Picture Credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

When do we lift the sanctions?

Sooner or later a diplomatic compromise will have to be reached


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is clearly not going according to plan. A month on (at the time of writing), the Russian army has not captured any of its chief objectives. This means that the maximal programme of the Putin regime (if such it was) to dominate Ukraine has also failed. The most important reason for this military failure is the courage, resilience and unity of the Ukrainian defenders, for which the Russian government and military were obviously unprepared.

In consequence, the Russian army deployed inadequate troops for their task. Two hundred thousand troops (many of whom took a fortnight to deploy) is far too few to invade a country larger than France from six different directions simultaneously.

An additional reason for this is that Moscow seems to have tried wherever possible to deploy regular volunteers, not conscripts. This could be because they are inadequately trained and motivated, or for fear of the backlash in Russia against conscript casualties, or both.

What conclusions should the West draw from all this? First of all, that the threat of a Russian invasion of NATO countries is being colossally exaggerated by some Western governments, whether out of sheer panic or cynical calculations about their own advantage. For in some ways this conflict is a paradise for NATO: a classic confrontation with the old enemy, but one in which — as in the cold war — NATO will never have to fire a shot.

What a relief after Afghanistan, where NATO troops actually had to fight (or rather, in most cases, pretend to fight). How wonderful to be able to reject French calls for help in fighting Islamist extremism in the Sahel with the response that Germany, Denmark and the rest would really, really have liked to help (all the evidence of recent years notwithstanding), but need all their so-called soldiers to defend against the menace of Russian invasion.

A compromise peace will sooner or later be necessary

But if in more than two weeks the Russian army has not been able to capture cities less than 20 miles from the Russian frontier, then the idea of them invading Poland or even the Baltic states, let alone Germany, is simply absurd. The Russian invasion and Western arms supplies to Ukraine mean that there is a very dangerous risk of conflict between NATO and Russia — with the ultimate threat of nuclear war in the background — but this would take place in the area of mutual cyber-attacks or, at most, Russia firing missiles at US bases in Poland; a terrifying enough prospect, but not an invasion.

Above all, we can see that if the Kremlin did indeed hope to install a puppet government in Kyiv to rule Ukraine on behalf of Russia, then this strategy required a reasonably quick victory with few civilian casualties. Now, it is clear that when or if Russia does take the cities of the east and south, it will do so over heaps of ruins and civilian corpses — many of them ethnic Russians.

Unless Putin and his associates really have gone completely mad, they must now recognise this themselves. This means that the Russian invasion is no longer aimed at unconditional Ukrainian surrender, but at putting pressure on the Ukrainian government to agree to more limited Russian terms.

Despite its failures, the Russian army is on the way to gaining enough territory to strangle Ukraine economically (above all through control of most of its coastline). The Russian military offensive on the ground will therefore take place in tandem with the peace talks that are well under way between the Russian and Ukrainian governments.

Of course, while this is going on, Russia is also being strangled economically by Western sanctions. These measures are entirely correct. Whatever the legitimacy of certain Russian grievances and fears (which are acknowledged by the best possible source, the present head of the CIA and former US ambassador to Moscow, William Burns, in his memoir The Back Channel), nothing can justify this invasion of a neighbouring country, with the ensuing suffering and death among people whom the Russian government professes to regard as “brothers”.

However, this still leaves open the question of what these Western sanctions are for. They were imposed in response to the Russian invasion, but their language does not stipulate the terms on which they are to be lifted again. When I testified to the Foreign Affairs committee of the European Parliament in March, one Swedish MP declared that they should only be removed if Russia withdraws completely not just from the territory it has occupied since this invasion began, but from the Donbas, whose independence Moscow has recognized, and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

This would mean — and was doubtless intended to mean — that the sanctions would continue indefinitely irrespective of any peace agreement; for no serious expert I know thinks that Russia will ever abandon Crimea (against the wishes of a majority of its population, in case that’s a relevant ethical precept) and the naval base of Sevastopol. Instead of helping to make peace on reasonable terms, sanctions would essentially become an instrument to keep the war in Ukraine going indefinitely.

