The current circumstances involving Russian ambitions to acquire, in the eyes of the international community at least, or, at the very least, preserve as a sphere of both strategic value as well as cultural and political influence, the Crimean region of Ukraine. It is a region of which, within the confounded Russian lore that riddles their official history books, is historically “their’s,” despite that it is very much not historically Russian in the sense that they claim for it. This is, of course, also not the first time that this region of Ukraine has been in the crosshairs of Russia and those forces which find themselves sympathized with, and not even the first time that Putin has amassed troops at the Ukrainian border; Barack Obama and most of Europe brought down “tough” sanctions against Russia in 2014, and those sanctions have since been tightened by the two successive administrations.
There are some that have written that these sanctions on Russia have worked great, are working great and could “be made even more effective” were minor tweaks to be made to them and how they are focused and placed upon industries and oligarchs. Indeed, with Russian military personnel gathering and already upon the border with Crimea, those individuals and institutions, with their fawning support of the sanction regime of this globe, appear with the same, worn and tired solutions as for decades they have suggested.
But were not sanctions placed upon Russia in 2014 precisely to push back and stop in a short and longer-term sense, the Russian annexation and pressure campaign in Crimea, of which is eternally aided by a shoddily run, and oftentimes reactionary or apathetic Ukrainian nation? And yet here we are, almost eight years later, and the same situation, aided now by the theoretical and practical question of Ukraine joining NATO, has returned; reports suggest that the United States is racing to agree to still further sanctions against Russia in the days ahead, and there are uncertainties at every turn in this circumstance. The diplomatic landscape in Eastern Europe is an absolute mess right now, and those in the rest of Europe, and indeed, the world, don’t have the same diplomatic weaponry as they had in 2014 either.
Furthermore, Russia and Vladimir Putin were able to push the western nations into reacting as they have without any of the concessions that were first expected or stated as requirements by the EU and US over the previous eightish or so years. While the economy in Russia is not great, by statistical standards or by practical human ones in many cases, that vast nation with its great bounty of diverse peoples have, to be sure, weathered a sanction storm across nearly a decade already, and just recently forced diplomatic conversations in Geneva, Switzerland despite their ruling elites’ eternal recalcitrance and prevarication.
Meanwhile, the administration of Joe Biden has suggested that American Embassy staffers would do well to depart from the Ukraine, and national allies of the United States in Europe are currently frazzled by this circumstance, and remain vexed regarding what should be done next. The 46th President is considering boosting US military presence in Eastern Europe, and is, like some other allied nations, sending “aid” to the Ukraine as well – mostly military in nature – in what surely would be the worst-case scenario for each and every party involved in this affair.
For me, the solution to this quandary must involve honest discussions regarding NATO, Ukrainian Sovereignty, as well as sanctions. What might be bargained for with the previously applied pressure is, in varying degrees, the proverbial return of that varied and vehement pressure campaign itself; what, ultimately, can the United States and Europe recoup from their all-in gamble to suffocate the Russian Bear with economic sanctions when real diplomatic discussion and organization was likely in order at that particular moment in time?
This is the current test that the United States and its allies find themself in as this situation involving the Crimean Region of Ukraine and Russia continues to evolve and unfurl itself. It is not desirable for any of the parties involved, other than Russia, who has bullied their way through a massive sanctions campaign only to force the diplomatic entreaties that should have occurred nearly ten years ago; the optics of this for the western allies, diplomatically speaking, are not great. It is, to be sure, a gamble for Russia as well however, but it is one that, given the state of the nation, was seen as politically and diplomatically viable for the current President Putin to undertake.
While these western powers are looking to cobble together credibility on this issue even as sanctions have not created any tangibly positive change regarding the international or domestic outlook vis-a-vis Russia, it remains worth appraising whether sanctions were applied to frivolously years ago in 2014, and if another recourse might have created a better alternative today. Furthermore, we must analyze whether the overreliance upon sanctions as a sort of diplomatic stopgap of sorts to international innovations of a disagreeable sort has, indeed, backfired and caused those nations who have employed them so often to lose ground in the struggle to maintain some semblance of international peace, equilibrium or control over worldly happenings and circumstances.
“Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
The sanctions imposed in 2014 by the United States and much of Europe, thanks to the European Union, ostensibly hurt Russia and likely pushed them towards signing the Minsk agreements in 2015, it is true. Yet it feels strange to think that anyone back in 2014 could have believed that the sanctions against Russia alone could or would have damaged the long term ambitions of Vladimir Putin regarding Ukraine or the Crimea; regarding that region, because of the links that Ukraine as a whole, and Crimea particularly, has to Russia through the entire history of the city of Kyiv and of greater Kyivan Rus, all the way through the centuries to post-Second World War and alleged post-Cold War agreements regarding spheres of influence, Russia remains both protective, as well as enamored with and by the Crimean region of Ukraine.
In 2014, the proper diplomatic decision was not to proverbially punt the massive implications of this Russian infatuation and obsession with Ukraine and the Crimea down the road by simply sanctioning them, but to discuss in a grand, multilateral conference similar to the one which recently happened in Geneva, the regional and international realities of the situation and find a real path forward, in a similar spirit as the Iranian Nuclear Deal, or JCPOA. At that time, although Russia was committing a power play of sorts, the sanction recourse had yet to be explored or applied and so, in my mind, greater unified diplomatic coercion and pressure might have been mustered and applied by the US and the EU in order to find some sort of concrete diplomatic resolution at that moment, without the need to resort quite yet to the sanction regime.
In this instance, and through this course of action, solutions for the friction between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions within Crimea, as well as Russia, Ukraine, and the regional and international communities as a whole. These solutions and compromises might have been found through independent international bodies and their agents and inspectors, and this work and their reports could very well have formed the basis of some agreeable set of innovations for the involved nations and that region based upon that collected evidence and the subsequent recommendations extrapolated from it all.
Now, that would have likely seen consolations and compromises from all parties, and would have likely left all parties feeling frustrated, dissatisfied but in a working relationship of which had some semblance of neutrality within the greater international arbitration process. Negotiations are, for some strange reason, seen today as weakness whereas unilateral or punitive actions are recognizable more as strength or will or what have you; this, of course, is nonsense, and is also unrealistic in the greater context of the global diplomacy of nations. The ghosts of Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement hang over diplomacy, non-violent or caustic diplomatic action and greater international cooperation, in many ways, like a spectre of distrust and mistrust in the midst of any and every international situation.
As Russia lauds and looms over and around Crimea upon the border of Ukraine once again, it is right where it was all those years ago in many ways, and yet, they have weathered a collective storm of economic warfare meant to pressure them into a hitherto absent spirit of friendship or mutuality. Were some agreements ironed out and resolved in 2014, and even in the years since, it is unlikely that this entire circumstance would be unfolding in quite the way that it currently is, and were further negotiations in the same or similar vein to fail at this time, with the innovations of this theoretical 2014 in mind and in pocket, the allies of Ukraine to the west would still, indeed, have the quite sizable cudgel of a decades worth of economic venom to wield in threat and warning should Russia choose to chance international stability, mutual cooperation, economic and social developments, as well as those international partnerships and bonds, for Kyiv or any other border nation within or without the EU’s grasp or influence.
Were this to be the recourse that the nations of the EU, the United States and their collective international allies were to feel obligated to take because of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, despite international protestations and multilateral conferences, then the full brunt of those measures would have to be enacted multilaterally by those western – and/or eastern – allies of Ukraine all at once, alongside whatever other recourse might be afforded to the situation at that time; military force would also likely accompany that. Yet the force of such a collective economic action, as much as the military implications, would be felt more acutely and explicitly in that moment than across eightish or so years, and so would likely push Russia to recoil and sue for some type of relief and compromise accommodation from the collective polities of the international community.
