By Alfred McCoy, Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His new book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. Originally published at TomDispatch.
As the war in Ukraine heads for its third month amid a rising toll of death and destruction, Washington and its European allies are scrambling, so far unsuccessfully, to end that devastating, globally disruptive conflict. Spurred by troubling images of executed Ukrainian civilians scattered in the streets of Bucha and ruined cities like Mariupol, they are already trying to use many tools in their diplomatic pouches to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to desist. These range from economic sanctions and trade embargoes to the confiscation of the assets of some of his oligarch cronies and the increasingly massive shipment of arms to Ukraine. Yet none of it seems to be working.
Even after Ukraine’s surprisingly strong defense forced a Russian retreat from the northern suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, Putin only appears to be doubling down with plans for new offensives in Ukraine’s south and east. Instead of engaging in serious negotiations, he’s been redeploying his battered troops for a second round of massive attacks led by General Alexander Dvonikov, “the butcher of Syria,” whose merciless air campaigns in that country flattened cities like Aleppo and Homs.
So while the world waits for the other combat boot to drop hard, it’s already worth considering where the West went wrong in its efforts to end this war, while exploring whether anything potentially effective is still available to slow the carnage.
Playing the China Card
In January 2021, only weeks after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Moscow began threatening to attack Ukraine unless Washington and its European allies agreed that Kyiv could never join NATO. That April, Putin only added force to his demand by dispatching 120,000 troops to Ukraine’s border to stage military maneuvers that Washington even then branded a “war threat.” In response, taking a leaf from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s tattered Cold War playbook, the Biden administration initially tried to play Beijing off against Moscow.
After a face-to-face summit with Putin in Geneva that June, President Biden affirmed Washington’s “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” In a pointed warning to the Russian president, he said,
“You got a multi-thousand-mile border with China… China is… seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world. You’re in a situation where your economy is struggling… I don’t think [you should be] looking for a Cold War with the United States.”
As Russian armored units began massing for war near the Ukrainian border that November, U.S. intelligence officials all-too-accurately leaked warnings that “the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive… involving up to 175,000 troops.” In response, over the next three months, administration officials scrambled to avert war by meeting a half-dozen times with Beijing’s top diplomats and beseeching “the Chinese to tell Russia not to invade.”
In a video conference on December 7th, Biden told Putin of his “deep concerns… about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine,” warning that “the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation.”
In a more amicable video conference just a week later, however, Putin assured China’s President Xi Jinping that he would defy any human-rights boycott by Western leaders and come to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Calling him his “old friend,” Xi replied that he appreciated this unwavering support and “firmly opposed attempts to drive a wedge into our two countries.” Indeed, during the February Olympics opening ceremony, the two of them publicly proclaimed a de facto alliance that had “no limits,” even as Beijing evidently made it clear that Russia should not spoil China’s glittering Olympic moment on the international stage with an invasion right then.
In retrospect, it’s hard to overstate the price Putin paid for China’s backing. So desperate was he to preserve their new alliance that he sacrificed his only chance for a quick victory over Ukraine. By the time Putin landed in Beijing on February 4th, 130,000 Russian troops had already massed on the Ukrainian border. Delaying an invasion until the Olympics ended left most of them huddled in unheated canvas tents for three more weeks. When the invasion finally began, idling vehicles had burned through much of their fuel, truck tires sitting without rotation were primed for blow-outs, and the rations and morale of many of those soldiers were exhausted.
In early February, the ground in Ukraine was still frozen, making it possible for Russia’s tanks to swarm overland, potentially encircling the capital, Kyiv, for a quick victory. Because the Olympics didn’t end until February 20th, Russia’s invasion, which began four days later, was ever closer to March, Ukraine’s mud month when average temperatures around Kyiv rise rapidly. Adding to Moscow’s difficulties, at 51 tons, its T-90 tanks were almost twice as heavy as the classic go-anywhere Soviet T-34s which won World War II. When those modern steel-clad behemoths did try to leave the roads near Kyiv, they often sank deep and fast in the mud, becoming sitting ducks for Ukrainian missiles.
Instead of surging across the countryside to envelop Kyiv, Russia’s tanks found themselves stuck in a 40-mile traffic jam on a paved highway where Ukrainian defenders armed with shoulder-fired missiles could destroy them with relative ease. Being enveloped by the enemy instead of enveloping them cost the Russian army most of its losses to date — estimated recently at 40,000 troops killed, wounded, or captured, along with 2,540 armored vehicles and 440 rocket and artillery systems destroyed. As those crippling losses mounted, Russia’s army was forced to abandon its five-week campaign to capture the capital. On April 2nd, the retreat began, leaving behind a dismal trail of burned vehicles, dead soldiers, and slaughtered civilians.
In the end, Vladimir Putin paid a high price indeed for China’s support.
