The path from sanctions to military escalator – paved by misconceptions
What lies behind this mess? Well, on the one hand, hubris; but also, the failure to do real homework – and a lack of strategic forethought.
It seems that the war in Ukraine is morphing — both widening, with a Moldovia-Transnistra and a Polish front opening — and deepening, with the US preparing for a long-war of Idlib-type attrition designed to weaken and emasculate Russia.
‘New fronts’ are the classical ploys to disperse the opponent’s sharp military focus, by forcing the attention onto fragmented bush-fires lit around the perimeter, which demand action – and perhaps the deployment of troops.
The Polish initiative (co-ordinated directly with the US), is both more grave and sinister. Ostensibly, the objective – as described by the head of Russian External Intelligence (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin – would be to establish military and political control by Warsaw over “its historic territories” which today fall within the boundaries of Ukraine.
Poland would introduce its troops into the Western regions of the country under cover of a mission to “protect the territory from Russian aggression”. Eventually, this would be expected to lead to a partition of Ukraine. The Poles would install a friendly government in the territory they control.
Sinister? Well, very possibly yes. Recall the Idlib model. Turkey (with CIA coordination), invaded the Idlib Province of Syria (also claiming its ‘historic territories’), ostensibly to protect ‘opposition forces’ (i.e. CIA and Turkish-linked jihadists) from the ‘evil Assad regime’.
Idlib then became a semi-autonomous safe haven, under the watchful eyes of Turkish ‘observation’ posts mounted throughout Idlib. The jihadists were ‘normalised’ as a political opposition fighting for democracy, whilst being trained and armed by external Special Operations forces to attempt the overthrow of President Assad.
Is this the American blueprint for the next phase of a ‘long war [against Russia], maybe lasting years’?
In any event, the EU and the US are likely to agree on a $33 billion budget for Ukraine for the next five months – i.e. through to the US Congressional, mid-term elections! (a timeline that says it all) – that is intended to push massive quantities of increasingly heavy weapons and oodles of cash into Ukraine — if Russia lets them (which they might not, preferring to destroy the weapons on arrival).
Arguably, the West’s war on Russia has evolved from a failed Financial War – that did not bring about the early collapse of the rouble, nor the Russian financial system – into the all-too-familiar world of mounting, financing and arming an attrition-insurgency.
Or has it? Perhaps it remains true that the financial/sanctions/economic struggle still stands primordial. That does not at all, of course, imply that military outcomes are insignificant. They are not. But rather, it is because the West has misread, and misconceived the Russian conduct of its military operation so badly (through trying to read it through the lens of a blinkered NATO mirroring their own way of war), that a gross underestimate of the risk of catastrophic EU loss in the economic battlespace is possible.
If the risks from sanctions war remain potentially so devastating, why are they being ignored by EU leaders?
This underestimation of the risks facing Europe, principally results from an atmosphere in Washington and Brussels of high euphoria about the course of the military conflict, plus the thrill of inflicting a humiliating civilizational defeat on Putin.
This combination has given rise to a rosy assessment of the battlespace ‘balance of economic strengths’ betwixt the EU and Russia.
Here is the essence: Initially, the EU expected the Russian rouble quickly to collapse due to the EU and US seizing Russian foreign reserves, and the sanctioning of Russia’s Central Bank. And this currency crash, it was assumed, would tip the dominoes to fall in a cascade crash of Russia’s financial institutions.
But this didn’t happen. The EU had calculated solely on the premise of its experience of the 1998 Russian financial crisis, and of the US attempt to crash the rouble in 2014. The short answer as to why their plan failed is that in the interim, Russia had addressed the financial system’s vulnerability to currency attack.
Today, the Russian financial system is stable; its currency has more than recouped initial falls; and its balance of trade has ballooned as a result of today’s higher oil and commodity prices.
Paradoxically the Russian financial situation is stronger than that of many European economies.
Of, course, Russia is experiencing pain. The head of the Central Bank on Friday said that Russia might experience a drop of 8-10% of GDP this year as a result of supply line disruptions, as western states pulled their firms out from Russia. And inflation is high. She gave a figure of 10–12% for real inflation (about on a par with that of Europe). But she also cut interest rates – for the second time in order to stimulate domestic investment.
Far from a picture of imminent economic collapse, she painted one of short-term manageable pain that would largely be righted by 2024 — in spite of continuing uncertainties.
After the EU scratched heads as to why their initial crash-the-economy plan had failed, the light bulb lit up: Ah! Russia was accumulating so much foreign exchange from selling oil and gas at high prices, that the exchange inflows were bidding up the rouble. Solution: the EU must cease buying Russian oil and gas. It must deprive Moscow of foreign exchange. Then the rouble will be forced into its overdue ‘dive’.
Wrong again: In fact, most of the foreign exchange inflows are ‘sterilised’ in Central Bank accounts, precisely so they do not drive up the value of the rouble any further. At the same event when the Central Bank head, Elvira Nabiullina, gave her economic report, Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s National Security Council, explained exactly why the rouble did not collapse, and the means by which it had been “sovereigntised’’.
But of course, von der Leyen has banned all news (and such explanations) from Russia being posted in the EU – and, under her bidding, the EU is moving ever closer to banning oil purchases from Russia. The EU is back on the sanctions ‘escalator’ – and they seem content to be there.
Experts have warned plainly that banning Russian ‘everything’ portends ‘curtains’ for Europe: spiking inflation; likely energy-rationing; de-industrialisation, recession – and social unrest.
Why won’t the EU change course?
Well, apart from the euphoria derived from pursuing a major ideological world-change, it is because the EU leaders have the military reality back-to-front.
Western leaders claim that Russia’s military timetable, its strategy, and its aim to ‘subsume Ukraine into Russia’, are a shambles. If you believe that, then taking the economic risk to ‘save Ukraine’ and the liberal ‘order’ may be judged valid.
Were you believe also that Russia’s dysfunctional army could ‘lose the war’ in the coming two weeks, or even within a couple of months at most, then EU leaders might judge soaring energy prices – and even inflation – to be merely a transitory phenomenon. And that by the end of summer, normality in prices would return.
Well, the premise on which this fantastical western assessment is based rests on a complete misreading over how a smaller Russian force could use a ‘strategy of maneuver and feint’ to shape a battlefield on which larger Ukrainian forces are manipulated into immobilized, fixed, defensive positions – and cut off from support, reinforcement and re-supply.
The Clausewitzian doctrine is that victory is achieved by grinding your opponent’s army into dust (and by by-passing urban areas, where possible). Russian forces are grinding down the fixed, encircled positions of the main Ukrainian army in Donbas, exactly now. Will this be victory? No. Ukraine seems destined for ultimate dismemberment (with certain European states seeking a pound of its erstwhile flesh). It will be a moment fraught with the risk of escalation. It will – with hindsight – likely be viewed as but one chapter in a long war.
What lies behind this mess? Well, on the one hand, hubris; but also, the failure to do real homework – and a lack of strategic forethought. Many misconceptions were driven by info-war pressures. Absurd info-war claims, however untrue, could not be countered because …”We are in an info-war with Russia, aren’t we?” To present an alternative view is to ‘aid the Russian ‘enemy’ with its disinformation’. Where were those experts who actually understand Russia? Excluded: All the misjudgments seem to have been driven by staffers with pure animus: Committed activists, led by a supreme Commander who is personally and emotionally invested in the struggle, too.