (again). Jeremy Corbyn imagines that Russia's leaders listen to (and take) the instruction of their military. I have no idea if they do that or not. The reason I have no idea is because decision-making at the heart of Russia politics is secret. However, there is no evidence in support of Corbyn's assumption from the accounts of Russian decision making that we have. Take the Russian invasion of Crimea as an example. On 15 March 2015, Reuters reportedthe words of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Of course it wasn't immediately understandable (what the reaction would be to Crimea's annexation). Therefore, in the first stages, I had to orient our armed forces. Not just orient, but give direct orders.
Putin was asked if he had been prepared to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert. He said:
We were ready to do it.
This does not sound as if Russian leaders were taking military instruction, but again, I repeat, we do not know, and Jeremy Corbyn cannot know, because these matters are secret. Here the Corbyn model claims to know more than it can know.
It might seem that the Corbyn model of international relations is not fit for purpose. But this depends on what that purpose is. If its purpose was to predict and thereby to guide action, then it would fail because it does not recognize the limits of its understanding of the world we live in and in which we must make our way.
More probably, the purpose of the Corbyn model is not predictive, but moralistic, that is, to justify a preconceived moral stance. For this it works very well. That moral stance holds that NATO is an aggressive, militaristic alliance, and that Russian aggression against Ukraine is, at worst, on the same level as NATO's aggression against Russia. It is aggression against Ukraine when Russia sponsors separatism, invades, confiscates territory,and kidnaps and imprisons or kills Ukrainian citizens. In the Corbyn model, it is aggression against Russia when small countries with close experience of domination by Moscow seek to join an alliance that might protect them.
In this equation an invited guest and a thief in the night are considered to be one and the same. NATO is the invited guest. For most Central and East Europeans the Soviet Union after 1945 was an uninvited guest. The Red Army arrived and never left. With it came closed borders, a political monopoly, forced ideological conformity, and a secret police. In Ukraine today, Russia is again an uninvited guest. In the moral equation of Jeremy Corbyn, the open and voluntary invitation that leads to NATO enlargement is treated as the same.
We have just marked the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After the event, Warsaw Pact leaders claimed that their troops entered the sovereign territory of a member state in response to the Czechoslovak party leaders' plea for help to restore order. In reality, the Czechoslovak leaders had issued no such invitation. On the contrary, the occupation forces immediately detained the leaders and abducted them to Moscow. But the story gave rise to a joke.
What are 600,000 Soviet soldiers doing in Czechoslovakia?
They're looking for the man who invited them in.
May 08, 2015
Writing about web page http://daily.rbc.ru/opinions/politics/08/05/2015/554c800c9a79473a8f5d6ee2
This column first appeared (in Russian) in the opinion section of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel, on 8 May 2015.
This week we remember the worst war in history. But we remember the war differently. Russians remember the war that began in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Most other Europeans (including Poles and many Ukrainians) remember the war that began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union joined to destroy Poland. The Americans remember the war that began in December 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Chinese remember the onset of Japan’s all-out war at the Marco Polo Bridge in 1937.
Many separate wars came together to make World War II. All of them were fought over territory. These wars began because various rulers did not accept the borders that existed and they did not accept the existence of the independent states on their borders. They used violence to change borders and destroy neighbouring states. When they did this, they justified their violence based on the memory of past wars and grandiose concepts of national unification and international justice.
Will there be another Great War? We should hope not, because another Great War would be fought with nuclear weapons and would kill tens or hundreds of millions of people.
A reason to be hopeful is that war is never unavoidable. War is a choice made by people, not a result of impersonal forces that we cannot control. Most differences between countries can be negotiated without fighting. However, claims on territory and threats to national survival are the most difficult demands to negotiate, and this is why they easily lead to violence.
In today’s world there are several places where border conflicts could provide the spark for a wider war. Most obvious is the Middle Eastern and North African region. Small wars have raged there in the recent past and several are raging there now. Israel’s existence has been contested since 1948. The borders of Libya, Iraq, and Syria are being redrawn by force. Access to nuclear weapons is currently restricted to Israel, but could spread and probably is spreading as I write.