President Xi’s foreknowledge of the plans to invade Ukraine and his seemingly steadfast support even after so many weeks of lackluster military performance raise some revealing parallels with the alliance between Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, and China’s Mao Zedong in the early days of the Cold War. After Stalin’s pressure on Western Europe was blocked by the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949 and the formation of NATO in April 1950, the Soviet boss made a deft geopolitical pivot to Asia. He played upon his brand-new alliance with a headstrong Mao by getting him to send Chinese troops into the maelstrom of the Korean War. For three years, until his death in 1953 allowed an armistice to be reached, Stalin kept the U.S. military bogged down and bloodied in Korea, freeing him to consolidate his control over Eastern Europe.
Following this same geopolitical strategy, President Xi has much to gain from Putin’s headstrong plunge into Ukraine. In the short term, Washington’s focus on Europe postpones a promised (and long-delayed) U.S. “pivot” to the Pacific, allowing Beijing to further consolidate its position in Asia. Meanwhile, as Putin’s military flattens cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol, making Russia an outlaw state, a mendicant Moscow is likely to become a cut-rate source of much-needed Chinese fuel and food imports. Not only does Beijing need Russia’s gas to wean its economy from coal but, as the world’s largest consumer of wheat, it could achieve food security with a lock on Russia’s massive grain exports. Just as Stalin capitalized on Mao’s stalemate in Korea, so the elusive dynamics of Eurasian geopolitics could well transform Putin’s losses into Xi’s gains.
For all these reasons, Washington’s initial strategy had little chance of restraining Russia’s invasion. As retired CIA analyst Raymond McGovern argued, drawing on his 27 years studying the Soviet Union for the agency, “Rapprochement between Russia and China has grown to entente.” In his view, the sooner Biden’s foreign-policy team “get it through their ivy-mantled brains that driving a wedge between Russia and China is not going to happen, the better the chances the world can survive the fallout (figurative and literal) from the war in Ukraine.”
Since the Russian invasion began, the Western alliance has been ramping up an array of sanctions to punish Putin’s cronies and cripple Russia’s economic capacity to continue the war. In addition, Washington has already committed $2.4 billion for arms shipments to Ukraine, including lethal antitank weapons like the shoulder-fired Javelin missile.
On April 6th, the White House announced that the U.S. and its allies had imposed “the most impactful, coordinated, and wide-ranging economic restrictions in history,” banning new investments in Russia and hampering the operations of its major banks and state enterprises. The Biden administration expects the sanctions to shrink Russia’s gross domestic product by 15% as inflation surges, supply chains collapse, and 600 foreign companies exit the country, leaving it in “economic, financial, and technological isolation.” With near unanimous bipartisan support, Congress has also voted to void U.S. trade relations with Moscow and ban its oil imports (measures with minimal impact since Russia only supplies 2% of American petroleum use).
Although the Kremlin’s invasion threatened European security, Brussels moved far more cautiously, since Russia supplies 40% of the European Union’s gas and 25% of its oil — worth $108 billion in payments to Moscow in 2021. For decades, Germany has built massive pipelines to handle Russia’s gas exports, culminating in the 2011 opening of Nordstream I, the world’s longest undersea pipeline, which Chancellor Angela Merkel then hailed as a “milestone in energy cooperation” and the “basis of a reliable partnership” between Europe and Russia.
With its critical energy infrastructure bound to Russia by pipe, rail, and ship, Germany, the continent’s economic giant, is dependent on Moscow for 32% of its natural gas, 34% of its oil, and 53% of its hard coal. After a month of foot-dragging, it did go along with the European decision to punish Putin by cutting off Russian coal shipments, but drew the line at tampering with its gas imports, which heat half its homes and power much of its industry.
To reduce its dependence on Russian gas, Berlin has launched multiple long-term projects to diversify its energy sources, while cancelling the opening of the new $11 billion Nordstream II gas pipeline from Russia. It has also asserted control over its own energy reserves, held inside massive underground caverns, suspending their management by the Russian state firm Gazprom. (As Berlin’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck put it, “We won’t leave energy infrastructure subject to arbitrary decisions by the Kremlin.”)
Right after the Ukraine invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a crash program to construct the country’s first Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals on its north coast to unload supplies from American ships and those of various Middle Eastern countries. Simultaneously, German officials flew off to the Persian Gulf to negotiate more long-term deliveries of LNG. Still, the construction of such a multibillion-dollar terminal typically takes about four years, and Germany’s vice-chancellor has made it clear that, until then, massive imports of Russian gas will continue in order to preserve the country’s “social peace.” The European Union is considering plans to cut off Russian oil imports completely, but its proposal to slash Russian natural-gas imports by two-thirds by year’s end has already met stiff opposition from Germany’s finance ministry and its influential labor unions, worried about losses of “hundreds of thousands” of jobs.
