A Warning From History: Sanctioning Russia Will Not Save Ukraine

The United States, the European Union, Britain, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Japan have imposed wide-ranging and crippling economic sanctions, travel bans, and other restrictions in response to Russia’s relentless assault on Ukraine. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to make a difference.

Political scientist Robert Pape proved beyond doubt, in an expansive study spanning 115 different cases, that economic sanctions simply do not work and are counterproductive. Modern nations, and powerful states like Russia in particular, tend to have a remarkable capacity to weather various forms of external pressure. Pape emphasised that sanctions targeting patriotic societies are bound to fail because they exacerbate nationalist sentiments which enable governments to defy these pressures. They might even enhance the legitimacy of rulers like Vladimir Putin instead of undermining them.

More importantly, Pape’s study revealed the longer sanctions are imposed, the less likely they are to succeed in completing their objectives, whether that be the retreat of Russian forces in Ukraine or the eventual collapse of Putin’s regime due to domestic unrest. On the contrary, long-term sanctions increase the likelihood of military confrontation further down the line.

Sanctions will not force Putin to withdraw from Ukraine or bring about a swift and peaceful resolution to the conflict. They will, however, help consolidate his grip on power, embolden security services to crush dissent mercilessly, spark a vicious xenophobic backlash at home, and compel Russian soldiers to wage war with renewed vigor—to the detriment of thousands, if not millions of Ukrainians.

Russia has a long history of withstanding and reacting destructively to international blockades and offensives. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 with his Grande Armée, which included numerous German, Austrian, Swiss, Italian, Polish, Danish, and even Irish soldiers, left a deep mark on the Russian psyche. The battle of Borodino, immortalised by Leo Tolstoy in his epic novel War and Peace, ended with the slaughter of around 45,000 Russian troops in a single day. This bloodbath traumatised a generation and ingrained a profound fear of external aggression and encirclement in Moscow’s leaders that persists to this day.

Historians Alexander Morrison and Alexander Polunov argue that when the Napoleonic Wars finally ended in 1815, triumphant Russian generals and aristocrats, desperate to compensate for humiliating losses against the French and eager to project Russian power across the globe, pursued an expansionist foreign policy in Central Asia throughout the 19th century. These colonial ambitions culminated in the violent annexation of territories we now call Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Bonaparte’s calamitous multinational incursion fuelled the rise of Russian imperialism, galvanised Russian nationalism, and allowed the Tzar and his warmongering, reactionary, and authoritarian elites to militarise Russian society.

The Allied Intervention during the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922 is another ominous illustration of what could happen when a coalition of hostile states surround Russia. Fourteen nations, including the United States, Britain, France, Japan, Poland, and Greece, backed the “White” remnants of the old Tsarist order against Vladimir Lenin’s “Red” Bolsheviks. This crusade to strangle the Bolshevik menace, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, drastically backfired. Patriotic Russians rallied to support a homegrown “Red” tyranny rather than pledge alliance to a “White” tyranny sponsored by the West.

Britain’s involvement in the Russian Civil War was especially disastrous. Steven Balbirnie says that many British officers, the veterans of counterinsurgency campaigns in India, South Africa, Burma, and Egypt, treated local populations in Northern Russia like colonial subjects. Major-General Frederick Poole had to be dismissed for his “abrasive colonial-style behaviour” towards Russian authorities. His tacit support for unpopular ex-Tsarist officers earned him no friends either. The fact that British soldiers preserved law and order on behalf of a ruthless dictator like Alexander Kolchak in Siberia, according to international relations expert Frederick L. Schuman, probably drove countless Russians into the arms of the equally brutal Bolsheviks.

Britain’s use of terror to pacify Bolshevik partisans alienated local Russians as well. Royal Airforce (RAF) pilot Eric John Furlong admitted that British bombers dropped poison gas in Northern Russia. Some attacks saw British aircraft release phosphorous gas directly on targets on the ground. These terror tactics were blatant violations of the rules of war, even at the time. Additionally, according to Lauri Kopisto, RAF squadrons nearly bombed Moscow. Churchill, dreading a backlash at home and abroad, cancelled the operation at the last minute.

