How to stop Russia in Ukraine?

In violation of international law, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the world is rightly outraged. Countermeasures to stop the fighting and punish Russia’s aggression do not include sending NATO armies against Russia for the very good reasons that it would significantly increase the risk of a devastating nuclear war and because our experiences with such wars in the last half century are not encouraging. What countermeasures might we (and are we) use(ing)?

Our primary tools are to economically and culturally isolate Russia in order to damage their economic ability to continue waging their war and to hurt their pride. What might that include within the limits of our commitment to the rule of law?

Each of us as individuals, companies, and governments have the right to decide who we trade and deal with. Refusing to sell to or buy from Russia can have a powerful impact on the Russian economy. Examples of companies that have ended or restricted their sales to and/or operations in Russia include Ford, GM, Toyota, VW, Volvo, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Harley Davidson, Apple, BP, Equinor, Shell, ExxonMobil, Visa, Mastercard, Google, and Netflix. And the list continues to grow by the hour.

“Ikea, the world’s largest furniture company, is closing its 17 stores in Russia. The company said the conflict is having a “huge human impact” and “resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions.” In addition to pausing its retail and manufacturing operations in Russia, it will suspend all trade with the country and its ally, Belarus.” “CNN: Companies pulling back from Russia”

Sports and entertainment organizations certainly have the right to determine their members and kicking Russian teams or performers out of competitions, etc. can usefully demonstrate disapproval of Russia’s behavior.

More problematic are the announcements by Boeing and Airbus that they have suspended support services to Russian airlines flying their planes. Airbus stated that “it has ‘suspended support services to Russian airlines, as well as the supply of spare parts to the country.’” These are problematic because they might be breaking provisions in contracts these companies have with Russian airlines.  However, such contracts often provide for suspension in the event of war or other unusual circumstances. Moreover, if Russia withdraws from Ukraine in the next few weeks and the more severe sanctions are withdrawn, these reservations may become mute.

While social media platforms and entertainment companies (Disney, DirectTV, and WarnerMedia) also have the right to cut off Russian users, I am not convinced that it is always wise to do so. In my view we should all be able to view the propaganda disseminated by, for example, RT.  While I am sure that WarnerMedia’s decision to “pause the release of ‘The Batman’ in Russia,” will be devastating for many Russians, they do have more challenging issues to worry about at the moment.

A rather different category of sanctions are those taken by and/or imposed on others by governments. For example, all Russian airline flights are now banned from EU, U.S., and Canadian airspace. As a result, or perhaps for other reasons, the Russian delegation to the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA-20) of the International Telecommunications Union now underway in Geneva didn’t come. This important meeting is held every four years to allocate spectrum and set other global telecom standards. By its absence Russia has lost all opportunities to nominate and elect chairmanships of any study groups and task forces for the next four years.

Most payments in dollars, Euros and most other currencies have been forbidden by the issuers of those currencies with specific exception. Russia has been blocked from using S.W.I.F.T. for sending payment instructions. The most important economic exception is that Russia may continue to sell oil and gas to Europe and to receive payment for them. Another is that Russia may continue to make debt service payments on Russian debt securities held abroad. The assets of all Russian banks outside of Russia, including its central bank, have been frozen. I am not sure how these two are reconciled. “BBC News”  

The approach of blocking economic activity by blocking payments for them is a bit similar in spirit to Anti Money Laundering (AML/CFT) restrictions, which attempt to stop illegal activities by stopping the use of the proceeds of “crimes” that haven’t been proven, rather than stopping the illegal activities themselves. The effectiveness of blocking payments in key currencies depends on how widely they are supported. A UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supported by 141 members. Only 5 countries voted against (Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria). China and India and 33 other members (including, surprisingly, Cuba) abstained. Germany completely reversed earlier policies and is sending serious weapons to Ukraine and is increasing its military expenditures above NATO recommended minimums. While the extent of support is impressive, the abstainers open sufficient holes to undermine the impact of financial sanctions. None the less, the dramatic shrinkage of trade and real economic interactions will be devastating. Russia will be flattened and isolated.

More recently some countries have seized the assets of private Russian citizens.

The Russian Oligarch Igor Sechin’s yacht was seized Thursday by French Authorities while docked for repairs in La Ciotat, near Marseille. On the same day “Germany seized the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s 512-foot mega yacht Dilbar, which is valued at $600m, which was moored in Hamburg.” “Russia sanctions superyacht seizures”. To my knowledge, neither of these Russians committed any crimes in France or Germany or anywhere else outside of Russia. The legal basis for these seizures, unless they are being held temporarily pending a court determination of whether crimes have been committee, is very questionable.  

