This is part of our weeklong series marking the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, February 24, 2022.See all of the storieshere.
Summarizing British plans for economic warfare against Germany in World War I, Winston Churchill wrote that the objective of the blockade, as sanctions used to be called, was to “starve the whole population of Germany — men, women and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.”
Germany’s defeat in 1918 convinced the victors that the strategy had succeeded and that sanctions of a similar nature could henceforth be deployed in bringing recalcitrant nations to heel at little or no cost to the sanctioneers. In fact, it is not at all clear that the blockade had indeed been the cause of German food shortages, which were morelikely brought about by the government’s mismanagement of the German agricultural economy. Such quibbles did not trouble the economic warriors of the time, nor have they since.
Confidence in the efficacy of the weapon has been unaffected by a record of unbroken failure, as evidenced in the boasts a month into the war in Ukraine of Daleep Singh, then Deputy NSC Director for International Economics, in a 60 Minutes interview titled “Economic Shock and Awe.” Polished and confident, Singh, billed as the author of the “sanctions doctrine,” assured his unquestioning interviewer that “Russia is on a fast track to a 1980s-style living standard. It’s looking into an economic abyss.” His boss, President Joe Biden, echoed this theme, claiming that the ruble would soon be “rubble.”
True to form, nothing of the kind has come to pass. The Russian currency is trading slightly higher than when Singh's prediction went on the air. Inflation is at almost the same level. Moscow shops continue to offer a full range of western consumer goods, while e-commerce trade with the outside world has actually grown by 30 percent. The IMF is projecting that the Russian economy will actually grow this year and next. Despite baroque efforts to crimp Putin’s oil export income, “Urals crude” continues to flow at levels — roughly four million barrels a day — unchanged from pre-war levels, not least through Indian, Turkish, Chinese, and Senegalese refineries, whence it moves unimpeded into European gas tanks and power plants.
Such blatant circumvention of the sanctions regime is studiously ignored by the sanctioneers, since it is necessary to ward off catastrophic energy price inflation in western economies. Efforts to at least crimp the price at which Russia sells its oil via a “price cap” mechanism appear to have had little effect: Asian refiners are reportedly paying full price. (In a less publicized example of officially endorsed sanctions evasion, Russian exports of enriched uranium, originally mined in Kazakhstan, are duly labeled “Kasakh” and continue to power U.S. reactors.)
The fundamental miscalculation underlying this apparently unforeseen failure of the economic weapon parallels the record of another instrument of coercion cherished by the U.S. over the course of the last century. Strategic bombing targeted against “critical nodes” of an opponent’s war-making apparatus has, like its economic counterpart, singularly failed to achieve its desired objectives, most recently in the “targeted killing” campaign against the Taliban’s human infrastructure.
Both strategies rest on a mechanistic view of the targeted system in which components deemed essential to its functions can be identified and destroyed. Taliban and similar insurgent operations always adapted speedily to the loss of supposedly key individuals. Just as Hitler’s Germany did to U.S. bombing of “critical” ball bearing factories, so Putin’s Russia has adapted to Singh’s confident assault.
It has become clear that he or whoever planned the sanctions strategy didn’t really understand the Russian economy very well, especially its place in the global system. Instead, U.S. strategy appears to have proceeded on the assumption that Russia, in the words of the late John McCain, was merely “a gas station masquerading as a country” as opposed to an essential source for everything from oil to grain to metals such as nickel, well able to feed itself and maintain industrial output at a high level.
Furthermore, this mode of economic warfare inflicts penalties on the perpetrator of a kind escaped by the latter’s military counterparts. Apart from the moral obloquy attendant on incinerating German and Japanese cities, or obliterating Afghan families with Hellfire missiles, the air-attack strategy incurs only the cost of a bloated arms budget and, most recently, defeat in the relevant war.
The economic war against Russia is likely to have more serious consequences for U.S. power, since it accelerates the de-dollarization of the global economy – quite certainly accelerated by the ill-considered “shock and awe” initiative in seizing $300 billion of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves lodged in Western banks. In response to this mammoth heist, China is overseeing a shift away from the dollar in energy trades, most significantly in paying for Saudi oil in renminbi, an ominous development for the U.S.
Putin has been derided for his misplaced assumption that his small invasion force could seize control of Kiev in a coup de main. Biden and his advisers thought that “shock and awe” would bring swift victory. That may have been an even more serious mistake. Meanwhile Daleep Singh himself has moved on to greener pastures as chief global economist and head of global macroeconomic research at PGIM Fixed Income, one of the world’s largest fixed income asset managers with $890 billion under management. Thus situated at a commanding height of the global economy, he will be answering to more inquisitive observers than a credulous TV interviewer.
Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of several nonfiction books, including his latest, The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine (2021). He also published Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2016). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Playboy, Vanity Fair, and National Geographic, among other publications. He has also produced numerous documentary films, principally in partnership with his wife Leslie Cockburn, including American Casino (2009), a feature-length documentary on the financial crisis of 2007–2008. His film The Red Army, produced for PBS in 1981, was the first in-depth report on the serious deficiencies of Soviet military power and won a Peabody Award.
Protestors in London demand stronger sanctions on Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. (Shutterstock/ Sandor Szmutko)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?