But the whole of the Middle East and North Africa includes only 350 million people. More than twice as many people, 750 million, live in Europe. There is war in Europe because Russia has unilaterally seized the territory of Crimea and is fuelling conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The effects have spread beyond Ukraine. Russian actions have raised tension with all the bordering states that have Russian speaking minorities, including some that are NATO members. Russia is rearming and mobilizing its military forces. Russian administration spokesmen speak freely of nuclear alerts and nuclear threats.
Looking to the future, we should all worry about East Asia, home to 1.5 billion people. There China is building national power through economic growth and rearmament. China is also redrawing the map of the South China Sea, and this is leading to border disputes with Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Given China’s size and Japan’s low military profile, the only counterweight to Chinese expansion is the U.S. Navy, and this increases the scope for a future nuclear confrontation. While Japan keeps a low profile is low, its relations with China are poisoned by nationalist reinterpretations of World War II on both sides.
In all of these regions there are territorial claims and disputed borders, with the potential to draw in nuclear powers on both sides of the conflict.
Can we learn from our past wars so as to avoid the future wars that we fear? Yes. The first lesson of a thousand years of European history is the value of stable borders. Eurasia stretches for ten thousand miles without natural frontiers. When states formed in Eurasia they had no clear territorial limits, and they fought each other continuously for territory.
The idea of sovereign states that respect others’ borders and leave each other in peace is usually identified with the Peace of Westphalia (1648). But in 1648 this idea was only a theory. The practice of mutually assured borders is much more recent. The European Union is a practical embodiment of mutually assured borders; this is reflected in the fact that France and Germany no longer fight each other and the smaller states around them also live in peace.
Russia has always been at the focus of European wars. The Correlates of War dataset on Militarized Interstate Disputes counts 3,168 conflicts from 1870 to 2001 that involved displays or uses of force among pairs of countries. The same dataset also registers the country that originated each disputes. Over 131 years Russia (the USSR from 1917 to 1991) originated 219 disputes, more than any other country. Note that this is not about capitalism versus communism; Russia's leading position was the same both before and after the Revolution. The United States came only in second place, initiating 161 conflicts. Other leading contenders were China (third with 151), the UK (fourth with 119), Iran (fifth with 112), and Germany (sixth with 102).
How did Russia come to occupy this leading position? Russia is immense, and size predisposes a country to throw its weight around. Russia has a long border with many neighbours, giving many opportunities for conflicts to arise. And authoritarian states are less restrained than democracies in deciding over war and peace. Russia's political system has always been authoritarian, except for a few years before and after the end of communism, when Russia's borders were able to change peacefully.
Russians have suffered terribly from the territorial disputes of past centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia's new borders were drawn for the most part peacefully. This was a tremendously hopeful omen for Russia's future. Particularly important were the assurances given to Ukraine in 1994: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and in return the US, UK, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine's borders. The promise was that Europe would no longer suffer from territorial wars. Instead, Europe’s borders could be used for peaceful trade and tourism.
Russia, of all countries, has most to lose from returning Europe to the poisoned era of conflicted borders and perpetual insecurity. The best way for Russians to commemorate the end of World War II is to return to the rule of law for resolving its dispute with Ukraine. In questions of borders and territorial claims the rule of law should have priority over all other considerations, including ethnic solidarity, the rights of self-determination, and the political flavour of this or that government. That is the most fitting tribute to the memory of the tens of millions of war dead.
February 27, 2015
Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/92c75076-b606-11e4-a577-00144feab7de.html
On the evening of Tuesday 24 February I joined a panel discussion on "Russia Now," organized by Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery. My fellow panellists were Peter Ferdinand (Politics and International Studies) and Christoph Mick and Christopher Read (History). The discussion was chaired by Mead Gallery director Sarah Shalgosky, whom I thank for the invitation. Here's what I said, roughly speaking.
Sanctions in history
The Russian economy is subject to Western sanctions. These sanctions are of two kinds. There are "smart" sanctions that aim to limit the international travel and transactions of named persons and corporations. There are also broader sanctions that aim to limit the international trade and borrowing of Russia’s financial, energy, and defence sectors.
