Sunday, June 16, 2024
 
 

No impunity for Putin’s flagrant aggression

Russia's invasion of Ukraine deserves the harshest sanctions from the West, but unfortunately, the EU is shying away from properly punishing Putin for the worst violation of national sovereignty in Europe since Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939.
Members of the Russian Armed Forces.

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It turned out worse than most Western politicians and military experts had expected. In the morning hours of February 24, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation a completely unprovoked multi-pronged invasion of its southern neighbor Ukraine, a sovereign state in Eastern Europe that has been independent for more than 30 years. 

Until the last minute, many Western politicians had hoped that Putin would only annex the two so-called “People’s Republics” – Donetsk and Lugansk – in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, both of which have been under partial control by pro-Russian separatists since April 2014.

It quickly became clear, however, that the entire military operation was in fact targeting the whole of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin justified his ordering the invasion by falsely claiming that a “genocide” of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population was taking place in the Donbass. This is an outright and blatant lie. That claim was preceded by his public declaration that Ukraine did not have a right to exist. 

None of this was new from Putin. He has regularly sounded like a kindred spirit of Hitler and Stalin, both of who used revisionist history and imperialist rhetoric to justify the horrors that they inflicted on others. Putin is a war criminal, full stop. As the head of a nuclear superpower, he invaded a neighboring country and apparently wants to transform it into a vassal state that will be fully under his control.

The Czech Republic’s former Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg recently told New Europe that there are clear parallels with 1938, when Britain and France awarded Adolf Hitler the Sudetenland, in what was then Czechoslovakia, “in exchange for ‘peace in our time’.

As history reminds us, however, Hitler ignored the gesture of peace and instead annexed all of Czechoslovakia shortly afterwards invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War.

The international community must be clear – Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s ambassador to Austria, Vasyl Khymynets, warned that no one in the West should believe that Putin would be content with Ukraine alone. He would soon try to bring other former Soviet states under his control, perhaps starting with Moldova or the Baltic republics, even if they are NATO members.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky also warned the West that they might be the next targets of Putin’s new plans of a Europe following his orders. 

The EU and US indirectly supported Putin in his attack by assuring him that they would not interfere militarily.  Ukraine was late in receiving modern weapons systems from the US and Germany only supplied helmets. Ukraine stands no chance against the modern-equipped and highly-trained Russian army. Ukraine does have the strategic option of launching an insurgent war against Moscow’s forces, one that would be drawn out and bloody.

Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer took a hard line on Germany’s and Europe’s security policy of the past years. “I am so angry at us because we have failed historically,” she wrote on Twitter. After the conflicts in Georgia, Crimea and the Donbass, nothing was prepared that would have deterred Putin.

The West limited itself to negotiations, which admittedly did not seriously dissuade Putin from his plans. Over the last several months, he met with Macron, Scholz and others at strangely long tables – supposedly out of his fear of COVID, but then cuddled closely with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko at a small table.

Belarus, which had demonstrated some independence from Moscow in 2015 with the Minsk agreements that were aimed at ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine, is now completely under Putin’s control and has already permanently welcomed Russian troops and nuclear missile sites.

Europe’s first reaction to Putin’s invasion was a package of sanctions aimed at the Russian banking sector and several oligarchs, as well as all Duma deputies who had voted for the recognition of the two “people’s republics”.

This was followed up with bans on the IT, aircraft and energy sectors. The bulk of Russian banks are now banned from any business in the EU. And, astonishingly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the new gas-pipeline Nord Stream-2 will not be opened for importing more natural gas from Russia.

That said, however, Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine did not persuade the EU to unpack its sharpest weapon, a disconnection of Russia from the international financial transfer system known as “SWIFT”.

The European Union has embarrassed itself by being so hesitant. After all, this next stage of sanctions was already planned in the event of a minor military action by Russia in eastern Ukraine. Germany, Italy and Austria, however, refused to even consider disconnecting Russia from SWIFT, which is administered mostly by the US.

Sanctions are, of course, always a double-edged sword because they also affect businesses and consumers in the EU. But is there an alternative? How else can one answer a blatant violation of international law, military aggression and a violent change of the post-war security order, in breach of international treaties, if one does not want to wage war? No one in the West wants World War III, but it remains an open question if that is what Putin’s ultimate goal is. 

Contrary to what the politicians who harbor a lot of sympathy for Putin – and who regularly trade with Russia – like to claim, sanctions by the EU and the US have had a painful impact on the Russian economy. Sweden’s expert on Eastern Europe, Anders Aslund, has calculated that from 2014 to 2020, the sanctions levied on Russia cost the country up to 3 per cent of its annual GDP. Most recently, Russians’ real disposable income fell by eleven per cent and the economy has stagnated since the occupation of Crimea in 2014. If Russia is cut off from SWIFT, even worse consequences loom.

Russian armored personnel carriers outside Sevastopol, Crimea.

It is striking that Putin never mentions these facts, nor does he explain why Russia’s GDP, which was economically on par with China’s after the end of the Soviet Union, is now only equal to that of the Netherlands and Belgium combined. He also avoids explaining why the promised modernization and diversification of the Russian economy never happens.

Dmitry Medvedev, who acted as a placeholder president for Putin, once mockingly calculated that gas consumers in the EU will soon be paying twice more than they do now. Indeed, unlike in 2014, Russia is currently benefiting from high energy prices, but in the longer term, Russia could be the bigger loser in this war. 

As such a huge country, the Russian Federation needs continuous large amounts of revenue from the supply of oil and natural gas, which accounts for a good third of its economy. But with much of the globe moving towards renewable energy sources, and an increase in the number of electric vehicles on the road, the demand for Russian oil and gas could drop significantly. 

Moscow’s new customers like China must first have pipelines constructed for the free flow of Russian energy resources into the country – a process that could take. But that will take several years.

Putin will, in any case, be a pariah in the West for the next few years. In his eyes, this hardly matters as he’s already himself as Russia’s head of state until 2036. Hopefully, he will no longer be treated as a serious politician by the US, UK and EU. This is also true of his entourage, including his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who all played along with Putin’s playbook. 

Russia is no longer fit for any sort of good-faith agreement and now should be punished as a criminal state with the harshest of economic sanctions.

We, as the standard-bearers of democracy, owe this to Ukraine and its population. After all, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe. 

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