Sanctions against Russia Are the Lockdowns of 2022
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is nearing its second week. Vladimir Putin's military continues its push west, with clear attempts to encircle Kyiv. To date, thankfully, America and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies have held off pleas from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to enforce a no-fly zone, which would risk the eruption of a new hot world war. So instead, along with supplying arms, intel, and—potentially—runways and planes to Ukraine, the focus of the West has been economic warfare.
What is not clear is whether the West is prepared to deal with the actual consequences of this approach.
It seems that with every passing day, America and its allies find tools to escalate financial pressure on Putin. What began with targeted sanctions on the Russian leaders and oligarchs has expanded to cutting off Russian banks from SWIFT, broad attacks on Russian industries, and now complete bans on Russian oil and other exports by some—though not all—NATO countries. Moreover, Western corporations have reinforced these policies by indiscriminately banning Russian customers from various services.
This coordinate blanket canceling of Russia is not a tool crafted by the necessity of the situation, but rather a new application of the form of warfare that the West has become the most comfortable with. America's weaponization of the dollar-backed financial system began with the war on terror, utilized against rogue state actors like North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela (the latter two Washington is now seeking assistance with for oil) and is increasingly used against domestic enemies.
Even the Swiss historical tradition of neutrality has failed to hold in an era of financial war.
Unfortunately for the West, Vladimir Putin is a far shrewder adversary than Kim Jong Un or Nick Fuentes. Russia is not only a major energy provider to global—and, in particular, European—markets but is a globally important exporter of wheat, fertilizer, metals, and other strategically important resources. To add to these concerns, the West has become increasingly frustrated by the refusal of other global powers—including India, Brazil, Mexico, and China—to follow their lead.
None of this should be particularly surprising. China's interest in using Russia as a foil against American global hegemony has been clearly illustrated for years—even prior to Trump-era escalation and the covid outbreak. Nations like India, Brazil, and Mexico have seen the rise of nationalist political parties that have echoes Putin's critiques of the globalist West.
Already Putin has demonstrated a willingness to wield his natural resources as a wedge to pull traditionally subversive global actors away from America's leadership. The Russian government has made a list of countries that have been hostile to its military actions and has directed trade to favor countries that have remained neutral. Meanwhile, Russian nationalists have celebrated the West's economic response to the Ukraine invasion, identifying the possibility of shifting consumer trends away from America- and Europe-based companies toward Eurasian products.
As a result, it is precisely the Russians that are the most culturally aligned with the West that are the most penalized by the American response to Putin's actions. This is similar to the way American sanctions against Iran most victimized the most liberal members of their society.
While the West has made vividly clear its sense of moral self-righteousness in imposing this financial warfare, it is less obvious whether there are any planned off-ramps to deal with the shock back home. In America, gas has already hit all-time highs, while market signals indicate that the cost of food, energy, and other vital resources is soon to follow. In response, the Biden White House and its allies have lectured Americans on the virtues of electric vehicles and other forms of "green energy." Not even Tesla's Elon Musk believes this line of logic holds up.
Ultimately any attempts by Western governments to soothe the concerns of their citizens depend upon convincing them that the very same expert class that believed preconflict inflation was "transitory" is intellectually equipped to handle this new conflict. It is uncertain how successful they will be.
The question largely left unasked as firefights continue to play out on Ukrainian streets is what the long-term consequences of the West's financial war on Russia will be. If peace were to break out tomorrow, what would that mean for market actors?
Many of the same leaders that have engaged in an increasingly vicious economic conflict with Russia supported debilitating lockdowns in the face of covid. In the case of the latter, many seemed to act as if the economy could simply be turned on and off with relative ease—like a computer suffering from an operating malfunction. The world is still dealing with the consequences. How long will the scars from this last?
What if Russia and China are serious about undermining America, the dollar, and its subservient allies? What if Putin recognizes that the economy of the debt-saturated West is far weaker than our policy makers believe it is? Is there any reason for Americans to question the judgment of the decision-makers at the Fed or Treasury?
As Austrian economists have long pointed out, it is no coincidence that the century of total war rose at the same time as the era of central banking. By relying on debt and the printing press rather than direct taxation, nations could hide from the public the immediate costs of war. Over time, global powers have turned central banks into weapons themselves. America's abuse of its power has even forced longtime allies to speak out.
In 2020, global powers ignored the economic consequences of lockdowns in order to "boldly" respond to the perceived risks of covid. The damage done was catastrophic, and the impact of the policies was minimal.
In 2022, many of those same global powers are destroying the lives of innocent Russians to signal their virtuous opposition to invasion. Unfortunately, when the dust settles, the underlying damage done to their nations may be far worse.