In history, advocates of economic sanctions against an adversary have usually claimed two advantages for them. One claimed advantage is speed of action: It has often been predicted that economic sanctions will quickly "starve out" an adversary (metaphorically or literally). The other claimed advantage is cost: By attacking the adversary’s economy we can achieve our goals without the heavy casualties to our own side that would result from a military confrontation.
Are these claims justified by experience? Based on the experience of modern warfare and economic sanctions from the Napoleonic Wars through the U.S. Civil War and the two World Wars of the twentieth century to the Cold War, Rhodesia, South Africa, and Cuba, the answer has typically been: "No."
How do sanctions work?
The effects of sanctions on national power have generally been slower and smaller than expected. First, they attack national power indirectly, through the economy, and the economy provides a very complicated and uncertain transmission mechanism. If a country is refused access to something for which it appears to have a vital need, such as oil or food, it generally turns out that there are plenty of alternatives and ways around; nothing is as essential as it seems at first sight. Secondly, external measures will be met by counter-measures. In a country that is blockaded or sanctioned, soldiers will look for ways to use military strength to break ouit and so offset economic weakness. Suffering hardship and feeling unfairly victimized, civilians will become more willing to tighten their belts and fight on.
It would be wrong to go to the other extreme and conclude that sanctions achieve nothing. What have sanctions actually achieved in historical experience? Sanctions do raise the cost of producing national power. They do so gradually, so that immediate effects may not be perceptible. Nonetheless they impose costs on the adversary, and eventually these costs will tell. It is hard to show, however, that sanctions have ever had a decisive effect on their own; at best, they have been shown to have their effect in combination with other factors, such as military force. In those cases, sanctions were a complement to military power, not a substitute or alternative.
Russia: How are Western sanctions supposed to work?
The purpose of Western sanctions is clear: It is to change President Putin’s behaviour, making him more cautious and more accommodating to the demands of Western powers.
What is the mechanism that is supposed to bring this about? Western observers generally see that President Putin's political base is built on the use of energy profits to buy political support. Russia's energy sector, much of it state-owned, has provided major revenues to the Russian government budget. The Russian government uses these revenues to buy support, partly by paying off key persons, partly by subsidizing employment in Russia's inefficient, uncompetitive domestic industries. The result is that many people feel obligated to Putin's regime because without it they would lose their privilege or position in society.
In that context, sanctions have been designed to target those industries and persons that supply resources to the government and those that depend on the government for financial support. By doing so, they aim to deprive President Putin of the resources he needs to retain loyalty.
How have sanctions actually worked? In Russia, real output is falling and inflation is rising. It is important to bear in mind, however, that in recent months sanctions have been only one of three external sources of pressure on the Russian economy.
Three pressures on Russia's economy
Three factors have been at work: sanctions, confidence in the ruble, and energy prices. These factors should be thought of as semi-independent: there are obvious connections among them, but in each case the agency is different.
- Sanctions. Before the crisis over Crimea, Russian corporations had approximately $650 billion of short-term, low-interest debt denominated in foreign currency. International lenders have reluctant to lend to Russia long term because Russia's lack of protection of property rights leaves them uncertain about the security of their loans. Because this debt is short term, it requires regular refinancing. Russian firms, including organizations and sectors that have not been directly targeted by sanctions, are now unable to borrow abroad. Struggling to cover their credit needs, they have turned to the Russian government to make emergency loans or bail them out.
- Confidence in the ruble. As lenders have lost confidence in Russia, capital flight has increased. The ruble has lost half its external value in the last year, and this has doubled the real burden of private foreign currency debts of Russian corporations and also wealthy families with housing debts in euros or dollars. This has intensified private sector pressure on the government for bail-outs.
- Oil prices. The dollar price of oil has halved since this time last year, slashing Russia's energy revenues and plunging the state budget into deficit.
These three pressures all point in the same direction and complement each other. Their cumulative effect is to be seen in the deteriorating outlook for the economy as a whole and for public finance. The government has lost important revenues while spending pressures have multiplied. Arguably, therefore, sanctions have "worked," because they have squeezed the capacity of the Russian administration to satisfy the expectations of its supporters.