Imposing harm on Russia and Russians of the types discussed above, will have costs to us as well. This by no means suggests that we should not use them. Properties and businesses abandoned in Russia and goods and services no longer sold there or purchased from there will impose costs on the western companies involved.  Western owners of Russian securities are likely to incur losses. Some Russian debt will default. But Russia’s aggression must be stopped, and future aggression strongly discouraged. Watching the Soviet tanks crush Hungarian and Czech demonstrators in 1968 without our military intervention to help them was very painful but was the right thing to do, just as our nonmilitary approach now is the right approach, as long as we apply sanctions lawfully.

Putin’s reckless war in Ukraine is destroying Russia. Let’s hope that the good and long-suffering people of Russia will not allow him to also destroy the whole world.

Ukraine: How should we help?

It is impossible not to admire the bravery of the people of Ukraine as they fight for their independence and freedom. Without help, Russian troops are almost certain to capture Kyiv and other key cities. The EU and many other countries have pulled together as never before to impose serious sanctions and provide military and humanitarian supplies. See: “Sanctions”  Putin’s failure to prepare the Russian people for a military attack on their fellow Russians and cousins in Ukraine is provoking protests in Russia against this war.  But these may not be enough to save Ukraine and it is tempting to think we should provide boots on the ground to insure a Russian defeat. President Biden is right to believe that this would be a grave mistake.

Military interventions always look more compelling at the start, while going through the front door. Sure, our army can squash whoever. Years later, as we leave or are pushed out the back door (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.), they are revealed as foolish endeavors from the beginning. While Vietnam has prospered after our withdrawal and Iraq’s development is promising, they might well have reached these achievements sooner if we had stayed out. Why is this so? Why can’t we just take over countries under attack and make them better?

Generally, the countries we attack are engaged in civil wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya). Even Russia’s attack on Ukraine has elements of a civil war. We almost never understand the nuances of such battles nor have sufficient military and diplomatic officials who speak their languages and know their histories as they rotate in for two years then out. We can never be sure which side or sides we should support.

Putting aside that we don’t really have the resources to fully police the world, we have rarely achieved our objectives in the wars we have undertaken since WWII even if those objectives seemed reasonable at the outset. Iraq is an example where we did not have a good reason (or any reason at all except feeding our military industrial complex) to begin with. Part of the reason is that we have never invested in the training needed to be successful imperialists. We are bad at running other countries. You can read some of my firsthand experiences with just how bad we were at running Iraq in my book: “My travels to Baghdad”

If we send in the American Army to defend Ukraine against Russia, even if no escalation in fighting results (which is by no means certain), we will be forced to remain there for X number of years to keep the peace. Which factions would we support or favor? Why do we imagine that it would be different than our experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq? While it is emotionally hard not to walk through that front door with our troops, we must remember what the back door feels like, not to mention the X years in between. President Biden is right not to do so. “Reflections from the netherworld”

Most Americans are good hearted and want to help those in need. However, I am hard pressed to think of a time when we successfully did so with our Army.

Sanctions

About 5 days ago, on February 24, Russia illegally and without provocation and cause attacked the sovereign country of Ukraine. It is in everyone’s interest (with the exception of the military industrial complex) to end the fighting and establish a sustainable peace as quickly as possible. I explored options in my blog Saturday.  “Ukraine-Russia-NATO”  

Sanctions are being piled on as the main counter weapon of choice around the globe, along with supplying Ukraine with military equipment. But which sanctions of what activities (use of SWIFT, banning access of Russian airlines, banning any travel across Russian borders, banning trade in military products, banning all trade, etc.) should be imposed? If all or almost all countries joined together to shut down all trade, travel, and financial flows between Russia and the rest of the world until Russia ends this war and fully withdraws it troops, the impact on Russia (and hopefully to a lesser extent the rest of the world) would be devastating. While it is hard to predict whether the Russian people would primarily blame the U.S. and the West or Putin’s government for the hardships imposed—it is unlikely that Russia would withstand such isolation for long. Russia seems well on its way to such isolation.

