Iconoclast: Contrarian Musings on Global Affairs

Saving Lives or Saving Face? Sanctions, Russia, and the West

July 17, 2014


New sanctions were levied against Russia on July 16th by both the United States and the European Union. America has taken the lead in explaining the sanctions, claiming continued unrest in Eastern Ukraine is primarily because of tacit Russian support behind-the-scenes. This new round is a bit broader than the original sanctions from a few months back that tried a new tactic of strategically targeting individuals. Basically it was one of the first examples of a state trying to make Putin’s personal friends hate him (which of course had little to no impact on Russian foreign policy and if it had, to be completely honest, I would have been spectacularly unimpressed at the lack of resolve on the part of the Russian government). These sanctions, which target strategic industrial firms involving energy, banking, and arms manufacturing, are meant to signal the West’s resolve to make Russia stop supporting what it calls ‘pro-Russian insurgents.’ Obama himself commented that he hoped this sent the message to Russia that actions have consequences. In this case, support of rebels in Ukraine will be directly responsible for supposedly weakening the Russian economy and intensifying diplomatic isolation. To all of this President Putin’s reaction can be summed up in one word: YAWWWWWWWWWWN.


Indeed, the diplomatic tet-a-tet that has gone on between the West and Russia over the past few months over Ukraine should lead any non-emotionally invested observer to wonder: if sanctions come down in a forest, do they make any noise? So far the answer seems to be a resounding ‘NO.’ Original sanctions were meaningless. These sanctions supposedly have more teeth, but what triggered them? What did Russia do in particular that suddenly made the West feel it was essential to launch new action? The Pentagon announced that Russian troops were ‘building up along the border.’ Of course, for those of us who have followed this conflict for the past half year, we have had heard this accusation at least half a dozen times. Sometimes there has been evidence to partially support the claim. Sometimes the claim has seemed utterly baseless. But what has been universally consistent across all of the accusations of Russian troop build-up along the border of Ukraine in 2014 has been one single thing: NO RUSSIAN TROOPS HAVE MOVED INTO UKRAINE OR LAUNCHED ANY OFFENSIVES. Given this indisputable evidence that even intelligence and diplomatic agencies in the West admit, it seems that Russia was punished today for, well, for having its soldiers hang out on its OWN sovereign territory. Sanctions based on possible mental intent let’s call it. Which leads me to wonder if these sanctions are based not on what Russia is doing but on what the West really, truly, desperately, breathlessly, deep-down-inside-it-just-can’t-stand-it-anymore WISHES Russia would do?


I wrote just a couple of months ago that Russia’s best strategic foreign policy move after the events in Crimea would be to NOT take the bait of getting bogged down in the internal chaos and instability of Eastern Ukraine. Not only did I not see any major strategic, economic, or political advantage in such a maneuver, there was a decided surprise victory in NOT doing anything: with the West expecting a Russian incursion at any moment (some might even say posturing to incite it), not giving the West it’s narrow-minded foreign policy assumption about Russian objectives would in and of itself cause such consternation and confusion that at the very least it would provide countless hours of humor and amusement to all who sit in the Kremlin and at the most give it a position of diplomatic leverage and strength. This is, for all intents and purposes, exactly what Russia has done. What has been disappointing is to see countless political actors and diplomatic agencies in the West not capitalize on this act of relative restraint to create new opportunities for discussions, negotiations, and settlement agreements. Instead Russia’s non-incursion has almost been relegated to The Twilight Zone, where Western leaders will first admit no one can find significant amounts of Russian troops inside of Eastern Ukraine but then still say everything going on inside of Ukraine is Russia’s fault. Even today’s analysis of the situation on the ground, which seems to show pro-Russian rebel forces weakening, the concern in the West is that they will try to hunker down for ‘extended urban warfare.’ The irony of course is that the force in Eastern Ukraine so far responsible for hitting civilian buildings, incurring civilian casualties and pursuing actions that closely resemble ‘urban warfare’ has been the formal military and police agents of Ukraine and not the pro-Russian separatists. Nevertheless, given the aforementioned trend, if conflict in the east of the country becomes a protracted and nasty street-to-street, building-to-building infestation of violence, it seems likely Russia will be found responsible for it, even if its troops are still just ‘building up at the border’ but causing very little excitement besides smoking cigarettes and drinking the occasional vodka shot.


I have always been quick to point out that conflicts are never clean, there are rarely if ever pure heroes or villains, and every side in a war clearly has its own agendas and interests and will do for the most part what it can to see those objectives achieved. War has always been this way and it is highly unlikely that war will start any time soon being something different. But this internal unrest across Ukraine has been a rather frustrating event, at least for those few of us in the West who feel in our foreign policy heart of hearts that Russia and the United States line up better as allies rather than adversaries. The new leadership in Ukraine has not been able to stop the unrest and it has certainly not made people excited about the country’s future. The European Union has been even less impressive at creating peace and quite frankly its initiatives pre-and-post Maidan have arguably caused more chaos and instability than calm and tranquility. The United States has clearly been frustrated by these two facts and has not been able to come up with something innovative or progressive that might create a new road to stop the violence. And this is what leads to the frustration: faced by these extended cases of political failure and diplomatic impotence, the players seem to have not boldly striven for new ideas and novel initiatives, but rather fell back to the tried-and-true tactic of conjuring a bogeyman. Clearly, that bogeyman is Russia, as it is both convenient and easy. Alas, it is also lame and somewhat pathetic because this tactic is not about stopping war but rather about finding blame. As Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said today: “While the delay in imposing real costs on Russia has been damaging to U.S. credibility, today's announcement by the administration is definitely a step in the right direction.”


Thus, today’s sanctions are not so much about saving lives, but about saving face. This is not about sanctioning conflict, but about salvaging credibility. Unfortunately, this has hardly ever stopped a war. But, even more unfortunately, it has often started a new one.

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