A learning opportunity
From a social-science perspective, we should think of this moment as a learning opportunity: How the Russian administration responds in these circumstances should reveal its type.
To benchmark the Russian response today, consider how two Soviet leaders responded to closely similar situations in the past.
- One benchmark is offered by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. By the mid-1980s the global energy market had reached a situation not far removed from that of today. A decade of high oil prices was being brought to an end by new non-OPEC suppliers. This put the Soviet economy under a severe squeeze. Faced with this squeeze, Mikhail Gorbachev chose policies of demilitarization and relaxation abroad and at home.
- Another benchmark is offered by Joseph Stalin in 1930. If anything, the predicament of the Soviet economy in 1930 was even closer to its situation today. Soviet exports were faced with collapsing prices as the world economy entered the Great Depression. The Soviet economy also had considerable short-term debts that suddenly could not be rolled over because international lending dried up. In response, Stalin demanded "the first five year plan in four years!" This involved accelerated mobilization and sacrifice, and ended in the famine deaths of millions of his own citizens (many of them in Ukraine).
These examples illustrate the alternative responses of a ruler under external pressure. When it becomes harder to buy loyalty the ruler can respond like Gorbachev, by moderating demands on supporters; or like Stalin, by cracking the whip over them. In 2015, faced with economic sanctions, falling oil prices, and a falling ruble, which choice has President Putin made? His words and deeds both deserve attention.
- Before sanctions, President Putin's words were of a Russia encircled by enemies and penetrated by foreign agents. His policies involved accelerated rearmament and frozen conflicts with Moldova and Georgia, capped by the annexation of Crimea.
- How did things change after Western sanctions were imposed? Putin's rhetoric shifted up a notch with talk of national traitors and a "fifth column" of enemies within. His economists began to discuss ways to shift from a market economy to a "mobilization economy." His foreign policy spokesmen incited tensions in the Baltic region and made nuclear threats against the West. The Russian military embarked on continuous large-scale exercises and increased the frequency of testing NATO defences in the Baltic and the North Sea. Russian forces and heavy weapons were infiltrated into Eastern Ukraine.
The lesson for social science is that under external economic pressure President Putin has revealed his type: He is a power-building authoritarian ruler.
It isn't working
From a policy perspective, the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy is only the tactical outcome of sanctions. Their strategic purpose is to change Russia's behaviour for the better, and that is the only true test of whether they have worked. The lesson for policy is that, despite sanctions, President Putin remains prepared to take risks with peace and to commit aggression. Sanctions are not changing his behaviour.
Now we know this, what should we conclude? A clear implication is that things could get worse. Some worry (or threaten) that, if the pressure on him grows, President Putin might became more confrontational and take additional risks rather than back down and look for compromise. It has also been suggested that, if unseated, Putin might be replaced by someone worse -- a role for which there are several candidates.
Why isn't it working?
This leads to me to a sombre conclusion. It's not a conclusion that I much like; I have thought about it a lot and I wish I could see another way out of the situation. To sum it up, I'll quote in full a letter that I wrote to the Financial Times recently in response to an article by Gideon Rachman ("Russian hearts, minds, and refrigerators," February 16). My letter appeared on 19 February:
Gideon Rachman ... writes : “Rather than engage the Putin government where it is relatively strong, on the battlefield, it makes more sense to hit Russia at its weak point: the economy.” But this neglects the incentives that arise from the time factor.
If the West plays to its strength, which is economic, President Putin will play to Russia’s strength, which is military. But the action of Western financial and trade measures is slow and cannot be accelerated. Meanwhile, Russia can accelerate its military action at will.
In playing the sanctions card while neglecting defence, the West is encouraging President Putin to raise the tempo on the battlefield and change realities quickly and irrevocably through warfare, before the Russian economy can be weakened further.
For the West, therefore, economic sanctions are not an alternative to a military confrontation that is already under way. To avoid disaster, the West must support financial and trade measures with a credible defence.