While sanctions have historically not been a very effective tool for changing a country’s behavior, such total isolation, if it can be achieved, would almost certainly be more effective than the more limited sanctions normally imposed. “A new history of sanctions has unsettling lessons for today”  Putin will have to back down or escalate. Putin would indeed be boxed into a very difficult position and there is no knowing how he might react. It is hard to imagine Russian military escalation beyond Ukraine’s borders, but it is possible, especially in the ambiguous ways often favored by Moscow (e.g., cyber-attacks). If Putin is squeezed too hard, the risk of nuclear war could no longer be ignored. This is a dangerous period.  “Just short of nuclear–the latest financial sanctions will cripple Russia’s economy” Such comprehensive sanctions should be largely removed as soon as Russian troops are withdrawn from Ukraine territory.

But while it is foolish (i.e., contrary to American interests) to keep Russia as an enemy in the long run, and it was foolish to have made it one in the first place, the Kremlin should pay a price for its attack on Ukraine.

Sanctions impose a cost on their target but also on those imposing the sanctions. If, for example, Russia is denied access to western products, the sellers are also denied the sales. Moreover, for many if not most economic sanctions, the people of the sanctioned country tend to suffer more than the government that is the real target. For post conflict sanctions, thought should be given to the most effective ways to sanction Putin and his friends specifically with minimal damage to the Russian economy. The borders and trade should be reopened to all but a small list of Kremlin officials including Putin. Putin’s properties and other assets abroad should be frozen or confiscated to contribute to Russian reparations for damage now being inflicted on Ukraine. “Russia’s military attack on Ukraine will have consequences for Putin”

Yesterday (2/27.22 6:37 PM), Edward Luttwak tweeted: “Putin’s agreement to talks with Zelensky’s reps is an abject surrender: by now the Russians should have been in control in Kiev and across the Ukraine with Zelensky dead or exiled. Frantic to divert attention, Putin has placed Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert. Meaning: zero”

Let’s hope that he is correct.

Every action should be carefully measured against is costs and benefits both short term and long term. Another protracted cold war would be a costly mistake for everyone. All measures should ultimately contribute to peaceful and secure relations between all countries.  Greenwald–War propaganda about Ukraine

Diplomacy

What does the press coverage of the Canadian trucker strike and Russia’s threatened attack on Ukraine have in common?  Matt Taibbi’s column on the “The Great International Convoy Fiasco” will tell you. For good measure, he added that “On February 4th, 2004, the Wall Street Journal published, ‘A Historian’s Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight’, about the influence of a Princeton Scholar named Bernard Lewis on George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. The ‘Lewis Doctrine’ was simple. The good professor believed there was no point to asking, Why do they hate us?”

For many weeks the American press (I apologize for lumping our somewhat diverse collection of newspapers into one camp) have been shouting that Russia might invade Ukraine any day now. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, says that that is nonsense and to please stop saying it. I am inclined to believe him over our newspapers.

Something similar is going on with the striking Canadian truck drivers. The message in both cases is that we need to be tough. Arrest them and remove their trucks that are blocking the border with the U.S. Beef up our troops in Europe and tell Putin all the nasty things we will do to him if Russian troops cross the border. The mindset that reacts in these ways is not in our national interest.

Why are the truckers striking and why is Putin demanding a rethink of European defense architecture? While Putin has told us explicitly what he wants, to my knowledge no meetings have occurred between the Canadian truckers and the Canadian government. We may or may not sympathize with some of the Trucker’s concerns, but the proper (dare I say adult) starting point is to sit down with them and understand what they want.  At least the Biden administration is talking with the Russians, but it would be healthier if more were said in the Press about these talks and the issues that Russia has raised, and less about the potential for, if not eminence of, war. Such discussion of the pros and cons of mutually acceptable options are out there, but you need to search for them.

The role of diplomacy (the first intergovernmental tool of civilized nations) is to understand the concerns and desires of the other side. That is the essential first step in seeking out areas of common ground that each side can live with. War is (or should be) a last resort.  I am sure that Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, etc. can figure out other uses for their manufacturing and technical capabilities. “National Defense”

General Michael Flynn

We all deserve to know whether Donald Trump colluded or cooperated with Putin and Russia in any way to illegally help his presidential campaign. I have full confidence that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will provide us with the truth of that question one-way or the other.

I also strongly support former President Obama’s (Russian restart) and President Trump’s desires to build the closest and most cooperative relationship possible with Mr. Putin’s Russia that is consistent with American interests and values. This means that conversations—many conversations—between the Trump administration and Russian officials are not only proper, but also highly desirable.

