https://www.csmonitor.com/-By Christa Case Bryant Staff writer -Washington
Since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Western countries have moved with unprecedented speed to impose economic sanctions, including a U.S. ban on Russian oil and gas imports announced Tuesday.
At the same time, hundreds of companies, from Apple to Volkswagen, have piled on in a boycott campaign not seen since apartheid South Africa. FedEx suspended deliveries in Russia. Royal Caribbean canceled its cruises. McDonald’s closed its nearly 850 locations.
More than 30 sports federations have blocked Russian athletes from competing internationally, just as some were poised to win major titles. An outraged Fédération Internationale Féline even banned Russian-owned entries in its cat shows. And a global army of volunteer hackers has responded to Ukraine’s call for help, pledging to attack Russian interests.
Why We Wrote This
The speed and breadth of sanctions have stunned Russia and stirred self-congratulation in the West. Yet big questions remain about what the financial squeeze will achieve, and about unintended consequences.
It all amounts to what some are perhaps flippantly calling a geopolitical “cancellation” of Russia. But the effects so far have been significant. The ruble has tanked and the country’s credit rating has been downgraded, with a default now seen as imminent. In just two weeks, Russia has become a pariah.
The idea is to force President Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Ukraine, without engaging in the kind of military actions that could escalate the conflict. Still, it remains to be seen how effective and sustainable this global pressure campaign will be, and whether the organic involvement of so many individual entities could make it more difficult to prevent unintended consequences.
Mr. Putin appears willing to endure significant economic pain and cultural isolation in order to achieve his goals in neighboring Ukraine – and has reminded the world that Russia has one of the most advanced nuclear arsenals.
Some experts warn that Mr. Putin might respond by retaliating, testing the resolve and cohesion of the Western alliance. On Wednesday, Russian forces were blamed for striking a maternity ward in Mariupol, injuring at least 17 people.
“Poking the bear might result not only in a growl and a flash of the claws; the bear might try to reach in and bite your head off,” says Henry Farrell, author of the forthcoming book “Underground Empire” and an international affairs professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Impressive, but how persuasive?
The effectiveness of sanctions generally comes down to the pain that sanctioning countries can inflict versus the resolve of the sanctioned, says Richard Nephew, who previously worked in the State Department and helped orchestrate sanctions on Iran. Those penalties were more comprehensive, but were implemented over seven years leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal.
He says the West’s sanctions on Russia have been remarkable in terms of their speed, cohesiveness, and the size of their target – one of the largest economies in the world.
So far, however, they have not succeeded in getting Mr. Putin to back down.
It “just demonstrates how important this is to Vladimir Putin,” says Mr. Nephew, now at Columbia University. “Putin’s resolve is so much higher than the pain inflicted.”
Over the past two weeks, Western nations have levied a raft of sanctions against Russian financial institutions, including its central bank, that effectively freeze $600 billion in reserves that Mr. Putin had stored up. They have also cut off Russian banks from using the SWIFT messaging system that facilitates international transactions. More importantly, the sanctions prevent Russian entities from conducting transactions in dollars – a key mechanism for international trade. However, there is a carve-out to allow Russia to continue to sell its oil and gas.
Germany suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which had been expected to double Russian gas flows to Europe. Moreover, the United States has banned exports of key technology to Russia and prohibited Russian oil imports, which constitute 3% of daily U.S. consumption. It remains to be seen how much that may drive up the cost of oil, and whether Mr. Putin will even end up with a net increase in revenues.
At least some of these measures won’t be fully implemented until later this month or even into April, but the ruble has already dropped by more than 20% and Russia has shuttered its stock exchange. Mastercard, Visa, Apple Pay, and PayPal all suspended services as well.
Still, it’s not clear what impact all of this will have on the battlefield.
“It would be folly to think that sanctions are going to stop the Russian military,” says Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council who previously helped design U.S. Treasury Department sanctions against Russia over its interference in Ukraine. Though there’s an outside chance they could impact the war, such as by affecting resupply networks, he says the main goal is isolating Mr. Putin, Russia, and the Russian economy.
Meanwhile, the global boycott is growing by the day, with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola on Tuesday joining fashion lines like Burberry and Chanel, vehicle makers from BMW to Harley-Davidson, and retail stores from Ikea to H&M, according to a Yale School of Management list.
And 30-plus sports federations have banned Russian athletes from competing internationally, with others only allowing them to compete as neutral participants. Many federations also canceled events in Russia. The International Judo Federation suspended Mr. Putin as its honorary president.
In addition, more than 300,000 people responded to a Ukrainian official’s call to form a global IT army, which has taken credit for temporarily disabling dozens of Russian websites, including those of President Putin, the Kremlin, the KGB, and the Moscow Exchange. Russia disputes the claims.
Merle Maigre, a senior cybersecurity expert at Estonia’s e-Governance Academy who previously led the NATO Cyber Center in Tallinn, says more advanced planning would have been required to carry out serious attacks like sabotage or planting a time bomb in critical infrastructure to wipe out data.
“The volunteer army will definitely make a few good morale stories, but they’re not likely to have a strategic impact. That is not to say they don’t matter,” she says, noting that morale in war is important. “But it’s important to keep things in perspective.”
The idea of all this adding up to a cancellation of Russia is “gimmicky,” says James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who says there’s long been a playbook for pressuring aggressors to desist from trampling on others’ sovereignty.
“You can’t really cancel or ‘deplatform’ a nuclear-armed opponent … especially when that opponent is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” he adds. “Russia is going to have a platform to speak, whether it’s through words or more forceful means.”
Risk of unintended consequences
Even with an issue that seems as black and white as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there can be real human costs that go along with this sort of global blockade.
Some experts call for distinguishing between Mr. Putin and the Russian population, which could suffer humanitarian consequences – particularly if the West expands its sanctions. The blockade could also cause unexpected consequences in international finance. Ultimately, Western resolve could wane due to rising prices or a global recession.
“Sometimes when you take these measures, you don’t fully understand all the ways you’re changing these systems,” says Professor Farrell.
For example, when the U.S. imposed sanctions on Rusal, a Russian aluminum company, in April 2018, the price of aluminum spiked by 30% in a matter of days. The U.S. backpedaled, lifting the sanctions in early 2019.
Likewise, the international finance system is extraordinarily complex. “It’s basically like a house of cards,” he says.
Another risk is that Mr. Putin may escalate military operations in Ukraine to try to beat the slow grind of sanctions and the Western boycott, which could hurt his standing at home ahead of 2024 elections. Or he could retaliate against the West. Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, and many have interpreted his threat of “consequences … such as you have never seen in your entire history” to refer to nuclear retaliation.
“Putin has said that he will regard the massive sanctions as an act of war. However, it seems unlikely he will respond to it directly with military retaliation against nations who are participating in the sanctions,” says Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO allied supreme commander, in a text message. “Far more likely is he will escalate in the world of cyber.”
In particular, he says, financial institutions may be targeted.
But no matter what means or methods Mr. Putin deploys, the one thing he’s not likely to win is the global messaging war. Ukraine’s successful shaping of that played a key role in driving the sanctions, the boycott, and the transfers of anti-tank missiles and old Soviet jets to Ukraine.
“There’s no way that Russia wins back the narrative,” says Peter W. Singer, author of “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media” and senior fellow at New America. “It’s not just when you’ve lost the oil and gas companies and Coca-Cola. … When Switzerland and Sweden, who didn’t even put sanctions on Hitler, are joining in against you, you’ve lost the information battle.”