The West has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in three main ways: pouring arms into Ukraine to buttress the country’s defence; imposing heavy sanctions on Russia to cripple its economy; and essentially ‘cancelling’ Russia by shutting down its foreign media, censoring its cultural exports, and banning its athletes from international competitions.
The hope seems to be that either one of three things will happen: the Russians will be defeated or forced to withdraw; Putin will be overthrown in a palace coup or popular uprising; or he’ll be brought to the negotiating table and made to accept terms highly unfavourable to Russia. While this strategy may work, I’ve yet to read a cogent defence of it.
In fact, the strategy could have a number of negative second-order effects – i.e., unintended consequences – that haven’t been properly thought through.
As several people have observed, the West’s response seems to have been slapped together on the fly amidst a storm of social media outrage, as opposed to being carefully devised after consideration of all possible eventualities. One Substack commenter noted:
Just as COVID-19 is the first pandemic in the Age of Twitter, so the Ukraine invasion is, in some sense, the first war in the Age of Twitter. As it unfolds, we are seeing many disturbing parallels to the events of early 2020. People are rapidly normalising once-fringe ideas like a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, direct U.S. conflict with Russia, regime change in Moscow, and even, incredibly, the use of nuclear weapons. Just as with Covid, we’re seeing the rapid abandonment of longstanding Western policies. The overnight flips on German defence spending and SWIFT are like the overturning of conventional public health policies on masking, lockdowns, and so on.
Let’s deal with each aspect of the Western response in turn. Pouring arms into Ukraine may precipitate a Russian defeat. But it could just as easily prolong the conflict, leading to many more Ukrainian deaths. The Syrian civil war has dragged on for more than ten years and claimed more than 400,000 lives, in part thanks to external arming of rebel groups.
If there’s a good chance the Ukrainians can win, supplying them with arms makes sense. But if they’re unlikely to prevail, why would we want to prolong the conflict?
One possible answer is to deter the next autocratic ruler from launching a similar invasion. But how much deterrence does supplying arms really achieve, especially if Russia ends up winning? Now, entering the war on Ukraine’s side – that would achieve deterrence, but it’s something the West isn’t willing to do (for obvious reasons).
What about imposing heavy sanctions on Russia to cripple its economy? This could prompt a palace coup or popular uprising, leading to Putin’s downfall. But what then? Whoever replaced him could be just as belligerent as he is – or more so. Russia’s President is unlikely to be supplanted by a liberal-minded democrat.
And there’s a potentially much worse outcome than Putin being toppled and replaced. His ouster could leave a power vacuum, with different factions scrambling to take control of the state apparatus. While calm might soon be restored, what if it wasn’t? We don’t want anarchy or civil war in country armed with thousands of nukes.
Another possibility is that crushing sanctions bring Putin to the negotiating table, where he accepts terms highly unfavourable to Russia. And this might work – eventually. But rather than simply giving in, Putin might retaliate with sanctions of his own. And these could be quite injurious. A lesson of economics is that both parties lose from a trade war.
You might say that it’s worth it to halt Putin’s invasion. But what if the sanctions don’t halt Putin’s invasion? Then we’ve simply cratered Russia’s economy, and to a lesser extent those of the West, for no material gain. (Meanwhile, China’s economy will continue growing apace.)
Furthermore, sanctions imposed on Russia could have unintended long-term consequences. One unprecedented step we have taken is to freeze overseas assets owned by Russia’s central bank, while cutting off access to the SWIFT payment system. There’s no doubt this hurts Russia in the short-term, and probably the medium-term too.
But how will this affect other countries’ decisions about where to invest in the future? Will they not be more wary of putting money in the West, knowing that their assets could be frozen at any moment? Granted, we’re in exceptional circumstances. But these kind of downstream effects shouldn’t be discounted.
Another issue is the inconsistency of Western policy. Why are we backing the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen with one hand, while we seek to cripple Russia’s economy with the other? There’s already evidence that Western media coverage is perceived as racist – that we care less about Middle Eastern deaths because the people there don’t look like us.
Finally, by doubling down on the policies that got us here in the first place, we’re simply driving Russia into the arms of China. You might say this is a price we have to pay to punish Russia’s aggression, and you might be right. But remember that Russia is a declining power, whereas China is the West’s only ‘peer competitor’.
So what should we do instead? Though I don’t claim to have all the answers, one thing we could have tried is offering conditional concessions at the war’s outset.
As soon as Putin’s tanks rolled across the border, why didn’t we suggest ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine, and recognising the three breakaway regions, on the condition that Russia immediately withdraw its forces. ‘Then we’d be rewarding Russia’s aggression,’ comes the reply. And I suppose that’s true.
But if the choice is between ‘rewarding Russia’s aggression’ and watching lots of people get slaughtered in a war, perhaps the former is the lesser evil – especially since the ultimate geopolitical outcome could be the same in both cases (i.e., Russia controlling parts of Ukraine).
It’s possible this plan would have been dead on arrival. Putin might have simply rebuffed us, and pressed on with his invasion. But the fact it wasn’t even considered doesn’t inspire confidence in our leaders, who appear to be more concerned with looking ‘tough’ than preventing bloodshed.
At the very least, they could explain what their current policy aims to achieve, and why the various risks I’ve highlighted can be safely ignored.