The revelations that such conversations occurred tell us nothing about whether the Trump administration has been doing anything improper. Then enter General Michael Flynn.

Sunday’s Washington Post contains an article with the headline “Inside the day that set in motion Michael Flynn’s guilty plea”. The day in question was Dec 29, 2016, well after Trump’s election and four weeks before his inauguration. The day before President Obama had “imposed sanctions against Russia for its alleged interference in the election.” Flynn called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, “urging Moscow not to retaliate — and Russia later surprisingly agreed.”

On the face of it this is neither appropriate nor inappropriate. We would need additional information to come to such a conclusion. However, Flynn lied to the FBI about having such a conversation, which raises the suspicion that it was inappropriate. Unrelated to his work with the Trump administration, General Flynn failed to get clearance before doing work with foreign governments, nor did he register as their agent, as required by law. Generally Flynn seems to have a habit of lying. Later Flynn pleaded guilty to perjury as part of a deal to fully cooperate with Mueller’s investigation in exchange for not being charged with these other crimes.

So if Flynn was not making improper deals with Russia, why did he lie about it? Hopefully we will know in the course of time, but it could be because he belatedly learned that his “conversations with Kislyak violated the Logan Act, a 1799 law that prohibits private citizens from conducting U.S. foreign affairs without the permission of the government.”

No one has every been convicted of violating the Logan Act and a strong argument could be made that such acts by a President elect and his team are not covered.

I want to know the truth. Trump lies so regularly that he has no trust from anyone who really cares about the truth. But to be fair, Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak is not evidence of anything inappropriate. Let’s not jump to conclusions until we have enough information to do so with some confidence that they are correct.

Should the U.S. help finance Ukrainian weapons?

Ukraine is much more important to Russia than to the U.S. It borders Russia, was part of the Soviet Union, and much of what is now Ukraine, including Kiev, has been part of Russia from time to time for as long as the United States has existed. Ukraine’s importance to the U. S. is, however, more academic. It is reasonable to assume that as long as it is economically able Russia will counter any increase in Ukraine’s military capacity and activity in eastern Ukraine (the part bordering Russia) with equal or greater military force. If we increase our support and Ukraine elevates its military activities in the east, so will Russia. The Russian economy is suffering from years of exploitation by Putin and his friends as well as inadequate investment and is now suffering from the sharp fall in the prices of its primary exports– oil and gas. Russia will presumably only stop matching escalations from the West when it is no longer economically able to do so. Do we have a national security interest in escalating that far?

Our interest in Ukraine is humanitarian– not military out of a concern for our own security. We would like to see the people of every country enjoy the freedom and prosperity that we have. Moreover, most of us have long believed that healthy, prosperous, well-governed countries make better neighbors and a more peaceful and prosperous world. So it serves that interest and our humanitarian natures to encourage and financially support the new Ukrainian government’s efforts to reduce the corruption their country has long suffered from. Military aid is an entirely different matter.

Both we and Ukraine’s government in Kiev must accept and come to reasonable terms with Russia’s dominance in the area and its determination to remain in Eastern Ukraine as it has in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The alternative, which would likely follow the injection of western arms into the conflict, would be a continued escalation of fighting with unknown consequences and an unknown end point. We don’t like to give in, and wouldn’t and shouldn’t whenever our national security is truly at stake, but this is not our war. What, after all, did our “victory” in Iraq (one of the most insane and ill-advised wars we have ever launched) gain us? ISIS!!

Let’s help Ukraine financially, which it desperately needs, as long as its government continues to seriously fight the corruption that has characterized it for so long (easier said than done). Ukrainian offensives in “rebel”/Russian dominated areas of the East are futile and we should not encourage them by providing the weapons that make them possible. Freeze the status quo until Russia comes to its senses (which we should encourage in every possible way) or collapses economically (which we should not hope for).

Ukraine Monetary Regime Options

On March 12th I participated in the Emergency Economic Summit for Ukraine in Kyiv. The summit was organized by Tom Palmer (Atlas Foundation) and Dalibor Rohac (Cato Institute) and several Ukrainian free market think tanks. My charge was to evaluate monetary policy regime options. The following paper prepared for this meeting and published in the current issue of the Cayman Financial Review,  presents my assessment. If, like most people, you are not interested in monetary policy issues, you should skip this paper:  http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2014/04/07/The-future-of-Ukraine-%E2%80%93-and-the-role-of-sound-money/