September 03, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/09/polands-intellectuals-appeal?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fbl%2Fed%2Ffromdanzigtodonetsk%3Ffsrc%3Dscn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fbl%2Fed%2Ffromdanzigtodonetsk
Having absorbed Austria and sliced up Czechoslovakia, Germany attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. On 3 September, that is, 75 years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany. At that moment everyone knew it was serious. Probably no one imagined that the war already in progress would take the lives of 55 million people before it was over. We know it now. With another war under way in Europe, it's a frightening thought.
What keeps me awake at night is the thought that lukewarm NATO support for Ukrainian resistance might encourage Putin to try to change the facts on the ground quickly and irrevocably by means of a sudden all-out war.
Here's why I'm not sleeping well:
- As reported in yesterday's Telegraph, Vladimir Putin boasted to Manuel Barroso that his forces could be in Kiev in two weeks if he wanted. Why would he say that unless he had thought about it?
- Russian military writers have already mapped out the course of a “Probable Future of the War for Novorossiya.” Mariupol is next.
- Ukraine's defence minister Valeriy Heletey has commented that Russia is engaged in a "great war" of a kind not seen since World War II.
More than likely, Putin is rethinking his options.
- His original plan may have been to create frozen conflicts on Ukraine's borders, with the aim of destabilizing and neutralizing a potentially hostile power. These would be similar to the conflicts that Russia has established with Georgia and Moldova.
- Russia's ability to freeze a conflict relies, however, on the adversary's limited capacity to resist. Unlike Georgia and Moldova, Ukraine is resisting strongly. Because of this, the conflict is staying hot. Russia is having to commit increasing resources into the conflict. Perhaps more importantly, Russia's costs are also increasing in its diplomatic and economic relations with the West.
- NATO's response was divided and unenthusiastic at first, but may become stronger and more unified as NATO's East European members become more vocal.
These are the reasons why Putin may start to think that a short decisive war would serve his purposes better than a drawn out conflict that remains unresolved.
What does this mean for us?
In September 1939 Danzig (today Gdansk) was the first city to fall to Hitler's Eastern advance (which he had choreographed beforehand with Stalin). At that time, Europeans asked themselves: Why die for Danzig? On the 75th anniversary of these events, Polish scholars have appealed to the West not to make the same mistake as in 1939: to think that we can save our own skins by ignoring aggression.
Just to be sure you understand, I'm not advocating dying for either Danzig or Donetsk. I'm saying that if we do not want to die for Donetsk we must act urgently to stop Putin short of all-out war.
What does that mean? Here are four measures that conclude the Polish declaration:
1. French President François Hollande and his government are tempted to make a step that will be even worse than France’s passivity in 1939. In the coming weeks, as the only European country, they actually plan to help the aggressor by selling Putin’s Russia brand-new huge Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. France has teamed up with Russia on this issue in 2010 and already then the project triggered numerous protests. Previous French President Nicolas Sarkozy would as a rule dismiss them because, after all, “the Cold War was over." But now a Hot War has started in Ukraine and there is no reason why France should still want to implement the old agreement. Already several politicians suggested that it should sell the two ships to NATO or the EU. If President Hollande does not change his views soon, European citizens should force him to change them with a campaign boycotting French products. For in line with its great tradition France must remain true to the idea of European freedom!
2. The Federal Republic of Germany began its journey of increasing dependence on Russian gas as early as around 1982. Already then Polish intellectuals including Czesław Miłosz and Leszek Kołakowski warned against building new pipelines to transport Russian gas and called them “instruments for future blackmail of Europe”. The same warnings came from two successive Polish presidents, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Lech Kaczyński. But German politicians, whether because of the German guilt complex or because they believed in the “Russian economic miracle” and hoped to benefit from it personally, have held cooperation with the Russian authorities in very high esteem. And thus, perhaps unwittingly, they were perpetuating the unfortunate German tradition of treating Russia as their only partner in Eastern Europe. In recent years, companies belonging to the Russian state and its oligarchs have been putting down ever deeper roots in the German economy, from the energy sector through the world of football to the tourist industry. Germany should contain this kind of entanglement because it always leads to political dependence.
