West’s stringent Russia sanctions will have wide-ranging effects

While pundits on all sides engage in a never-ending debate over who is to blame for igniting the biggest military conflict Europe has seen since the Second World War, the more pertinent question is: How and when will Russia’s war on neighboring Ukraine end? The West made it clear to Russia even before last week’s invasion that, while it would not send troops to defend Ukraine, it would roll out a wide-ranging and unforgiving set of economic sanctions the severity of which the world has never seen before.

Had Russia known that the US and its European allies would go so far in unleashing unprecedented economic and financial sanctions, would it have given the order to march into Ukraine? That we will not know anytime soon. But what is clear is that, aside from arming Kyiv with sophisticated weapons, the West appears to be determined to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin politically and strangulate his country economically. This is a world war of a new kind.

The question, then, is will biting sanctions work in making Russia regret this war or will its isolation lead to it upping the ante and venturing further into a mission whose final outcome remains completely unknown?

The track record of economic sanctions is mixed at best. We have recently seen the US impose sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. For both regimes, the sanctions have had little or no effect on their political stance. And in both cases the sanctions, though serious, are being applied only by one country. Iran continues to sell its oil, although with difficulty, and it is still doing business with many countries in the region and beyond.

Iraq was subjected to UN sanctions after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. While millions of Iraqis suffered, the regime survived, even after the bulk of its army was destroyed in the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein’s survival under the sanctions regime irked US President George W. Bush so much that he finally decided to invade Iraq under flimsy pretexts. Iraq continues to struggle to this day as a result of the 2003 invasion. While Putin is being held accountable for his invasion of Ukraine, no one dares to point the finger at the US and UK for starting a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and destroyed much of the country.

Syria is also under international sanctions following the regime’s bloody clampdown on a popular uprising in 2011. Yet, even though much of the country has been ravaged by war, with millions of Syrians displaced or seeking refuge abroad, Bashar Assad has survived and is now slowly coming out of regional isolation.

No economy in the world can handle multifaceted challenges, both internally and externally, all at once.

Osama Al-Sharif

Historically, the small island nation of Cuba has endured decades of US sanctions, while the Castro regime withstood many attempts by the CIA and Cuban exiles to topple or liquidate him. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi regime also dealt with various sanctions and, if it were not for the Western military intervention in 2011, he would have been able to quash the popular uprising against his dictatorship.

North Korea’s regime has managed to stay intact despite Western sanctions and, with China and Russia aiding it, Pyongyang appears to be emboldened by Putin’s latest move. Economic sanctions have failed to persuade its leader, Kim Jung Un, to suspend his dangerous nuclear program.

And lastly there is Putin’s Russia itself, which came under a much-diluted set of sanctions when the Kremlin unilaterally annexed Crimea in 2014. Russia’s economy faltered for a couple of years and then slowly recovered.

But nothing like what the West has imposed on Russia in the last week has happened before. The sanctions aim to completely remove Russia from the global economic map. The sheer scale of the sanctions regime means that the rest of the world will be affected too: Europe in terms of crucial Russian energy supplies, the many countries that depend on Russia and Ukraine for essential grains like wheat, corn and barley, and countries that depend on Moscow for sophisticated military hardware to name a few.

The global supply chain will be affected. European companies that did business in Russia will soon depart. The entire global financial system will be altered. Even the worlds of sports and culture are being affected.

It is ordinary Russians who will suffer the most as the ruble tumbles and inflation spikes. Even if Russian forces take Kyiv and control most of the country, the occupying army will face a long and costly war of attrition. No economy in the world can handle multifaceted challenges, both internally and externally, all at once. But Russia is a huge country with ample resources and a few key allies, meaning it might be able to adapt to the economic shockwaves, at least initially.

What is clear though is that, without a peaceful diplomatic solution, the sanctions will remain and Russia’s isolation will increase. Does Russia have a suitable response to this new reality?

  • Osama Al-Sharif 

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