Putin is using the war and the sanctions to consolidate the state’s grip on society

And this is precisely what some hardliners in the United States and their allies in Europe want, in order to overthrow Putin, weaken or destroy Russia, and isolate China. Like Radek Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister addressing the European Parliament, they have spoken openly of Ukraine serving as a new version of Afghanistan in the 1980s, where US aid to the Mujahidin rebels weakened the Soviet Union and hastened its collapse. What they do not mention is that this Western triumph took place at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives and the destruction of the Afghan state.

It would be wonderful if the Russian elites would get rid of Putin and seek reform at home and peace in Ukraine; nonetheless, the wicked folly of such a Western sanctions strategy should be obvious. In the first place, the US strategy of using sanctions to bring about regime change has failed almost everywhere — in Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq before 2003, Iran and North Korea; although in the case of Iran and North Korea this strategy has lasted for decades, and in Cuba for generations.

And Russia is a vastly larger and more formidable economy than any of those countries. Moreover, like some of the other dictatorships mentioned, Putin is using the war and the sanctions to consolidate the state’s grip on society and the economy.

Even more important are the probable effects of prolonged war and sanctions on the world economy. As Mohamed El-Erian of Queens’ College Cambridge has written in the Financial Times:

By the time the spillovers and spillbacks have made their way through the world, we will have faced some of the toughest economic and financial challenges of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But there is one important difference: they will all have materialised at the same time.

If the war and sanctions continue, then Europe is almost certain to face recession, and this may easily spread to America as well — dooming the Biden administration and bringing a radical right-wing administration back to power.

Europe has worried correctly about the impact on energy prices; but the more severe threat to the world in general is a steep rise in food prices. Russia and Ukraine between them are responsible for almost 30 per cent of global wheat exports, and 17 per cent of corn exports. Estimates for the rise in global cereal prices in the coming year have ranged up to 22 per cent.

Beyond the looming tragedy for those who can cope least, we must also remember the political implications. A rise in the price of bread has been the classic stimulus of urban revolt throughout history, and played a key role in the genesis of the “Arab Spring” (which rapidly became winter again) and the Syrian civil war.

Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria and a range of states across western Africa and the Sahel are critically dependent on imports of wheat; and the threats of Islamist revolution, state collapse and mass migration to Europe have not vanished because Russia has invaded Ukraine. We may not see quite so much footage of those victims when their worlds are shattered, but their lives matter too.

It is therefore of critical importance that Europe and the USA reject tying sanctions to regime change, and instead link them explicitly to a diplomatic process to end the war.

Some of the basic terms of any possible peace settlement are already clear. Moscow will obviously have to withdraw its troops from all the new areas it has occupied, and guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. Kyiv would have to sign a treaty of neutrality, possibly modelled on the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 by which Western and Soviet occupying forces withdrew from that country.

Such a treaty would rule out membership both of NATO and any Russian-led security alliance. As for the status of Crimea and the Donbas, the only plausible way to resolve these disputes — if resolution is what outsiders actually want — is local democratic referendums under the supervision of the United Nations.

Of course, the Ukrainian government would have to sign such an agreement; but if the West is providing arms to Ukraine, and supporting Ukraine through sanctions that are badly damaging the world economy, then we have a completely legitimate right to have a key voice in any peace settlement. As always, our backing carries a price for its beneficiaries.

Since Putin started his war, I’ve been told repeatedly that such terms are “unacceptable” for Ukraine and the West; but unless you believe in the fantasies either of a complete Russian conquest of Ukraine or of unconditional Russian surrender in Ukraine then, whatever happens, a compromise peace will sooner or later be necessary. If not on these terms, then on what terms? And if not now, when? How good is your ulterior motive that Ukrainians should bleed and die for it?

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