3. All European citizens and every European country should take part in campaigns aimed to help alleviate the threat hanging over Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the eastern regions of the country and Crimea are in need of humanitarian aid. The Ukrainian economy is bled out as a result of many years of damaging gas-supply contracts signed with the Russian monopolist, Gazprom, who ordered Ukraine - one of the least affluent buyers of its gas - to pay the highest price for it. The Ukrainian economy urgently needs help. It needs new partners and new investments. Ukrainian cultural, media and civic initiatives – truly fabulous and very much alive – also need partnerships and support.
4. For many years the European Union has been giving Ukraine to understand that it will never become an EU member and that any support coming to it from the EU will be only symbolic. The Eastern Partnership policy of the European Union has changed little in this area as in practice it turned out to be only a meaningless substitute. Suddenly, however, the issue has gained its own momentum, thanks largely to the unwavering stand of the Ukrainian democrats. For the first time in history, citizens of a country were dying from bullets with the European flag in hand. If Europe does not act in solidarity with the Ukrainians now it will mean that it no longer believes in the values of the Revolution of 1789 – the values of freedom and brotherhood.
For a longer list of possible measures see Ten (Un)Easy Steps to Save Ukraine by Konstyantyn Fedorenko and Andreas Umland.
September 02, 2014
A few days ago I wrote about how Europe is facing the threat of all-out war in Ukraine, but Britain's foreign policy is being disabled by anti-immigration gestures. There was one response -- Yes! I have a reader! -- which I thought was outstanding, and I'm going to write a whole blog about it. This contribution, by an author with the username Blisset, stood out for its dry humour, and also because it got so many things wrong in so few words. Here it is in full:
Wasn’t Serbia/Yugoslavia dismembered thanks to an invasion of USA and UK and allied forces after months of bombing by the USA and UK and allied forces on the Serbian/Yugoslavian capital?
If that happened 15 years ago, wouldn’t that be a strong, authoritative legal precedent for the USA, the UK and their allies to start bombing Moscow and invading the Russian Federation to give back the Crimea to Ukraine? :-)
Now I'll break it down into three parts. Here's the first part.
Wasn’t Serbia/Yugoslavia dismembered thanks to an invasion of USA and UK and allied forces after months of bombing by the USA and UK and allied forces on the Serbian/Yugoslavian capital?
No. Here's why not.
- “Serbia/Yugoslavia": This term is misleading. Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 1992. Serbia (strictly, Serbia and Montenegro) claimed to be the successor state to Yugoslavia, but without securing international recognition. So, not “Serbia/Yugoslavia,” just Serbia.
- "Dismembered": In 1992 Yugoslavia fell apart without any external intervention. In 2006 Montenegro left Serbia of its own accord. The only external force that was involved was the force that removed the province of Kosovo from Serbian control in 1999; Kosovo became independent, however, only under UN administration in 2008.
- "Thanks to an invasion." None of these territories was invaded from outside the former Yugoslav Republic. The Kosovo war ended with the entry of peacekeeping troops into Kosovo, provided by NATO under UN authority. That wasn't an invasion.
- "Months of bombing": The NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 followed many years of restriction of Kosovo’s autonomy and repression of Kosovan ethnicity, culminating in open conflict and a Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. By the time the bombing started, half the province’s two-million population were refugees, hundreds of thousands having fled to Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia.
Now the second part:
If that happened 15 years ago, wouldn’t that be a strong, authoritative legal precedent for the USA, the UK and their allies to start bombing Moscow and invading the Russian Federation to give back the Crimea to Ukraine?
No. Here's why not.
- "Legal precedent": Russia now claims Kosovo as a precedent for Crimea, but at the same time Russia continues to withhold recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Evidently, Russia does not see Kosovo as a lawful precedent. Rather, it considers that Kosovo provided grounds for retaliation, or tit-for-tat.
- Kosovo/Crimea: But Crimea is not a parallel to Kosovo. NATO intervened in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing of the population, not to transfer its territory to Albania, the regional neighbour claiming ethnic affinity with the oppressed majority in Kosovo. Ethnic cleansing was not under way in Crimea or any other part of Ukraine before the Russian intervention. All opinion polls carried out before the Russian intervention showed large majorities in every province of Ukraine and amongst every ethnic group in favour of Ukrainian sovereignty and integrity.
