Sanctions: They key to the Ukraine – Russia conflict?

Political scientists have defined the current crisis using different terms, but the one that prevails the most is the one used by Bocconi Professor Kerim Kavaklı: war of aggression. As the global geopolitical stability shifts, and the current scenario brings to mind images of the Cold War, the questions that remain unanswered are the following: “why now?” and “what next?”.

Why now?

The end of the Cold War initiated the beginning of the primacy of the West in political, economic and strategic domains. The US emerged as the leading power, and the ideological victory of capitalism, liberalism and free-market principles enabled America to become the leading geopolitical and geoeconomic actor. This was also facilitated by the fact that competition from the USSR was non-existent, and China was still experiencing internal unrest. From the end of the 20th century, the West faced no competition and no challengers, a fact which enabled the US to establish a system of power monopoly related to global dominance.

However, this scenario disintegrated 30 years ago, given that facts changed a lot. The west is now not so militarily, financially and politically competitive and powerful as it used to be, since new powers have emerged, trying to secure their spot in the international scene. Iran, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which led to the establishment of a religious theocracy, is systematically challenging the dominance of the US in the Middle East and has become the number one concern for American foreign policy in the region. Turkey is also becoming more assertive, with President Erdogan baring his teeth and challenging the EU and related institutions in any given occasion. And China has quietly, yet skillfully, inserted itself into the global equilibrium, seeking to remove the US from its leading economic and political position. These actors emerged as a result of the opening in the international political scene given the several crises that shattered the post-Cold War balance of power. The 2007-2008 financial crisis, the Syrian refugee crisis, the limited ability to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and the never-ending wars in the Middle East have signaled the evident weakening of the West, and the US in particular.

When it comes to Russia, international actors are no longer faced with the same disintegrated and disoriented nation that Gorbachev left behind. Putin’s government has transformed Russia into a superpower, which imposes via soft power its own goals and related to global stability and security.

Map 1: Countries planning an airspace ban on Russia

Professor Massimo Morelli from Bocconi University suggests that the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia war, with the specific intensity and methodology, is due to two factors in the middle run. Firstly, NATO’s expansion towards Russia heightened the general atmosphere of a possible future encirclement. The promise to not expand towards Russia after 1990 wasn’t kept, as is evident from the 1999 and 2004 instances, and this creates a setting of international uncertainty. The second factor is related to ensuring the Russian primacy over the energy market, and especially natural gas. Russia’s international assertiveness is based on its ability to dominate the energy market, create a relationship of dependency with the west and prevent the emergence of competition.

Based on these two facts, there can only be one explanation for why this crisis emerged now. Rational choice theorists of political science support the “mismatch of power” theory, which can justify the beginning and continuation of seemingly irrational wars. According to this idea, in the last 80 years, the relative probability of Russian victory in a future war has been weakened. In the case of a 6-day war, for example, the probability that Russia would win with great certainty and that it would definitely prevail over the other power militarily, strategically, economically and politically has been lowered, and this is a by-product of the 2014 Crimea crisis. While the relative military power of Russia has increased, and the Ukrainian military and strategic force has decreased despite international support, the fact that Russia’s relative economic power has deceased creates this scenario of power mismatch.

In this effort to rationalize war, therefore, Russia calculated the expected benefits and costs of going to war. The mismatch between its military power and its economic primacy was such that it encouraged Putin to take a “risk it all” decision and address the issue with force and aggression, rather than assertive diplomacy. The necessity of reversing this power mismatch due to NATO’s expansion and due to a possible green transition and shift away from traditional sources of energy, which would limit Russia’s energy competitive advantage, were enough to encourage Putin to arrive to such a decision.

What next?

Since the west, led by the US, announced that the possibility of American military involvement in the region is non-existent, the next-best solution would be financial sanctions. However, even this tool needs to be implemented with caution, and again doesn’t seem like the ideal solution.

While it seems like the west has a significant advantage against Russia, given that it is its biggest trading and economic partner and since the west dominates markets, a systematic package of generalized sanctions will lead to opposite results.

Map 2: Explosions reported against major Ukrainian cities

On the contrary, a targeted plan of sanctions directed towards specific entities, companies, and groups of people that support the current Russian government may lead to better results. This idea is based on the selectorate theory of political science, which suggests that autocratic leaders are able to hold on to power even where there is increasing public dissatisfaction and when there is international resistance because there is a small elite (the selectorate) which supports them politically and financially, and this is enough for them to remain in power. This is the case of several actors in the international scene, such as Basha al-Assad’s regime in Syria. History has shown that the imposition of general sanctions in the entirety of the Russian population will lead to undesired results in the long term, since this tool may radicalize sections of the population that were neutral before and that could potentially turn against the Russian regime. This is why questions regarding the direction, intensity and systematicity of sanctions will be key in determining the next steps.

In the long run, the possible scenarios are 3. The first one starts with a Russian victory, a regime change in Ukraine and the establishment of a pro-Russian government, steps which will eventually turn Ukraine into a puppet state directed by the west. This resembles the current state of Belarus, whose independence has been diluted and, in its place, pro-Kremlin attitudes can be detected.

The second scenario is the possibility of negotiations between the current Ukrainian and Russian government, the US, and other supranational institutions (NATO and the EU), possibly mediated by some third power. In the case of such a development, the actor should preferably remain impartial and have no vested interest in the continuation or future of the conflict, which is why Turkey’s Erdogan might not be the ideal fit. This negotiation process is also one that won’t start from zero, since predetermined facts from both sides will get in the way of looking at the situation from a neutral point of view. Under this scenario, Ukraine will most likely turn into a neutral buffer state, with no ties to the west and no relationship with Russia, and a limited possibility to change this in the future, given that any maneuvering will once again alter the status quo.

And the final scenario is the intensification of military engagement, the continuation of war and the escalation of the crisis in a “whoever lasts” fashion.

The most important element, however, is the foundation of the proper basis for a new geopolitical reality. The post-Cold War status quo has shattered, taking down with it the sense of a “pax Americana” stability. New actors have emerged, claiming a position for themselves and facing the resistance of the West because of its unwillingness to share the equilibrium of power. The future, unfortunately, remains grim and uncertain.

Cover image shot by Alexandra Palaiologou

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