World·Analysis

How a Russian invasion of Ukraine could trigger a chain reaction of reprisals

We've been given early warnings of the damaging chain reaction we can expect in the tit-for-tat of international economic retaliation should Russia re-invade Ukraine. All of which raises obvious questions. Is it worth it?

The U.S. says these sanctions will hit harder than past ones. It's bracing for blowback

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, seen meeting in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

We've been given early warnings of the damaging chain reaction we can expect in the tit-for-tat of international economic retaliation should Russia re-invade Ukraine.

The U.S. promises a swift retort: crippling sanctions on Russian banks, energy firms, oligarchs, and even family members of Kremlin insiders. A Russian counter-response is anticipated: American politicians warn about the possibility of cyberattacks and higher gas prices.

Europeans are particularly vulnerable as they depend on fuel from Russia to heat their homes, and any supply disruptions could worsen already-high gas and oil prices.

The cyberattacks may already have begun; Ukraine blames Russia for hacks that have knocked its defence ministry and banks offline.

Signs of a snowball effect mounted Thursday as a top U.S. diplomat was expelled from Moscow, and the website for Russia's foreign ministry appeared to have been shut down. 

U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged the risks ahead in a speech Tuesday, where he delivered warnings both to Russia and to his own people.

To the Russians, he vowed to counter cyberattacks on any key U.S. infrastructure, which, as Americans discovered last year with the Colonial pipeline hack, can disrupt the country.

To his own country, Biden prepared it for economic blowback.

Biden warns his own country of risks

"I will not pretend this will be painless. There could be an impact on our energy prices," said Biden, adding that he was working with fuel producers to mitigate the impact. 

"The American people understand that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost."

A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service patrols the area near the frontier with Russia in the Chernihiv region, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Biden has made clear U.S. troops would not enter the fight. His stance has broad though not total support in U.S. politics, as most Washington Republicans and Democrats agree with him. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders says there must be consequences if Putin launches the biggest European land invasion since the Second World War.

But he added, in an interview with NPR: Prepare for Russian retaliation, possibly against banks, energy companies and the food industry.

"Let's be realistic. We should do [sanctions]. I think there's no alternative. But when you do that, what do you think Russia's going to do?" Sanders said. 

"[They won't be saying], 'Oh, that's fine, we're not gonna do anything.' I think there will be a response." 

People attend a pro-Ukrainian demonstration in central London on Wednesday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

All of which raises obvious questions. Is it worth it? Will sanctions achieve anything? And what can the U.S. and its allies do? 

After all, the last cycle of sanctions didn't turn out especially well after Russia invaded Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.

What happened with the last sanctions

The U.S. imposed sanctions against at least 735 Russian people, entities, vessels, and aircraft, using several American sanctions programs

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) report estimates the damage to the Russian economy as about one percentage point that year, in which it was also pummeled by plunging oil prices. Researchers at Georgetown University calculated that the sanctions also imposed serious costs on the Russian government as it spent heavily to stabilize struggling industries.

But it didn't push Russia out of Crimea. 

What it did do was anger Russia's government. Moscow later hacked into the personal emails of Americans and interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, according to special counsel Robert Mueller, which led to more U.S. sanctions against 68 Russian people and entities.

This time is different, the U.S. side says. It says these sanctions would hit harder. Some analysts say the politics in Russia have also changed.

The U.S. threatens to isolate Russia financially, reduce its interactions with foreign banks, target its energy sector, and even personally target Vladimir Putin's entourage.

Some soft spots have already surfaced in its plan.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy examines weapons as he attends tactical military exercises held by the country's armed forces at a training ground Wednesday in the Rivne Region, Ukraine. (Reuters)

On energy, the U.S. and some EU officials insist Russia's coveted Nord Stream 2 pipeline would not start flowing to Germany; Germany's new chancellor, however, hasn't said much.

On banking, the idea of cutting Russia from the SWIFT global banking system was apparently rejected amid European concerns about effects on their economy.

Meanwhile a new sanctions package planned in the U.S. Congress to supplement presidential actions has hit snags, after being described as nearly complete.

Goal of bill in Congress: expose Putin

But we do know some of what Republicans hope to see in the bill after they released their own version, ironically titled the 'Nyet' Act: the Never Yielding Europe's Territory Act.

They would toughen penalties against Nord Steam 2, hit Russian banks, prohibit U.S. funding for Russia's national debt, expedite arms sales to Ukraine and increase military assistance.

The bill would also seek to humiliate Vladimir Putin in his own country. 

It would require the Biden administration to produce a public report on how much money and assets are secretly owned by the Russian president, his family, and his inner circle.

The U.S. says a Russian gas pipeline to Germany won't happen if it invades Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, seen here at the White House on Feb. 7, isn't saying it quite as explicitly. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

It would also block access to U.S. visas and property ownership for a number of Russian political and military officials.

One former U.S. government official and Russia expert welcomes these sorts of moves personally targeting Putin's enablers. He wants them to fear their corruption might be exposed, and fear losing something they truly cherish: their lives of luxury in the West.

"Send them home," said Kristofer Harrison, a former official in the U.S. departments of state and defence. 

"We let these ogres crap all over the Russian people and then we let them escape to the West. Make them live with the people that they're stealing from."

The big question: what Putin wants 

Putin, for his part, explains his stance on Ukraine as a matter of principle. In an exhaustive essay, he described the status quo as "despicable" and a "tragedy." 

He called Ukrainians and Russians a people with a common history dating back to the same Medieval empire; said Ukraine should be as connected to Russia as Canada is to the U.S.; and said Eastern Ukraine, closest to Russia, will never accept a west-leaning posture.

One book, Ukraine and Russia by Paul D'Anieri, argues these tensions are grounded in deep philosophical differences and would exist whoever was president of Russia.

U.S. analysts say Putin (seen here again with Biden in Geneva in June 2021) craves one thing above all others: Political longevity. And that he sees Ukraine in that light. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But some analysts see a more prosaic factor at play: An autocrat's quest for political longevity.

Fiona Hill of Washington's Brookings Institution and a former Trump administration official notes that Putin's poll support numbers have softened. Fewer than half told one pollster they want Putin to remain president after 2024, his worst score since 2013.

What happened the last time Putin's numbers were this weak? He invaded Crimea — and support for his continued rule soon jumped more than 25 points. 

Harrison said people put up with the Putin's regime's corruption and autocracy for only one reason: the sense that he's restored Russian pride.

"The basic compact [Putin has] with the Russian people: make Russia great again," he said.

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But he thinks Putin could face real political trouble this time. 

He said the Russian economy is sluggish, the country has been walloped by COVID-19, and there's less enthusiasm for a conflict over Eastern Ukraine than over Crimea.

One former CIA Russia analyst put his assessment in more graphic terms. Michael van Landingham told Yahoo News that Putin's deepest fear is suffering the same fate as Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who was toppled in a U.S.-backed coup, and he'll do whatever he thinks might keep the U.S. and his enemies at bay. 

Putin's goal, he said, was: "To not get shot in a ditch."

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