Ukraine is preparing for a major offensive in the east, but the Donbas is not Kyiv. It’s not urban, it’s not forested hills. The different environment of open fields means a different war and different arms. And so far, sanctions have barely made a dent in Russia’s war effort. On the contrary, the spike in fuel prices caused by sanctions may have helped rather than hindered Putin’s war effort. As I have argued in a previous article, he benefited from an additional $100 billion from fuel exports.
This puts in a different light the call of the members of the European Parliament for an immediate ban on Russian oil and gas. Luis Garicano, who was the Renew Europe group’s negotiator on the resolution, said the delay was “totally unsustainable and morally indefensible” and accused the EU of “bankrolling a genocide.” And he told journalists: “The EU has just approved an additional $500 million of military aid, yet we give around $700 million of revenue daily to Putin’s war machine.”
As far as it goes, this statement makes sense, but it doesn’t go far enough. Consider the dynamics of the situation. A total ban on Russian oil and gas on the part of the EU can only cause a further jump in fuel prices. And that will only end in helping Putin over the long run.
Why? Because bans and more generally sanctions are subject to “leakages”. No ban is ever perfect nor complete, as Nicholas Mulder, a Cornell University professor, documented in his just-published bestseller, The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War. This is a superb account of the history of sanctions as the ultimate economic weapon and should be required reading for our political leaders. And Mulder illustrates the point with a series of cases, including the most famous one, the sanctions on Italy when Mussolini launched his war on Ethiopia in 1934 (yes, they didn’t work, Mussolini wasn’t stopped).
Times have changed, this is Ukraine and not Ethiopia, but again, the ban cannot be complete, too many countries are standing on the sideline, remaining neutral. In this case, Russia will find plenty of third countries or “neutral” countries interested in buying its gas and oil, starting with China.
In short, an oil ban from the West will throw Putin in Xi Jinping’s arms even more than he already is. And it is likely to do more than that: It would further cleave the world along Cold War lines, the West on one side, Russia and China on the other, and the rest thrown into the role of bystanders or neutral countries courted by either side. Such neutral countries are a fair number as we have seen in the UN vote on the resolution suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council: Fully 58 countries abstained, including major countries like India and Indonesia.
So essentially, as I am reporting below, it should come as no surprise that Ukrainians are disappointed: They see sanctions as “too little, too slow and too late”.
So why bother with sanctions and bans that don’t work and can never work as intended? Better focus on what works to end the war as soon as possible.
Let’s remember that people are suffering. So far, civilians in Ukraine have borne the brunt of the war, with so many massacres and atrocities that calls of genocide are heard, including from President Biden.
Today, UNHCR estimates of the number of displaced people in Ukraine has reached 12 million, and nearly 4.9 million fled the country:
After 53 days of the war, it is high time for a cease-fire, though at this point negotiations are at a standstill. So, among all the efforts to end the war, a good question to ask is what has worked so far and what hasn’t?
A first attempt at drawing the lessons from the war shows that sanctions are slow to work (if they work at all) and have unintended consequences that negate their aim. It also shows that direct assistance to Ukraine, in the form of equipment for its army and humanitarian assistance for its displaced population and war victims is far more effective and ultimately may help to end the war sooner.
Arming Ukraine has worked better than sanctions
Providing Ukraine’s armed forces with the weapons and military equipment it needs has so far worked far better than sanctions, giving results much faster.
Consider what has happened. The Russian advance on Kyiv was stopped after three weeks, and Russian troops were forced to withdraw even from places that it had conquered in the first days of the war and Putin had to redirect the war effort to the east.
The push on the Black Sea coast so far failed as Ukrainian forces in the town of Mykolaiv, a gateway to Odessa, successfully pushed back Russian attacks. And three days ago, the Russian admiral ship in the Black Sea sank, most likely as a result of a couple of Ukrainian Neptune missiles launched from Odessa that started a fire onboard and the explosion of ammunition, even though Moscow denies it.