General Edmund Ironside, along with French allies, ran what the BBC called Britain’s concentration camp on the island of Mudyug north of Archangel in Northern Russia. This facility housed suspected Bolshevik sympathisers, although since the British had no clue who to trust, they often rounded up “anyone who seemed suspect”. Hundreds were executed, tortured, and died of disease. Guards punished internees who tried to escape by confining them in “ice cells”. Historian Liudmila Novikova says that in the Soviet era, foreigners in Archangel had to visit Mudyug and bear witness to “the atrocities their fellow countrymen and governments committed” there. Commemorative plaques dedicated to the victims still litter the landscape of death island today.

British forces deployed to the Caucuses also behaved like imperial overlords and as members of a “higher race”. London saw the ephemeral independence of Azerbaijan and Georgia during the Civil War as a perfect opportunity to plunder Baku’s oil reserves. Afgan Akhmedov says that Baku’s military governor, General William Thomson, imposed martial law, banned public meetings and strikes, refused to reintroduce shorter working hours, and instituted exploitative economic measures that aggravated unemployment and hunger. Britain’s divide and conquer strategy in the region, unwittingly or otherwise, also inflamed ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azeris.

Azeris did not look kindly on the British occupier’s generally abhorrent conduct. War-weary British troops indulged in drunkenness, hooliganism, promiscuity, and disobedience. Widespread disaffection and resentment towards London’s misrule in Baku played right into the hands of the Bolsheviks, who took advantage of labour unrest and armed peasant uprisings in the Azeri countryside to eventually reintegrate Azerbaijan back into Russia.

Moreover, Churchill and General Herbert Holman sent weapons, tanks, planes, and ammunition to a regime guilty of committing heinous atrocities against Jewish populations in southern Russia. A pathological anti-Semitism infected every layer of the White army. Cossack regiments regularly pillaged Jewish property, looted villages, raped women, and murdered  Jews with impunity.

Elias Heifetz, Chairman of the Relief Committee for pogrom victims, estimated that White army massacres killed half of the approximately 100,000 Jews who perished in Ukraine. Yet British personnel embedded in White armies barely raised a finger in protest, and some may have condoned these crimes. A British military agent based in Crimea advised a White general to solve Russia’s “Jewish question” the same way white Australians dealt with Aborigines—namely, extermination. Peter Kenez argues that young Russian Jews, who had no love for the Bolsheviks, joined the Red Army in droves to avenge their families and communities.

Scholars like John Munholland and Boris Egorov amply demonstrated that Allied interventions in the Civil War accomplished nothing apart from enraging ordinary Russians and providing material for the Bolshevik’s propaganda machine. In Ukraine, French warships bombarded a warehouse containing thousands of civilians and killed at least 500 people.

Meanwhile, Japanese troops never hid their intentions to turn Russia’s Far Eastern territories into a colony. Tokyo bankrolled Cossack warlords, notorious for their corruption and cruelty, and ordered soldiers to export timber, coal, and fish to Japan on an enormous scale. Furthermore, Japanese regiments decapitated dissenters and burnt down local villages. Over a century later, the memory of these horrific reprisals lingers in Vladivostok.

Worst of all, the Allied intervention not only fixed what Frederick Schuman called “patterns of suspicion and hatred” between Russia and the West for decades: it helped radicalise an already fanatical communist regime. Faced with total annihilation, Vladimir Lenin transformed Russia into a totalitarian state. The secret police, known as the Cheka, institutionalised terror and eliminated opponents with frightening efficiency–  especially after one of their own experienced Allied-run camps. Cheka member Mikhail Kedrov, inspired by his time as a prisoner at Mudyug, opened a network of death camps in Northern Russia which killed thousands of innocent people in turn.

Sanctions today, like how Allied interventions unintentionally bolstered Lenin’s nascent Soviet autocracy, risk provoking Russian citizens to close ranks, rally round Putin’s regime, and accept the illegal occupation of Ukraine. So what can be done to prevent history from repeating itself?

Professor Alfred W. McCoy has found an original solution: since Russia’s war has inflicted approximately 668 billion dollars’ worth of damage to civilian infrastructure, Ukrainians could demand the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to enforce its decision in Ukraine v. Russia by awarding damages. The Council of Europe would then acquire the money by ordering all European companies and corporations purchasing gas from Russia’s Gazprom to deduct a significant amount from their payments for a Ukrainian compensation fund.

The longer the war drags on, the more billions Gazprom will lose in paying out damages. These losses will not be acceptable for very long and Putin will have no choice but to pull out of Ukraine. This course of action has the added benefit of mainly punishing Gazprom and not the most vulnerable sectors of Russian society.


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