For many of us living comfortable lives in the West, the crisis in Ukraine remains a strange war whose scale is difficult to comprehend. From the get-go, our leaders have made clear that not a single Western soldier will fight to defend Ukrainian independence. To a large extent, then, you could argue that Vladimir Putin has invaded territory we have already ceded. The obvious danger is that we make ourselves feel better by demanding that our governments fight to the very last dead Ukrainian, arming Kyiv just enough to prolong the conflict but never enough to materially affect its outcome.
Given the refusal to fight for Ukraine, or provide it with anything beyond “defensive” arms to bloody the nose of its opponent, the only significant weapon left is economic. You can take Ukraine, Western leaders say to Russia, but we will make you pay a price for it that you cannot afford. They are, however, entering an economic war with an adversary that has its own arsenal.
The test for the Western world is thus to prove that it has not become all of those things Putin has long believed it to be: shallow, effete, decadent, and lazy, no longer able to act with the kind of strength and purpose required to defeat a determined opponent.
For the West, sanctions are a weapon deployed when facing an opponent on whom it cannot impose its will through diplomacy, or against whom it is unwilling or unable to use force. Sanctions are a blunt weapon, though, often harming ordinary citizens rather than the regimes leaders seek to punish, and once they are in place, they are difficult to remove, because they require one side to lose face. Countries also find ways to live with them, and they can be used as a rhetorical device—unfair sanctions imposed by a perfidious West—to tighten a ruler’s grip on power. Part of the problem, too, is that with countries such as Iran, which is subject to an array of sanctions over its nuclear program, they have almost no day-to-day effect on the lives of people in countries such as the United States and Britain, and so those citizens can—and do—forget they exist.
Russia is not Iran. Using sanctions as an economic weapon against Putin comes with real costs for the West, raising the troubling question of whether governments have the will to impose them in any meaningful way to begin with, or the capacity to endure the pain that might follow in the long term. Germany’s decision to suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, for example, will directly lead to higher energy costs for its citizens, and the turmoil more generally will mean that Europeans in particular will pay increased heating bills at a time when the cost of gas is already sharply high.
In a sanctions war, there is a systemic weakness for the West. One European official involved in drawing up previous sanctions against Russia summed up the difficulty faced in the West. First, this official said, places such as Britain, where I am, are “remarkably constrained” in what they can do. London could seek to seize assets held by Russian oligarchs in Britain, but the Russian state is able to use the strength of London’s judicial system to tie the process in knots. The result is that, by being an open economy with strong rule of law, “you end up being the perfect place for bent money.”
More important, though, is the question of political will. Throughout the West, people debate not just the leverage any sanctions on Russia might offer, but how to ensure that they do not leave the West exposed. The result, inevitably, is a mix of measures that do not go far enough. The Biden administration, for example, has already reassured Americans that sanctions against Russia will not lead to a jump in energy prices. As the European official told me, Western governments are rarely open with voters about the costs of using a crisis to reduce corrupting entanglements with kleptocracies that have otherwise festered.
The problem is that although the West is richer than Russia, it remains vulnerable. Much of Europe is dependent on Russian oil and gas. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has warned, for example, that Berlin’s decision to suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia to Germany will double gas prices in Europe. In Britain, prices are already rapidly increasing thanks to supply-chain restrictions and global energy-market ructions, so further rises would be politically toxic. Beyond oil and gas, analysts have suggested that Russia could limit the export of raw materials such as grain, fertilizer, titanium, palladium, aluminum, and nickel. It could also ban overflight rights for Western airlines traveling to Asia. Each move taken by Russia will likely be met with a response by the West, which could create a tit-for-tat spiral.
While any response by Russia would significantly damage its own economy, the crucial point here is that sanctions would cause pain in the West too, leading to potential spikes in inflation and pressure on supply chains that have already come under significant strain during the pandemic. How will the citizens of free and democratic societies react?
