In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the chaos that is American policy towards Russia. First, US president Joe Biden phones Vladimir Putin and suggests that they normalize relations and hold a summit. Then he slaps a bunch of new sanctions on Russia and expels 10 Russian diplomats. Meanwhile, in other news, 2 US warships headed towards the Black Sea, and then turned around and said that they weren’t going to go the Black Sea after all. In other words, a picture of total foreign policy confusion.
To my mind, the phone call and summit offer were something of a blip in American policy, brought upon by a sense of alarm at the possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine. This induced the Americans to try and row back a bit. The problem is that the current in the other direction is just too strong, and so they ended up even further downstream than before.
In any case, I’m not sure that the Americans actually know how to change directions. Take a look at their policies towards Cuba and Iran – they’ve been sanctioning them for decades. It hasn’t made those countries more friendly, but they keep on at it. The policy is a complete dead end, but it’s like America is a massive 18-wheeler that has entered a narrow cul-de-sac and just doesn’t have the maneuverability to get out again. All it can do is keep trying to ram through whatever is blocking the way out, smashing itself (and the obstacle) up in the process, but not getting anywhere.
By now, you’d have thought that they’d have learnt not to keep driving into cul-de-sacs. But, for some reason they keep on doing it (Venezuela is another one). It seems like there’s no learning process.
Other than backing out, the18-wheeler has only chance to escape – when it first enters the cul-de-sac, and still has forward momentum. That’s the moment when the driver needs to step on the gas and smash through the obstacle. After that, occasional little shoves from a standing start won’t do the trick, especially if somebody is busily strengthening the obstacle all the time.
It’s the same with sanctions. Academic studies suggest that if they are to succeed in coercing the targeted party, they need to be fairly comprehensive and immediate – that’s to say, you need to do a lot and do it all at once. Gradual incrementalism is doomed to failure. The target adapts and is often one step ahead, limiting his vulnerability long before you hit him.
So it is with American sanctions against Russia. The latest round will have very limited practical effect. But bit by bit, the sanctions are having the effect of cutting Russia off from America. As that happens, America loses whatever leverage it had at the start. That in turn means that each successive round of sanctions has less prospects of causing real damage than the last.
In short, it’s a dead-end, and no amount of effort to bash through the obstacle is going to work. Sooner or later, the 18-wheeler will have to back out. Judging by past experience, later is more likely than sooner. The danger is that it may be so late that by then the vehicle will have fallen entirely apart. At that point, its only hope will be that a nice new Chinese tow-truck comes along and rescues it.