As the world faces-off against Vladimir Putin, sanctions won’t be enough

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is a bully. Bullies understand force. Economic sanctions will hit the Russian people with much more force than they will either Putin or his obscenely wealthy friends.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 28, 2022.

OTTAWA—Sanctions are not enough.

If Canada and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies are not willing to directly engage the invading military, the Russian attack won’t stop.

Sanctions caused the value of the Russian stock market to fall by 30 per cent. But President Vladimir Putin’s personal holdings were left untouched. And Russia was allowed to remain in the international Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system that moves money around the globe.

The 30 members in the alliance fighting Russia could not agree on cutting Russia out of SWIFT, partly because of Europe’s dependence on Russian energy sources.

But how can Russia possibly remain a member in good standing of the world banking community when Putin’s goal is clearly to destroy the current world order?

Until last Thursday, the integrity of sovereign territory in Europe had remained relatively safe since the Second World War.

But Putin’s crazed rhetoric gives the world an idea of his agenda. He doesn’t like the fact that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have all joined a western defence alliance and has made it abundantly clear that he has plans to reunite the former Soviet empire.

He even claims that Ukraine was a creation of Russia, even though the country has a history dating back to the Middle Ages.

The global community believes Putin is mentally unstable. But mental instability doesn’t prevent a leader from inflicting major political damage.

Just look at Donald Trump. While the world watched the Russian attack in horror, Trump was pontificating about his “very close friend,” calling Putin a genius.

Putin is also appealing to the Ukrainian military, asking them to put down their arms as Russia is only there to help. Some help.

The West watches with fascination and horror, but refuses to offer direct military assistance. American President Joe Biden made it very clear that the United States will not be securing boots on the ground in Ukraine.

The sanctions have targeted the Russian oligarchy, who have made millions with Putin’s help. It is hard to comprehend why Putin should personally be left untouched when he is the key reason that his country has gone ahead with an illegal show of force in the Ukraine.

The oligarchs who are being hit may suffer, but it is unlikely that will impact Putin’s personal pocketbook.

Back on home territory, Russians in opposition to the invasion have courageously taken to the streets, facing police arrest for their efforts.

Putin is a bully. Bullies understand force. As for economic sanctions, they will likely hit the Russian people a lot more swiftly than they will affect either Putin or his obscenely wealthy friends.

This is eerily reminiscent of the Second World War with one vital difference. At that time, the Americans sat on the sidelines for more than two years before they could be convinced to join their European allies in the fight.

This time, President Joe Biden is leading the charge, and there are supporters on both sides of the aisle who have close ties with the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States.

It could also provide Biden with a way of building back his popularity. In the first days of his presidency, Americans were hopeful that he would lead them in a new direction. But with the disastrous exit from Afghanistan and the grinding damage of Covid, Biden has sunk to a new low in public opinion polls.

A war could change all that.

Notwithstanding Trump’s bombast, Republicans would be hard pressed to side with Russia on this invasion, especially since their party has spent decades vilifying communism on all fronts.

In the midst of the Russian incursion, Taiwan was seeking western help against alleged Chinese air incursion over its territory.

While the attention of the world is focused on Ukraine, a successful invasion by Russia could embolden China in its desire to bring Taiwan under Chinese rule.

With Russian assaults on many parts of Ukraine, Biden frightened political leadership in Ukraine by saying it would take sanctions “a month” to have a real effect.

Ukraine does not have a month, as the takeover has been swift and Russian military might is expected to overpower the capital in less than 48 hours.

Russian television RT is telling civilians in the Ukraine that they have nothing to fear because the military operation is only targeting infrastructure.

But unconvinced citizens are huddled in subway stations operating as bomb shelters, as they try to protect themselves from the return of the brutal Soviet occupation that many still remember.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.