- Casus belli: Yes, unprovoked aggression and the seizure of territory by armed force are generally recognized as grounds for war, and the crime against Ukraine is particularly heinous given that at Budapest in 1994 Russia gave a solemn promise to uphold Ukraine’s frontiers. In that setting Ukraine would be justified in a proportionate military response. But let’s be realistic here, because there is a limit even to my sense of humour: Russia is a nuclear power, whereas Ukraine is not, having given up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest agreement that Russia signed. In any case, on a scale from zero (complete passivity) to 10 (invading Russia) the NATO response is currently registering something around 1 (targeted and financial sanctions). No one is thinking about bombing Moscow any time soon.
- Invading Russia: It seems odd to worry about invading Russia when the problem is that Russia has invaded Ukraine. But I do not want invading Russia on anyone's agenda. I have friends in Moscow and Kiev and loved ones here who are of military service age. I don't seek conflict or advocate confrontation of any kind except that which will lessen the danger of a worse conflict in the future. What keeps me awake at night is the thought that lukewarm NATO support for Ukrainian resistance might encourage Putin to try to change the facts on the ground quickly and irrevocably by means of a sudden all-out war.
Hahaha! You were joking all along. But I wasn't laughing. Here's why not.
- Gesture politics comes in more than one form. I started from the danger of anti-immigration gestures, like Douglas Carswell's (he's the MP that defected from the Tories to UKIP). But anti-Americanism can be just as misleading. Underlying your response are two basic ideas. One is that Americans have sometimes behaved badly, so if America is for something, it must be bad for us. Free trade? Exploitation, obviously. Democracy? Hypocrisy. Another is the idea that America is all-powerful, so small countries are of no account. Yugoslavia fell apart? America did it. Ukrainians want to join Europe? America made them.
- Such ideas arise naturally in the cultures of former great powers such as ours, formed by rivalry with America. They find a less tolerant climate in Europe's smaller democracies. Look at the revealed preferences of the smaller countries that emerged from Soviet domination in the 1990s. To the extent that they became democracies, smaller European countries from the Baltic to the Balkans got away from Russian influence as quickly as they possibly could. They turned to the West. They could not join the EU and NATO fast enough. But joining the EU turned out to be time-consuming and laborious, so they joined NATO first.
- NATO did not make them join. They chose to do it. Having done it, they show few signs of regret today. There's a lesson in that somewhere.
August 29, 2014
Yesterday called for a grand gesture. Russia finally admitted its troops were engaged on Ukrainian territory. They were there only by accident, it was claimed, or on holiday. Russia's committee of soldiers' mothers told a different story. The truth of Russia's aggression is more and more beyond denial.
Thus, yesterday certainly called for a grand gesture. The gesture that we got, in contrast, was contemptible: the defection of the MP Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives to the UK Independence Party. This gesture was accorded much importance, "one of the biggest political surprises for years" according to Andrew Pierce in the Daily Mail, and casting Cameron's leadership of the Tory Party into fresh crisis according to Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.
As Pierce notes, Cameron once wrote off UKIP as "fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists." I have no view on whether or not Carswell is a closet racist. He is an odd libertarian. He promotes the freedom to associate and to compete, but for natives only; foreigners should not apply. On the other two counts UKIP's latest acquisition hardly proves Cameron wrong.
Carswell himself is of little importance. The importance of the gesture is to illustrate how Britain's foreign policy has been undermined by anti-immigration politics. We have become a country that resolves every foreign issue on the basis of three simple questions. These foreigners: Do we know them? If so, do we like them? And might they want to come here to live? And if we do not know them, or know them and do not like them, and if we believe they might want to come here and live among us, then pull up the drawbridge. Perhaps they will go away.
Because of this, we have lost our influence in Europe. We are rapidly losing any serious foreign policy. The world is, unfortunately, a complicated place. For the Carswells it is just too complicated, so they give up any atttempt to understand it or influence it. Instead they ask themselves the simpler question: Do we like foreigners? No, on the whole, they answer, and that decides everything.
