So it has begun, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be. Vladimir Putin has given the go order, and Russian forces have crossed the border into Ukraine.
This is not the shock-and-awe, multi-front invasion many have been anticipating, at least not yet. Instead, Russia has so far just recognised the independence of the two separatist ‘People’s Republics’ in Donetsk and Luhansk, and deployed ‘peacekeepers’.
But at present, those entities control barely half the territory to which they lay nominal claim, and Moscow seems to have signalled that its recognition extends to Ukrainian-territory, the potential for escalation is apparent.
That seems to be the best argument for why the Government has elected not to pull out all the stop with its sanctions regime. According to the Times:
“Boris Johnson said that five Russian banks — Rossiya, IS Bank, General Bank, Promsvyazbank and the Black Sea Bank — would have their assets in the UK frozen and would be unable to trade in the UK. In addition the government is sanctioning three Russian oligarchs Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire who controls the Volga Group, Boris Rotenberg, a co-owner of SMP Bank, and his nephew Igor Rotenberg. All three are already sanctioned by the US.”
There will also be bans on British companies doing business in areas controlled by the separatists.
Clearly there is plenty of capacity to scale these up. Sir Keir Starmer has called for RT, the Kremlin-backed propaganda station that plays host to stars such as Alex Salmond and George Galloway, to lose its broadcasting licence. The Labour leader argues that “a threshold has already been breached”, and a more muscular approach is required.
There is merit to this argument. Whilst Putin seems to have shifted the flavour of his nostalgia from the USSR to the Russian Empire, he is surely familiar with Lenin’s dictum: “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw”.
If the Russian president is not yet fully committed to a wholesale invasion of Ukraine, a maximum-strength initial response might signal the West’s seriousness and break a dynamic wherein he slowly bids himself up, crisis point by crisis point.
However, the critical part of that idea is the West, and ministers point out that their approach is in line with the multinational effort. Joe Biden has talked about a “first tranche” of sanctions.
Corralling foreign partners towards a rigorous sanctions regime has not been easy. Germany’s decision not to proceed with the Nord Stream II pipeline is welcome, but Europe is still badly exposed to Russia’s influence over global gas markets. Nor is that the only sector where Moscow could levy potent counter-sanctions, as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes:
“Putin has the means to cut off critical minerals and gases needed to sustain the West’s supply chain for semiconductor chips, upping the ante in the middle of a worldwide chip crunch. Furthermore, he could hobble the aerospace and armaments industry in the US and Europe by restricting supply of titanium, palladium, and other metals.”
Worryingly, the logic of a prolonged sanctions clash in these sectors could also, perversely, strengthen the incentives for Putin to strike hard in Ukraine, as control over key cities such as Odessa would further tighten his stranglehold over crucial industrial capacity.
To anyone familiar with the fact that China controls about nine-tenths of the global supply of rare earth mineral products, this is a familiar and depressing story. On the industrial front, it looks once again as if the West has not laid adequate foundations for a serious confrontation with its new authoritarian challengers.
Such unpreparedness is no excuse for inaction. Whilst Putin might have broken the seal on the post-Cold War order when he successfully changed his country’s borders through force in Crimea, a wholesale conventional war risks shattering it completely. Leaving it unanswered would not only discredit the Western alliance, but it would also send a dangerous signal to other territorially-ambitious regimes. If China misjudges American resolve over Taiwan, the consequences could be catastrophic.
The UK and its allies must therefore do all they reasonably can. That does not mean deploying troops, which we have neither the will nor the means to do. But generous military support to Kiev, and the resolve to endure a painful trade war, are surely the bare minimum.
In the long run, meanwhile, we need a long-term plan to reduce our reliance on potentially hostile states for parts and materials key sectors of our economy rely on.