Even the port of Mariupol on the Azov sea, with over 90% of the town destroyed and possibly 20,000 civilians dead (according to Ukrainian sources) is stunningly resisting after five weeks of siege.
As I write, a thousand Ukrainians hiding in the tunnels of the vast steel complex of Azovstal are reportedly still fighting and Putin has issued an ultimatum threatening death to all – an ultimatum that has now passed. The expectation is of a coming tragedy that Putin can declare as a victory, something he is said to want for the May 9 celebrations in Moscow, a date that signaled Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
The economic war: Not a success so far
Ukraine President Zelinsky almost on a daily basis asks for more sanctions and an oil ban, and it is clear that in the Ukrainian view, EU sanctions so far are “Too late, too slow and too little,” as Ihor Zhovkva deputy head of the office of Ukraine’s president told journalists in Brussels (as reported by Politico), “We’re thankful for the fifth package,” but he noted there are some exceptions, such as the four-month delay on the coal ban coming into effect, and exclusions on some of the products that are banned from EU ports.
Zhovkva, who is reportedly in almost daily contact with the European Commission as well as individual EU countries, said he understood that energy sanctions were difficult but insisted Ukraine is running out of time: “Yes, there may be economic suffering or a rise in prices, but on the other hand, there is the death of Ukrainians. Every euro Russia earns it spends on its military, on more missiles to kill Ukrainians. This is a moral choice.” (emphasis added)
Yet, there is no question that Russia does face the possible loss of European markets in fossil fuels: An EU oil embargo is in the works, probably coming next week, on top of a previously announced ban on imports of Russian coal.
However, the next steps in sanctions and bans come at a price: They are bound to raise fuel and electricity prices in Europe.
For now, European leaders are facing an unresolved dilemma: Putin (in a March 31 decree) asked rubles for gas. This is how it works: buyers can pay in the original hard currency designated in the purchase contract, but those euros or dollars are then forcefully converted into rubles before the payment is finalized.
The Dutch have been getting tough but not everyone in Europe is in the mood to get tough. More than 100 Dutch cities have contracts with a subsidiary of the Russian giant Gazprom located in the southern city of Den Bosch. The Dutch government has instructed all municipalities that have contracts with Russia’s Gazprom to end their contracts by October, offering to protect them from damages.
Germany, highly dependent on Russian gas, has been particularly hesitant and only recently decided to give up on its Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was meant to bring in Russian gas, bypassing Ukraine. Pressure on Berlin is now growing and after a visit to Ukraine this week, the chairs of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs, European affairs and defense committees — who belong to the governing Social Democrats, Greens and liberals, respectively — called for an EU oil embargo “as soon as possible.”
These are of course indications that European countries are serious about trying to move away from their dependency on Russian fossil fuels. And “strategic autonomy” has become a major European goal to sever Europe from its dependency on Russia, as announced by the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Versailles meeting.
Strategic autonomy makes sense, the only problem is that it can’t be done overnight, it will take at least until 2027 to be achieved, as per von der Leyen’s promise.
So there’s a need to look at solutions that give more immediate results, and arming Ukraine is the obvious way to move forward. Now that the war has moved to the Donbas, expectations are that it will be carried out in the open fields rather than in cities or in forested areas as was the case so far, and that requires different kinds of weapons. Kyiv no longer wants only Javelin and Stinger, effective in city combat, but also tanks and heavy anti-aircraft systems.
If a Russian offensive in the east were successful, it would allow the connection between the Russian troops in the north and the separatist ones in the heart of the Donbas. And it would push the Ukrainian resistance west, giving the Russians full control of Luhansk oblast (already 90% occupied) and a large part of Donetsk (50% of which is now in Russian hands).
Arming Ukraine is causing hesitation in Germany but not in France; US also sends $800 million aid that includes advanced weapons
This week, the West has made decisions to move in that direction. Decisions that have predictably caused Moscow to react:
President Biden’s $800 million aid package for Ukraine contains some advanced weapons of the kind Ukraine urgently needs in the Donbas: Howitzer artillery, armored personnel carriers and Mi-17 helicopters, a dozen advanced radar systems, multiple tank-killing systems, including 500 Javelin missiles, 300 Switchblade drones and thousands of other anti-armor weapons.
