With the Nord Stream 1 cut-off indefinitely and Putin threatening to do the same to all of Europe, the world’s options aren’t improving.
Sanctions and embargoes imposed on Russia by the European Union, the United States, and other western nations haven’t produced exactly the effect world leaders hoped in February when Vladimir Putin first invaded Ukraine.
The sanction-to-deter strategy failed to take into account several important market and geopolitical factors, which perhaps could have only been known in hindsight.
First of all, the forcible Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine had already been going on for many years before Putin escalated the conflict to its- presumably and hopefully- final phase in February.
Prior to that, the Kremlin had already been engaging in another type of warfare campaign against Ukraine long since: A modern-day, high tech, large-scale style of guerrilla warfare. Propaganda campaigns designed to overemphasize Ukraine’s “corruption” and keep the nation out of NATO, hacking attacks on vital national infrastructure, even violent skirmishes have been routinely occurring for over a decade.
Before Russia dispensed with its “this is a training exercise, not the precursor to a military invasion” pretense and marched on Kiev, over 14,000 Ukrainians had already lost their lives in the conflict.
Considering this reality, the best time to help the Ukraine in its conflict with Russia was probably 10 years ago. The second best time was probably five years ago.
Putin was always planning to invade Ukraine. Why else would Russia bother with all the election tampering and hacking, as well as military and information warfare?
Moscow was only waiting for an opportunity. Covid19 provided that opportunity. With the world distracted by a pandemic its attendant economic upheavals, Vladimir Putin seized his chance.
Now, the question isn’t so much whether or not the nations of the European Union should continue to help Ukraine in its fight against Russia, but whether the E.U. can do anything to help.
With Germany so dependent on the Russian Nord Stream 1 pipeline to supply its vital energy needs, and other E.U. nations so dependent on Germany, Vladimir Putin has Europe between a rock and hard place. In a move most foreign policy experts suspected was coming, Russian gas giant Gazprom cut the Nord Stream 1 supply to zero this week.
Blaming western sanctions for mechanical problems, Russian state agencies and Gazprom have been trolling the E.U. ever since. The message is as clear as the propaganda-machine in Moscow can possibly make it: Remove the sanctions, or say goodbye to Russian energy.
With the news today that Vladimir Putin has threatened to cut Europe off entirely from Russian energy supplies, the stakes have become even higher.
More sanctions and embargoes don’t seem a likely solution, primarily due to the second market condition E.U. leaders failed to anticipate when they began an economic warfare campaign to pressure Putin into abandoning Ukraine.
To counter-balance the sanctions, Russia devised a strategy to make up the difference by selling more cheap energy to China and India.
And it worked.
China bought three times the Russian energy it bought last year; India bought five times as much. To add insult to injury, the Chinese government is quietly reselling cheap Russian energy back to Europe for a mint.
How is this helping the Ukraine?
As a result of this, the ruble has stayed one of the strongest currencies all year, even as other major world currencies floundered.
The market is simply too globalized in 2022 for sanctions against a wealthy superpower like Russia to do much good. Russian consumers might miss some American and European products they are used to seeing at the grocery store and in the shops, but Putin’s state media has made sure Russian citizens blame western aggression, not Russia’s leadership, for the lack.
What are EU countries to do?
Increasing energy independence is a probably a good place to start.
Dependence on domestically-produced petroleum products may be unpalatable; dependence on Russian-produced petroleum, coal, and natural gas products is definitely worse. The choice between renewable energy and petroleum products is a false one with current technology. With the world completely dependent on petroleum products, the choice is between foreign or domestic energy production.
Even most of the electricity in the United States is currently produced by burning fossil fuels. Coal, natural gas and petroleum are responsible for producing 60% of the electricity in the U.S. Nuclear energy accounts for 21% and renewables- all put together- only provide 19%.
With an eye to energy independence from Russia, new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss announced today that Great Britain's moratorium on fracking, in place since 2019, will be lifted immediately.
While the development of reliable renewable alternatives to petroleum continues apace, and Germany and Europe look for alternative sources of natural gas and petroleum to replace Russian energy products, both outcomes are still years away yet.
A Europe not completely dependent on Russian oil and gas would have been much more likely to succeed in a high-stakes economic pressure campaign.
Unfortunately, the world is about to get a masterclass in economic pressure campaigns courtesy of one Vladimir Putin. Failing to anticipate this is to the credit of other world leaders, in a way. They are running up against one of the biggest problems with playing a game of political, economic and military brinksmanship with someone like Vladimir Putin.
Winning those games often takes a sizable degree of ruthlessness- like a willingness to let impoverished German citizens freeze to death this winter in order to bring E.U. leaders to their knees. Vladimir Putin has that quality in spades; Emmanuel Macron, for all his finer points, does not.
The only people who are good at fighting are people who get in lots of fights. Putin is the global equivalent of a big, confrontational stranger with cauliflower ears. It’s hard for someone without any experience in fist-fighting to beat someone like that.
You’ve got to out-think them.
As unpalatable as western leaders may find the prospect, the time to meet Russia at the negotiating table may have come. What the E.U. is currently doing to “help” the Ukraine isn’t working anyway; beginning a dialogue with Putin before winter’s bite would put other world leaders in a better bargaining position. If the goal is to protect Ukrainian lives, negotiating a ceasefire couldn’t hurt; if the goal is preserving Ukrainian sovereignty, a ceasefire is out of the question.
But a winter of discontent for Europe isn’t the only thing coming.
Global inflation, rising food prices, shortages and supply chain issues are creating a perfect storm of famine and destruction for the world’s most impoverished populations and nations.
“There are no solutions, only trade-offs,” said the economist Thomas Sowell. Sometimes the same sentiment is expressed a different way: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Both are universal truisms, in science and philosophy, because everything has consequences; all our actions, good and bad, including our inaction.
There are consequences we can anticipate- if world leaders continue this standoff with Russia, however pure their intentions and sincere their desire to help Ukraine, inflation will continue to skyrocket, food prices will continue to spike and people will starve to death- and then there are unintended consequences.
One of those unintended consequences could be an escalating global conflict.
Detractors of the strategy to negotiate an economic ceasefire with Russia predict future scenarios in which Putin, having conquered Ukraine while the west did nothing to stop him, continues to march on his nearest neighbors. Then, who knows.
Should that happen, if Putin were to turn his sights next on Poland, for instance, the world would have plenty of notice, just as it did with Ukraine, though we ignored the warning signs.
Tolerating Putin’s slow-scale, clandestine and undermining war against Ukraine for over a decade carried the inherent risk the soft-invasion would someday become a full military incursion.
Learning from this experience to fight smarter, better, and bolder next time could turn a disappointment into a major victory in the long term.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)