Unlike Putin’s Russia, where opposition figures are poisoned and imprisoned and democracy is a sham, Western nations have real and regular elections in which voters tend to punish governments that oversee reductions to their standard of living. France has a presidential election this year with Russophile candidates from the far right polling at levels that mean they are unlikely to win but could yet cause an upset. In the U.S., this year’s midterm elections offer a first, relatively cost-free opportunity to punish the Biden administration and the Democratic Party before the big one in 2024.
For the first time in decades, citizens in the West face the prospect of a threat to the geopolitical order that may require a material sacrifice on our part—not somebody else’s. Do ordinary people have the will, unity, or belief in this order to make that sacrifice? Or are we the shallow and selfish caricatures that Putin imagines, unwilling to bear even a small drop in national wealth or living standards to sustain any kind of pressure on Russia that would act as a deterrent against further aggression? The immediate response to the invasion isn’t necessarily as encouraging as the initial headlines might suggest. Germany has merely suspended certification of a new gas pipeline with Russia, while, in Britain, Boris Johnson set out a series of measures that were quickly dismissed as “tepid.”
The question of our collective will digs away at even more profound issues: Do citizens in the West have the kind of social and political cohesion necessary to rally around a mission such as this—or indeed any mission? And even if the answer is yes, will people believe enough in this mission to protect and preserve the international order as it exists today?
We do not know the answers to these questions, because we have not had to probe them very hard since the end of the Cold War. You could argue that 9/11 was just such a moment to consider the issue, one that was met, at first, with overwhelming Western unity. Yet both of the wars started in that seismic event’s aftermath, Afghanistan and Iraq, were disasters. The West’s resolve to enforce the rules of warfare was then tested in Syria, and it refused to get involved. In the years that followed, Donald Trump was elected U.S. president on an explicit platform against the current international order, and he now praises the Russian president as “savvy.”
Unlike Russia, our societies grant us the right to question whether we care about the Donbas. We can vote for governments that prefer de-escalation and détente, a quick resetting of relations with Moscow, perhaps even a new grand bargain that stabilizes the situation, allowing us to resume swapping its gas for our cash. We don’t even have to be Putin’s caricature version of ourselves to make such calculations. We can visit our elderly grandmother or impoverished neighbor and conclude that they cannot afford further increases in energy prices. We can conclude that we are no longer as rich as we were and that we need to accept the world for what it is, separating trade from questions of morality. We have been doing this for years, after all. We can conclude, as Joe Biden did with Afghanistan, that the conflict is not worth the trouble. We can be good people and make these kinds of calculations.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that democratic societies are prepared to pay the costs of collective sacrifice. The founding myth of our world, after all, is the Manichaean struggle for survival that was World World II (helped by Soviet tyranny, of course). In the Cold War, the “free world” proved stronger than the one Putin was part of.
Yet no one should confuse this moment with either World War II or the Cold War. Today, we inhabit the same economic world as Russia, not an opposing one. Conservative movements throughout the Western world share elements of Putin’s worldview, sympathizing with his vision of traditional nation-states under threat from liberal multiculturalism unmoored from reality. To many, Tucker Carlson, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orbán among them, Putin is a kind of bulwark against all that they despise, including the multinationalism of the European Union and the American hegemony that requires defending other countries’ sovereignty. We should not forget that in the U.S., the imperial center of the Western world, the previous president was impeached for trying to blackmail Ukraine for his own political ends.
If the past few days of Russia’s choreographed brutality are anything to go by, Putin must look around him and see a world of strength and weakness—of his strength and the pathetic weakness of the sycophants doing his bidding. Is he really scared of our strength, as we often like to reassure ourselves? Or does he look to the West and see the weakness of human character that is on display among all of his stooges, only multiplied and institutionalized in our democracy? He sees us fighting among ourselves, grasping for petty domestic advantage, taking his gas and propaganda, corrupting ourselves in the process.
The most important question among all of these is whether he is right to see us in this way. The challenge has been set. Much of the 21st century will depend on the answer we give now and in the future.