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[Elizabeth Shackelford] If Putin doesn’t fear Western sanctions, his cronies might

A decade ago, I was a US diplomat serving in Warsaw, Poland. I had a close group of Polish friends who, while not in the field of foreign affairs, had a strong fear of Putin’s Russia. They were concerned his aggression and resentment would lead him one day to launch war again in Europe.

I dismissed their concerns as a Cold War hangover. Poland then seemed so prosperous and at peace, and Russia so weak compared with the EU. The 2008 invasion into Georgia seemed a far cry from a threat on Western Europe.

Then came the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the 2016 interference in our own elections and years of cyberattacks on the West. Putin has only grown bolder, as we have done our best to hope he wouldn’t go too far. Today, it is inescapable that he has.

Vladimir Putin has chosen war. His army has invaded an independent country -- a democracy, unprovoked, from three directions. This brazen action is triggering a reaction in the West and beyond that is unified in its condemnation. The extreme nature of the path Putin has chosen could finally be the driver of an effective Western response. It is a shame that it had to go this far to do so.

That response should not involve the United States engaging directly in war with a nuclear power, but we must be ready to take all other steps we can to impede Putin’s aggression.

Putin wasn’t banking on a unified NATO front, but it hasn’t deterred him either. If Western allies can maintain this unity, it might hollow out the oligarch support Putin needs to stay in power, or at least to maintain his war.

Sanctions imposed now have two goals. The first is punitive and preventive. Broad economic sanctions against Russia must prevent Putin from using Western money to fund his war machine.

The second set of sanctions aims at a different audience entirely -- those, especially the oligarchs, who may be in a position to press Putin to end his war.

In both cases, these sanctions must go far beyond what was imposed in 2014 when Putin first invaded Crimea. Those sanctions were mild, more symbolic than punishing. They were the actions of states that wanted to signal disapproval but didn’t wish to suffer themselves financially to do so.

Sanctions announced thus far have gone much further, though experts are already debating how effective they will be. On the one hand, they have the practical impact of cutting Russia’s government off from Western financing and from transactions involving US dollars, the default global reserve currency.

At the same time, however, Putin has been preparing his economy for heightened Western sanctions since 2014. Thanks to high oil and gas prices, he sits on a large war chest, and he has transitioned most of Russia’s debt to rubles. Putin is ready to weather the storm. But will the rest of Russia, the Russian elite in particular, be ready with him?

In addition to broad financial sanctions that will hit Russia’s economy as a whole, and Putin’s ability to pay for the war, the US, UK and European Union are also sanctioning individual oligarchs and their families. The families are a new addition, intended to cut off a path that Russian officials had previously used to avoid the sting of sanctions on themselves: using their kids to hide their wealth.

Russia’s cozy relationship with China could help blunt the impact, but it is unclear so far how much China is willing to help. After his summit with President Xi Jinping earlier this month, Putin might have been expecting more hearty support than he has seen so far. China’s foreign minister has continued to urge a diplomatic resolution while reiterating China’s support for the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries.”

In any event, it is unclear if Russia’s oligarchs would be easily satisfied with a wholesale Eastern substitute for their ties with the West. They want vacation homes in France, not China. Their kids want to study in London, not Beijing.

And what will Russia, or Russia’s elites, gain from this exposure, risking their access to and safe havens in Western markets and countries? A large, expensive, violent war. Ukraine might be outgunned, but it is not rolling over easily either. In tandem with sanctions must come increasing support to help Ukraine defend itself too. The costlier this fight is, the more likely Putin is to lose the support he needs at home to stay the course.

Putin relies on the Russian elites and military to stay in power. If the West aims to change Putin’s path without getting dragged into a hot war, its hope lies in the ability to stay the course together, imposing increasing costs on Putin’s inner circle and, in doing so, persuading the oligarchs that Putin’s hubris is doing them no favors.

But if the oligarchs are excluded from the UK while their yachts can still dock in the Mediterranean Sea, that leverage is lost.

That unity may well depend on the willingness of citizens of the West to suffer some economic costs of the broad economic sanctions too. If inflation or gas prices go up and your 401(k) goes down as a result, give some thought to what democracy is worth to you.


Elizabeth Shackelford
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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