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How Europe Should Respond to Global Reservations on Sanctions

How Europe Should Respond to Global Reservations on Sanctions
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the unspeakable brutality unleashed against civilians, has been met with quasi-universal condemnation. Even China, whose media maintain a strictly pro-Russian line at home, has termed events in Bucha as "deeply disturbing" on the UN diplomatic front. Beijing intermittently recalls the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, although little has been said about the implications of eroding these principles. The list of outright supporters of Russia - for example those voting against its suspension from the UN Human Rights Council, and even more blatantly, those who opposed a first General Assembly resolution blaming Russia - is gratifyingly short.

But criticism comes in all shades and nuances. The case of China is unique. Its media supports Russia’s entire case for the "special military operation" and even relays Russian propaganda and fake news. It voices muted and rare diplomatic criticism, and abstains rather than vetoes UN resolutions on Moscow’s aggression. China plays with ambiguity, and the discreet reservations it makes are reserved for external consumption, perhaps as future precautions for when Russia’s war fails. This has drawn much global attention. After all, China’s international weight can derail the international system if it does not act responsibly and back international law. Moreover, Beijing’s indifference to war crimes provides cover for other states that do not want to take a side.
Indeed, behind the Chinese tree, there is a forest of nations, many of which either do not fully share the Western or allied case against Russia’s actions, or do not want to confront the practical consequences. The reasons for this may be left unsaid, and may pertain more to a country’s own situation or history rather than an actual stand over the Ukraine issue itself. Several examples can be found in Asia. Indonesia, for instance, is not only neutral and non-aligned, but its own post-colonial creation involved significant territory grabbing in a huge archipelago. Vietnam may have a historical fear of a Chinese invasion, but it has also attempted to realize its own Indochinese dream. India - which some strategists wish to believe has moved on from the grand neutralism of the Gandhi-Nehru era - not only needs to prevent a complete Sino-Russian alliance, but also carries the onus of a 1949 UN resolution for a referendum over Kashmir, and the annexation of Sikkim in 1975. In addition to post-colonial resentment, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa are struggling with their own migrant and refugee flows towards Europe. This is serving to relativize the plight of Ukrainians, or to denounce Europe’s stand as hypocritical. Of course, within this context, nothing beats the hypocrisy of Chinese experts who point out the selectiveness of Europe’s refugee policy when their own country maintains a strict zero-refugee policy.

UN speeches are featuring various arguments to avoid taking sides, particularly with regard to Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. 

At any rate, UN speeches are featuring various arguments to avoid taking sides, particularly with regard to Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council. They range from "the politicization of human rights" denounced by stalwart autocratic states, to a stated preference for negotiations over sanctions - as expressed by Senegal, South Africa and Mexico. Even among supporters such as Singapore - the best example of a small country that has reasons to fear annexation or aggression - territorial integrity is a stronger argument than democracy.

In addition, Europeans - who have grown accustomed to the implicit strategic doctrine of "Europe first", as set out by George Kennan and George Marshall at the beginning of the Cold War - must contend with risks beyond the new "America first" approach. This approach has now receded in Washington. In fact, even under the Trump administration, defense commitments to Europe increased rather than decreased, and the Biden administration is undertaking efforts unseen since the end of the Cold War. Other states, however, especially those in Asia, perceive Europe as a regional rather than global theater. They think the future of major global competition and conflict is in Asia. In the harsh words of India’s former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, "Europe is a sideshow to the main theater of geopolitical drama: Asia".
Finally, the issues of sanctions on or trade diversions from Russia, which remain unresolved by both Europe and America, reveal a gap in the willingness to act, if not always in the perceptions of actions. As India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently commented, "believe me, we have a decent sense of what is in our interest and know how to protect it and advance it". Even with similar views, it is clear that interests can differ.

Only three Asian countries - Japan, Singapore and South Korea - have joined the Western sanction process. South Korea’s policy will likely toughen under the new president Yoon Suk-yeol, elected on March 9: in the first quarter of 2022, the country had actually increased its oil purchases from Russia by 44%. It matters, of course, that the G7 countries and the European Union represent together 80% of global trade, and are fairly unified around sanctions.

Only three Asian countries - Japan, Singapore and South Korea - have joined the Western sanction process. 

