Thursday, February 29, 2024
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The West impales itself on the sanctions sword


THE West’s strategy against Russia in Ukraine is fast proving a total fiasco, with unintended consequences for international food and energy provision which will inevitably worsen in the coming months.

EU countries which rely on Russian oil and gas are already doomed to the worst energy crisis since the 1970s when the cold weather arrives. Now they are awakening to the threat of another mass migration from the starving Middle East and Africa, which depend on unexportable Ukrainian and Russian wheat.

If this happens, the full weight will fall on the EU, which was flooded with a million migrants in 2015 during the war in Syria and with whom it has struggled to cope in the years since. What will the EU do with a million or more others whom it cannot stop coming?

Ukrainian wheat is blockaded by the Russian Black Sea fleet. Russian exports are under sanctions which were supposed to cripple its economy. These have not only failed to achieve their objective but are seriously hurting the rest of the world.

Wasn’t any of this foreseen at all when sanctions were imposed or is it due to the blindness of Nato governments which designed them in the exercise of so-called smart power?

Sanctions, untruthfully described as the toughest ever, appear to have been planned on the assumption that Putin would quickly fold under them. But he didn’t. His army has captured 20 per cent of eastern Ukraine and intends to stay there until whatever peace is agreed and probably longer.

The other half of the strategy, that defensively-armed Ukrainian forces could defeat the Russians without Nato soldiers trained in hi-tech warfare fighting on the ground alongside them, has also failed.

Yet there is no evidence that Nato policy is being re-thought. The Russians are embedded in Ukraine and cannot be dislodged unless Nato does the work, and this is not going to happen. Rarely has the phrase ‘sleep-walking to disaster’ seemed more apt now that we see the horrifying result.

Foreign policy ‘realists’ blame successive US administrations for provoking the war by expanding Nato eastward after the Soviet Union fell and inviting Ukraine to join. This is denied by war hawks, who claim Nato was never a threat to Russia even while sitting on its doorstep. Nato may officially be defensive but there is little difference between a defensive and offensive alliance when it can transform itself from one to the other in an instant as the Russians fear.

Hawks remain loyal to their mantra that Putin is an imperialist seeking to recreate the Soviet empire although his army’s performance in Ukraine has shown the unlikelihood of him risking a conventional war against any country that is ready for him. If he had known how hard Ukraine would fight, he would probably have found an alternative way to neutralise it.

The latest feel-good prognostication from Washington is that the Russians are going to feel the full bite of sanctions this autumn but there is no reason to think that this is more than wishful thinking born of desperation that Nato’s failed policies will somehow come right.

The Biden administration’s stated aim is to defend the rules-based world order. If this is really what is at stake and if there really exists a rules-based order anywhere except in the West – which is a question in itself – why is its defence being left to Ukraine, a task for which it is clearly inadequate?

The realist counter-argument to the hawks, that Russia is genuinely paranoid about the deployment of mainly American Nato troops and missiles on its western border, is dismissed as naïve sympathy for an anti-West aggressor who is a permanent threat to peace.

Everyone knew well in advance that Putin would invade Ukraine. The question is: why, if Biden wasn’t going to try to prevent war by negotiating with the Russian leader, the West did not give more thought to dealing the dire consequences on which it has since impaled itself?

The energy crisis was unfolding long before sanctions, which would inevitably aggravate it, were imposed. The blockade of Ukraine’s main wheat export port of Odessa was foreseeable. The ensuing shortage of wheat in the Middle East and Africa was an inevitable consequence. Was any thought given to other ways to feed these peoples?

Another non-negligible factor in the development of the conflict is public opinion, especially in Europe as people begin to suffer the full economic and social impact of the choices their leaders have made. A new wave of mainly Muslim immigrants into a continent already struggling with the industrial and domestic energy shortages could have unpleasant political repercussions.

People will not give indefinite support to a cause in which they perceive no direct national stake and which has only negative effects on them. Ukraine was portrayed as a necessary ‘good war’ but looks more and more like a bad one which liberals are using to try to disguise their miscalculations.

The EU expects Putin to continue to manipulate or even cut off its energy exports to it, and has asked member countries to reduce their gas usage by 15 per cent between August and March. It proposes to take powers to enforce the limitation.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen complained to the media that ‘Russia is blackmailing us. Russia is using energy as a weapon’. Translation – we can sanction Russia but it’s not fair for Russia to sanction us.

At this stage we have two choices. We can continue to hope that Ukraine will go on weathering unnecessary punishment from a stronger opponent and that our sanctions will eventually prove more unsustainable to Putin than his to us. Or we can reset the clock to zero via a ceasefire and open the talks that the Russians want to discuss a security settlement in the region which allays their concerns. That’s assuming neither side takes fatal steps.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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