French President Emmanuel Macron has just pledged more military equipment for Ukraine following a late-night call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy that marked the “50th day of horrors”:
April 14 marks the 50th day of horrors in Ukraine. 50 days of war in the very heart of our Europe. On my call with President Zelensky just now, I once again expressed our determination to stand by his side to put an end to the conflict as well as our solidarity.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) April 14, 2022
This aid comes on top of what has been provided so far, starting with the Czech Republic which was the first NATO country to meet this demand by sending a few dozen Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine. But Australia also promised BMP-1 amphibious tracked combat vehicles and artillery pieces. And the United States and Germany then offered their collaboration to facilitate the transfer of this war material.
The only NATO member dragging its feet, for now, is Germany. But that is likely to change soon. On April 16, German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper in an interview published on April 16 that the delivery of tanks and other heavy weaponry to Ukraine would not — by international law — constitute his country’s entry into the war against Russia. He said international law does not label the delivery of weapons as an entry into war.
The changing role of NATO: Getting more decisive on Ukraine, talking with Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov, opening doors to Finland and Sweden
NATO has always declared its intention to supply only defensive weapons to Ukraine to avoid further escalation. But the definition of defensive weapons is gradually becoming blurred and outdated. Expect NATO to move further in the direction of providing the kind of weapons Ukraine needs.
Some changes might come from the summit between the foreign ministers of the NATO countries held on April 14 and 15 which was followed by separate meetings with Ukraine and Russia: One with the NATO-Ukraine Commission as Ukraine has chosen to continue its current high rate of cooperation with NATO without moving closer to membership; the other with a session of the NATO-Russia Council.
This is an interesting NATO exercise in political equilibria: Russia continues to be described as “a strategic partner for NATO” and, according to the language on the NATO website: “our cooperation covers many vital aspects, from security in Afghanistan to the fight against terrorism. The talks with Foreign Minister Lavrov are expected to cover the full range of our relationship, including the situation in Libya and ongoing talks on the possibility of NATO-Russia cooperation on anti-ballistic-missile defence.” Not a word about Ukraine, of course.
What the results of these meetings are have not yet been communicated but NATO is not sitting still: News came three days ago, that Finland and Sweden may soon join the alliance. Much to Russia’s annoyance. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, said NATO expansion would lead Russia to reinforce its air, land and naval forces. And Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told Russian state news agency TASS that Russia will be “forced to take security and defense measures that we will deem necessary.” Meanwhile, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė dismissed Medvedev’s threats as “nothing new.”
Next Steps: No time to lose, peace is urgently needed
Today the Pope, in his Easter message, in the speech known by its Latin name “Urbi et Orbi” — to the city and to the world. made a plea for peace in Ukraine. “May there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of this cruel and senseless war into which it was dragged,” Francis said, speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square.
In a clear reference to the threat of nuclear warfare, Francis quoted from a declaration by scientists in 1955: “‘Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?'” Francis also drew attention to “other situations of conflict, suffering and sorrow, situations that affect all too many areas of our world.” He called for peace and reconciliation for the peoples of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Libya as well as Yemen, “which suffers from a conflict forgotten by all.”
Our leaders should listen to the Pope and do everything they can to end this “senseless war” in Ukraine as soon as possible and that means choosing the means that are most effective over those that take the longest to achieve that goal. And that means providing Ukraine with the arms it needs as well as continuing with humanitarian assistance for all the war victims.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Danyk Rak, 12, holds a cat standing on the debris of his house destroyed by Russian forces’ shelling in the outskirts of Chernihiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 13, 2022. After shelling Danyk’s mother Liudmila Koval had to have her leg amputated and was injured in her abdomen. She is still waiting for proper medical treatment. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka) Source: Flickr, Manhhai