It is at this time in the discussions that, once again, the threat of sanctions should be bartered away in return international diplomatic agreements, domestic innovations, long-standing JCPOA-esque “road maps” or plans and the like. Economic sanctions and measures do not create the sense of inevitability within their victims, as is supposed by proponents of the practice, in the same way it was not supposed, and also not accurate, regarding the infamous terror bombings of the Second World War or Vietnam; under each of these conditions, exerted by allegedly caring polities and their many peoples, target nations and their people do not soften up over time, like a pugilist taking shots round after round after round, but only calcify and prevaricate further.
“The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.” – Otto von Bismarck
Sanctions do not soften nations and their leaders up in any literal sense to greater amicability or diplomacy, but, over time especially, can create polities and populations of which, thanks to their greater disconnection to the international community of nations, act more wantonly and rashly still in their threats, ambitions and actions within the international community. Only the forceful and hopeful energy of diplomatic and intellectual confrontation can solve the problems that can and do sometimes foment between nations, cultures, ideologies and “historical” tracts of territory the world over.
When sanctions are applied to problems of international significance, it is often akin to putting a bandage upon a fresh wound that, while uncleansed and unresolved beneath the fabric, is sure only to fester further under those best intentions and innovations of onlookers and advocates. No, nations, like the people that compromise them, must face their solutions head-on, and must confront behavior that they can well determine is harmful to the larger community of which they themselves make up in part; this is not comfortable always, nor does it always end as each faction or factions would like. Mistakes are made, as can be witnessed down the years and ages of the history of humanity, yet these mistakes do not justify the abstention of true and real diplomacy in favor of a mechanism of which has consistently failed to create the change its proponents have long championed it to be capable of delivering.
If they have any future in international relations, that future will consist of a reimagining of their function and use, as well as when and how it is ever most appropriate to use them at all. They must not be unilateral, but multilateral and collective in focus and spirit; they must not be eternal, nor must they be used too hastily either. The sanctions should be used closer to and into any type of actual militarized conflict most often, if ever international relationships have deteriorated so. Therefore, greater resources and intellectual innovations must be reached for and imagined by those minds whose job it remains to find common ground and mutuality between nations and within the greater international community of nations: Diplomats.
The crisis between Russia and Ukraine was never going to be resolved by sanctions alone, and won’t today be solved that way either; that should have been understood back in 2014, and yet it is only now that critics of the global sanction regime are heard and considered as those proponents have long been. In regards to Cuba, Iran and North Korea too, that message too must be appraised, analyzed and considered in the light of these considerations. How long will we look to strangle and suffocate nations and their peoples in their own homelands before we see that these actions bear no fruit down the years? On the contrary, they produce only immediate suffering, pain, hardship and angst in the years to come, and inevitably lead to greater xenophobia between those afflicted parties and those nations and people who sanction and, therefore, punish the people they profess to have deep care and concern for.
Like the siege bygone eras, the modern sanction suffocates in the name of liberty, sovereignty or freedom. Yet unlike the siege of those bygone eras, it rarely works in any long or short-term sense; it creates hatred and suffering the world over and does not even achieve that which it aims to. On the other hand, by working through the issues which create international conundrums in places like Russia and Iran, the greater calamities which fester from the initial international wounds of nations and ideology cannot be properly born.
Indeed, while Russia and this entire circumstance might have been better handled in 2014 by the Obama administration and its international allies in government, the blusterings and blunders of the Trump administration destroyed the progress that the 44th President’s administration did make upon the international, diplomatic landscape regarding both Cuba, as well as Iran. Sanctions are not the answer in any of these circumstances, and must stop being relied upon as such, when, as I stated in a recent piece regarding sanctions for another publication, it is only diplomacy as we are witnessing in Vienna and Geneva that can win the day for a better, more equitable and egalitarian world for all people and nations. Joe Biden must understand this, as it appears he might, and innovations to his policies must be considered while there is still time in his presidency and in these circumstances to correct the courses of which the United States finds itself barreling ever further towards.