But in the global court of opinion, indifference or professed neutralism at the service of individual interests still prevail, however limited these interests may be with today’s Russia. If we turn to the Middle East, not one oil producer supports Western sanctions, despite benefiting richly from the resulting oil price rises. For these states, the fear of Western sanctions over their own abuses, and the wish to preserve an understanding with Russia over a hard-won entente on oil price cartels, matters more than the fate of Ukraine. The expected catastrophe over missing grain exports from Ukraine, the world’s third-largest exporter behind Russia itself, should incentivize the hardest hit countries to remonstrate against Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea, or to ask China to release grain from its currently abundant storage reserves. It is telling that these countries - which essentially form an arc around the Mediterranean - do not make this attempt; they know it is fruitless. And although India’s purchases of Russian oil do not amount to much, the decision to accept payment in Russian rubles or Indian rupees, bypassing all sanction issues, testifies to a harsh reality: bad guys can get their way over polite requests by others.
Given these diverging international interests, reservations, and expressions of indifference, what should Europe do? At any rate, the last thing it should do is to join the line of least resolve, concluding that the only way out is to talk Putin into a ceasefire, without tougher sanctions on Russia and more commitments for Ukraine. Even World War II had its share of neutrals, including at the heart of Europe. As impressive as Europe’s support has proven to be, it still has glaring gaps - above all, the continuing purchase of energy. The unity of Europe, and joint transatlantic action, matter more than a hypothetical global front against Russia. In principle, such a front already exists, as is demonstrated by Russia’s isolation at the United Nations - when voting has no consequence. But Russia’s veto power means that the UN is now practically irrelevant, and that many states follow immediate interests and the least risky course rather than abiding by principles. If Europe continues to waver, Putin will gain the time needed to reorient energy and other exports to Asia, assuming that there will be no further leverage exercised by the United States on allies and partners that need its defense commitment.

If Europe continues to waver, Putin will gain the time needed to reorient energy and other exports to Asia.

Following his own conspiracist train of thought, Putin has launched what he believed to be a very limited war, in order to restore Russia’s force parity with NATO countries, and the European economy acting as a magnet to its neighbors: that is, to equip Russia with the strength to launch other wars. Parity is now a pipedream for a country whose GDP is on the same scale as Spain’s, and Russia’s security in all scenarios predominantly relies on the extreme reluctance of others to enter into a military conflict.

Putin’s reputed military edge is now frayed. In an attempt to influence global public opinion, he has banked on his immediate resort to terror bombing and non-official nuclear gestures. But Putin does maintain some assets: Russia’s global status, and its hold on critical resources as the largest country on earth. Talking to Putin remains a necessity, but it is a purely diplomatic one, much as a hostage situation would require negotiators. It would be foolish to believe in the short-term usefulness of these talks. Even his own captive audience in Russia - such as the miserable 18-year-old conscripts who have become war criminals in Ukraine - needs to come to the realization that pursuing conflict leads Russia to a dead end, much as was the case for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the Chinese leadership that is now supporting Russia without wanting to bear the costs will also carefully observe our resolve, or the lack thereof. Let’s not place a bet on China’s military capacity to sustain a large conflict: as recent events have shown, military modernization and the ability to mount joint operations with logistical support, innovative warfare and initiative are two very different things. This first lesson from Ukraine may induce some short-term caution among Chinese leaders who have experienced the effects of corruption inside their own army. But the strategic picture is far from being solely military. At present, there is, with the exception of Singapore, a resourceful but narrow democratic front, rather than a wider consensus for action built on the principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty. If this democratic front proves unable to sufficiently weaken a medium size economy, China may conclude that the West will never be able to agree on a sanction process that would imply decoupling from China’s market and export economy. 
If this were to be the case, Ukraine would not simply be a test for other European conflicts in the fashion that preceded World War II. It could instead usher a larger East Asian conflict. Even North Korea, long used to raising the level of its provocations when it senses that major powers are tied down elsewhere, has begun to do so - just in case it sees a window of opportunity. This is why, instead of pleading for a ceasefire that will not occur anywhere in the near future, we should persuade our Asian partners that it is in their long-term interests to support the American and European sanction response, and deter further copycat actions. 

Copyright: Noel CELIS / AFP

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