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Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Writer at POLITICO Europe.
In 1674, French commanders in Grave, then besieged during the Franco-Dutch War, became alarmed at a huge stockpile of explosive material and ammunition they had amassed. They feared that if triggered – accidentally or otherwise – the explosion would have catastrophic consequences for the city. So, as a precaution, they decided to sell half of the gunpowder.
The only flaw in this system concerned the identity of the buyer, the Dutchman. They offered (unsurprisingly) an excellent price, then used the gunpowder to intensify their bombardment of the city.
Was this a case of betrayal and betrayal of the kind that Russian commanders and soldiers were guilty of when they sold weapons to their enemies in Chechnya in the 1990s?
No, just a matter of misguided policy.
Ukrainians now believe that the Western powers are also pursuing a misguided policy of not interrupting any trade with Russia at all. They are currently focused on the natural gas that Europe is buying from Russia: and they claim that the sales only help fund Vladimir Putin’s war machine and prolong a conflict that they understandably want to end quickly. .
But there is another way of looking at things.
The punitive economic sanctions against Russia seem to have the opposite effect of what was intended. They appear to be inadvertently helping the Kremlin rather than hindering it, while in the meantime hurting Western economies, risking a political backlash from European voters and an erosion of support for Ukraine.
One of the great dirty secrets of war is that enemies, while killing each other, often continue to trade for political, economic and moral interests – and even military reasons. “Trade between adversaries includes armaments and fuel, as well as food and luxuries,” noted American scholars Jack Levy and Katherine Barbieri in a 2004 article “Trading with the Enemy in Wartime.”
During the Seven Years’ War from 1755 to 1763, the British continued to import French wine and decided not to stop shipments of Irish beef to the French West Indies. During the Napoleonic Wars there was a thriving trade between die-hard enemies, with the British Admiralty buying brandy from the French to ensure naval odds could still get their ‘daily tot’ when rum was scarce.
Sometimes trade with the enemy is official policy – as was the case during the Crimean War, with the British cabinet making careful calculations that trade with Russia was expedient and would not help the effort of Russian war. Sometimes governments turn a blind eye – or are complicit – in what smuggling rings and profiteers are doing.
Sometimes, due to the close commercial interdependence between adversaries, banning essential trade could undermine the sanctioning country’s ability to wage war. And governments in the past have been aware that sanctions and restrictive economic policies could alienate neutrals – or provide an opening for non-belligerent nations to seize foregone trade opportunities, which they could then keep as their own after the end of war. the war.
For strategic reasons, the Americans supplied beef to the Duke of Wellington’s army in Spain during the War of 1812, fearing that if they failed to do so, London would have to withdraw its forces from the Iberian Peninsula. This would risk sending them to North America to reinforce Her Majesty’s forces fighting the former colonists.
“If we could by starving the British armies force them to withdraw them from the Peninsula, it would be to send them here”, noted the former American president Thomas Jefferson. “I think we better feed them there for pay, than fight them here for nothing,” he added.
In Syria, more recently, tactical imperatives have shaped the clandestine trade between almost all players.
Alongside Bashar al-Assad’s government, Western-backed rebels and international aid organizations have bought oil from the Islamic State terror group. They didn’t have many options, but that actually meant that Western governments were indirectly funding the terrorist group while bombing it.
Are there now lessons to be learned from this long history of dealing with the enemy? In March, EU High Representative Josep Borrell said: “Sanctions in themselves are not a policy, they are a means of impeding conduct.”
But so far, Western sanctions have not stopped Putin from waging war on Ukraine.
Russia’s current account is in surplus; the ruble rebounded to its highest level against the dollar since May 2015, and its health is such that the country’s central bank has intervened to try to weaken it, fearing it will reduce export competitiveness. Russia’s revenues from oil and gas continue to rise and are expected to reach $285 billion this year, thanks in part to high-volume sales in Asian markets, which offset the steeply discounted prices at which Russia sells. Indian traders have made large profits selling Russian crude oil to Western companies, according to reports.
The head of Russian gas giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, noted at the annual International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg last month that the European Union may have cut gas imports “by tens of percent”, but that prices had increased “several times”. over.” At the same rally, Putin boasted that the Western idea “was clear: to violently crush the Russian economy”, adding with a smirk: “They didn’t succeed. Obviously, this does not occur.
Meanwhile, soaring energy prices are compounding a severe cost-of-living squeeze for Western households, fueling inflation. Eurozone price growth hit a record 8.6% in the year to June, in part thanks to a sharp acceleration in energy and food prices due to sanctions and disruptions of supplies caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
No one doubts that the sanctions will cause lasting damage to the Russian economy. Russian industrial production fell 1.7% year-on-year in May. Some areas have been devastated. Auto production fell 96.7% from 2021. Retailer confidence was shaken. And there will be serious lost economic opportunities for the estimated 300,000 Russians who have fled and chosen political exile, many of whom are computer scientists.
But there are no bread riots. Russian grocery stores and supermarkets remain well stocked. The country has long become a fan of import substitution, educated by the waves of sanctions that have hit it since the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
And then there are always ways to find goods through underground smuggling rings for those with the money to get their hands on a prized western product. But most ordinary Russians could never afford Western luxuries anyway and continue to live the cramped, gray existence they had before Putin’s overseas adventures. .
Some Western officials say the sanctions will start to impact Putin’s ability to wage war soon – as parts for tanks and microchips for other advanced weapons run out. But will that happen before European households lose patience?
Waging war smartly doesn’t mean Europe turns into “that dumb old man with a cane”, which was Adolf Hitler’s derisive description of appeaser Neville Chamberlain, but sanctioning Russian energy did maybe not been such a smart decision.