Yes, We Understand You Hate Putin. That Won't End the War.
Since the war in Ukraine started, I’ve learned, or re-learned, a lot that is unappealing about human nature. Take this tweet, which is representative of what the site has been like over the last few weeks.
What I dislike about this response is that it indicates no understanding of what those critical of American foreign policy have been arguing both before and during the conflict. People can google what I think, or assume that, as someone who is critical of the current approach, I agree with John Mearsheimer, Robert Wright, and others who say that we should be taking Russian security concerns seriously and negotiating on that basis. American leaders have throughout the crisis shown no indication that they’re willing to consider taking NATO expansion off the table or trying to achieve some kind of neutral status for Ukraine. You can disagree with this approach and explain why, but I’m constantly being reminded that many people are very emotionally invested in this conflict without even understanding that there is any response to what they hear on CNN or from the State Department. The tweet above is not an argument, it’s someone shaking their head and showing you what a brave and caring person they are. “What would less look like?” is a question you ask only if you’re unaware that any alternative approach has ever been proposed. Here’s another example of the same phenomenon. People are asking “how can I signal I hate Putin the most?” or “how can I show that I am the real defender of Western civilization and ready to meet the historical moment?” without any indication that they’re interested in developing a well-informed view on the issue they’re talking about.
The other problem with this line of “argument” is that even if Putin has maximalist aims at this point, that doesn’t mean sanctions are worth doing. Their costs are high and they may have major consequences for the global economy. One has to consider the possibility that they make Russia more repressive at home and more brutal in its persecution of the war. Moreover, the Russian army is revealing itself to be weaker than it first appeared, which makes it less likely that there will be any further aggression even if the invasion of Ukraine ends up being a very costly success. So yes, even if, for example, a no NATO pledge wouldn’t end the war, “doing less” is a good policy option when the thing you are doing is costly and destructive, and it is certainly better than starting up an escalation ladder that could lead to nuclear war. But there is nothing that can be more unsatisfying to those who would rather engage in moral posturing than think in terms of costs and benefits.
This reflects something deep in human nature, and I’m not sure how we get people to think more calmly and rationally in times of foreign policy crisis. I thought after Iraq more people would be immune to at least the crudest forms of emotional manipulation and propaganda, but then the next thing comes along and even those who think the experience of the last war made them smarter fall into the same pattern. Twitterization amplifies the problem. That probably means we’re going to continue making a mess of various regions of the world indefinitely, and those who wish we would stop can at best hope to influence policy on the margins.
It is in that spirit that I continue trying to provide analysis regarding what getting to a humane and lasting resolution of the current conflict might look like. My new piece at Newsweek focuses on what sanctions can and cannot accomplish. Highlights are below.
It is of course proper to express moral outrage against Russia's invasion and attacks on civilians. And yet, there are good reasons to believe that the response has been driven more by emotion than reason, which is unfortunate because relying on moral outrage as a guide to policy can cloud judgment and make it difficult if not impossible to achieve desirable outcomes. In the case of Ukraine, those outcomes are urgent: minimizing economic damage and the loss of life. So it is incumbent on us to think carefully about what sanctions can—and cannot—accomplish in a case like this.
Perhaps the best place to start is what the scholarly literature says about sanctions more generally. And the literature is clear: By and large, they do not work. The U.S. has sanctioned dozens of countries over the decades, and there are few unambiguous cases of them changing behavior in important ways…
As it turns out, when leaders face sanctions that cause economic damage and can potentially turn public opinion against them, they tend to choose increasing repression over making concessions or giving up power.
This means that, in the case of Ukraine, the most important question is how much Russia cares about the future of that country. In debates surrounding the causes of the war, there have emerged two major camps. One argues that Russia is reacting much like any other country would to NATO expanding into its backyard. The other view stresses ideology, arguing that Putin is either a Russian nationalist who denies the possibility of an independent Ukraine or that he sees democracy on his doorstep as an existential threat to his regime.
But when it comes to the efficacy of sanctions, it doesn't matter which of these views is closer to the truth, because both sides agree on one crucial thing: What happens in Ukraine is of fundamental importance to Putin and his government, whether for reasons having to do with classical security concerns or ideology. We therefore should not expect sanctions to break the regime. Much smaller and weaker countries—North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, and Saddam-era Iraq—have been willing to tolerate extreme forms of deprivation when regime survival or national security has been at stake. Furthermore, the sanctions on Russia are far from the most extreme any nation has faced, as the EU is still too dependent on Russian energy for a complete break…
Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the West can sanction its way to a desirable outcome in Ukraine. In the end, the results of the war will be determined by negotiations, the terms of which will for the most part reflect battlefield realities. Economic pressure may also have a role to play, but there is nothing to suggest that it can be relied on to make Russia abandon its core national security interests, which at the very least include a no-NATO commitment, the acceptance of the secession of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the recognition of the annexation of Crimea. Russia recently said that if Ukraine can accept those conditions, the war could stop “in a moment.”
Any talks might of course fail, but maximalist demands from the Ukrainians and their Western supporters that do not take Russian core interests into account are all but sure to lead to more escalation and despair. The sooner we become more realistic about what sanctions can and cannot accomplish, the sooner we can begin to have an honest discussion about what kind of settlement we are able to live with if we are not willing to go to war.