The Carswell effect is this. Europe is in the middle of its most serious crisis since Stalin's blockade of Berlin in 1948. And Britain's attention is focused on this silly man. For the Carswells of our time Russia's dismemberment of Ukraine in 2014, as Neville Chamberlain described Germany's descent on Czechoslovakia in 1938, is "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Faced with the choice between resistance and dishonour, the Carswells choose dishonour.
In advocating resistance I do not advocate war; rather I would like us to avoid it. We are a million miles away from NATO troops becoming involved in Ukraine -- and Putin knows it. He expected, with much foundation, that the West would largely acquiesce in his dismemberment of Ukraine. That is why he has been willing to take such apparently risky steps: he did not think they were truly risky. The Western response must disabuse him, by sending substantial economic and military aid to Ukraine. Determined Western resistance now will curb his appetite for risk in future. A "fortress England" approach will only encourage him in further aggression.
But to reach that point, we ourselves must first see beyond the Carswell effect. We need to refocus on the world and our place in it. What should Britain stand for? What should Europe stand for? Eastern Europe and Ukraine have many brave people who see Europe, and the idea of Europe, as a beacon of human rights and democracy. If we betray them (Winston Churchill once said) we will have dishonour, and we will have war.
July 18, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28354856
I was interviewed this afternoon by Tim Boswell on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire's Drivetime. This isn't exactly what I said, which flowed in a conversation, but it roughly follows the notes I made beforehand.
- Question 1. Who did it?
As yet there is no smoking gun. But there is quite a lot of circumstantial evidence. There are radio intercepts and also posts on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. The radio intercepts show pro-Russian separatists stunned to find they have shot down a civilian jetliner, and then lashing back:
That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn’t be fucking flying. There is a war going on.
If you don’t trust the Ukrainian government sources, you might give more credence to the evidence provided by the separatists themselves on Vkontake, the Russian version of Facebook where they boasted about bringing down a military transport until they realized the full truth:
We warned them – don’t fly 'in our sky.'
- Question 2. Crime or tragedy?
Clearly there are elements of both in this hideous event. There was intent to kill: you can’t set out to shoot down an airplane and not anticipate that deaths will follow. The event took place on Ukrainian soil, which is governed by Ukrainian law; in other words it was murder.
There was also incompetence: probably the aim was to kill a dozen Ukrainian servicemen, not 300 civilians from many countries. At best, the circumstantial evidence points to the involvement of people who are unscrupulous, reckless, and lacking in all respect for human life.
- Question 3. What is Ukraine’s responsibility?
The state over whose territory this happened is responsible for the terrible tragedy.
In other words, he argues, Ukraine is to blame for the downing of MH17 because its government is responsible for the actions of those opposing it by force. This amounts to a doctrine of collective responsibility that few will take seriously from a moral or legal standpoint.
Nonetheless Ukraine does have a responsibility, as do all Ukrainians on both sides of their country’s civil conflict. This is to facilitate and ensure objective investigation and prosecution of those found to be personally accountable, no matter who they turn out to be.
- Question 4. A turning point?
For thousands of people, yes. Their lives have been changed forever.
In terms of global politics, no. The world has not changed, and the reason for this is that we have not learned anything new. We already knew that Eastern Ukraine is in the hands of reckless and unscrupulous people, willing to start a civil war and cause deaths for political ends.
There have been past parallels. In 1983 the Soviet air force deliberately shot down a Korean airliner over the Far East with many casualties. In 2001 the Ukrainian armed forces accidentally shot down a Russian airliner over the Black Sea. These were horrifying events, but it was no surprise that Soviet leaders would overreact disastrously to an airspace violation or that command and control was a weak point in the Ukrainian miliitary.
Russia’s relations with the West will now deteriorate further because of justifiable concerns about Russian support for the Ukrainian separatists and possible involvement in the supply of weapons and technical assistance. But relations were worsening already and the concerns were there already.
It is a terrible tragedy, as well as a crime. These are preliminary judgements, perhaps reached in haste. But it seems hard to escape them.