Given all the exemptions, sanctions have so far failed to fatally cripple Russia’s economy or curtail its invasion of Ukraine. At first, the U.S. and EU restrictions did spark a crash in Russia’s currency, the ruble, which President Biden mockingly called “the rubble,” but its value has since bounced back to pre-invasion levels, while broader economic damage has, so far, proved limited. “As long as Russia can continue to sell oil and gas,” observed Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson International Economics Institute, “the Russian government’s financial situation is actually pretty strong.” And he concluded, “This is the big escape clause of the sanctions.”
In short, the West has seized a few yachts from Putin’s cronies, stopped serving Big Macs in Red Square, and slapped sanctions on everything except the one thing that really matters. With Russia supplying 40% of its gas and collecting an estimated $850 million daily, Europe is, in effect, funding its own invasion.
Following the failure of both Washington’s pressure on China and Western sanctions against Russia to stop the war, the international courts have become the sole peaceful means left to still the conflict. While the law often remains an effective means to mediate conflict domestically, the critical question of enforcing judgements has long robbed the international courts of their promise for promoting peace — a problem painfully evident in Ukraine today.
Even as the fighting rages, two major international courts have already ruled against Russia’s invasion, issuing orders for Moscow to cease and desist its military operations. On March 16th, the U.N.’s highest tribunal, the International Court of Justice, ordered Russia to immediately suspend all military operations in Ukraine, a judgment Putin has simply ignored. Theoretically, that high court could now require Moscow to pay reparations, but Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could simply veto that decision.
With surprising speed, on day five of the invasion, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) at Strasbourg ruled in the case of Ukraine v. Russia (X), ordering the Kremlin “to refrain from military attacks against civilians and civilian objects, including residential premises, emergency vehicles and… schools and hospitals” — a clear directive that Moscow’s military continues to defy with its devastating rocket and artillery strikes. To enforce the decision, the court notified the Council of Europe, which, two weeks later, took the most extreme step its statutes allow, expelling Russia after 26 years of membership. With that not-terribly-painful step, the European Court seems to have exhausted its powers of enforcement.
But matters need not end there. The Court is also responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights, which reads in part: “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions.” Under that provision, the ECHR could order Russia to pay Ukraine compensation for the war damage it’s causing. Unfortunately, as Ivan Lishchyna, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice, points out: “There is no international police or international military force that can support any international court judgment.”
As it happens, though, there is a blindingly obvious path to payment. Just as a U.S. municipal court can garnish the wages of a deadbeat dad who won’t pay child support, so the European Court of Human Rights could garnish the gas income of the world’s ultimate deadbeat dad, Vladimir Putin. In its first five weeks, Putin’s war of choice inflicted an estimated $68 billion dollars of damage on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure (its homes, airports, hospitals, and schools), along with other losses worth about $600 billion or three times that country’s total gross domestic product.
But how would Ukraine collect such a sum from Russia? Any Ukrainian party that has suffered damage — whether individuals, cities, or the entire nation — could petition the European Court of Human Rights to enforce its judgement in Ukraine v. Russia (X) by awarding damages. The Court could then instruct the Council of Europe to direct all European corporations buying gas from Gazprom, the Russian state monopoly, to deduct, say, 20% from their regular payments for a Ukraine compensation fund. Since Europe is now paying Gazprom about $850 million daily, such a court-ordered deduction, would allow Putin to pay off his initial $600 billion war-damage debt over the next eight years. As long as his invasion continued, however, those sums would only increase in a potentially crippling fashion.
Though Putin would undoubtedly froth and fulminate, in the end, he would have little choice but to accept such deductions or watch the Russian economy collapse from the lack of gas, oil, or coal revenues. Last month, when he rammed legislation through his parliament requiring Europe’s gas payments in rubles, not euros, Germany refused, despite the threat of a gas embargo. Faced with the loss of such critical revenues sustaining his economy, a chastened Putin called Chancellor Scholz to capitulate.
With billions invested in pipelines leading one-way to Europe, Russia’s petro-dependent economy would have to absorb that war-damage deduction of 20% — possibly more, if the devastation worsened — or face certain economic collapse from the complete loss of those critical energy exports. That might, sooner or later, force the Russian president to end his war in Ukraine. From a pragmatic perspective, that 20% deduction would be a four-way win. It would punish Putin, rebuild Ukraine, avoid a European recession caused by banning Russian gas, and prevent environmental damage from firing up Germany’s coal-fueled power plants.
Paying for Peace
Back in the day of anti-Vietnam War rallies in the United States and nuclear-freeze marches in Europe, crowds of young protesters would sing John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s hope-filled refrain, even though they were aware of just how hopeless it was even as the words left their lips: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” But now, after weeks of trial and error over Ukraine, the world just might have a chance to make the aggressor in a terrible war at least begin to pay a price for bringing such devastating conflict back to Europe.
Perhaps it’s time to finally deliver a bill to Vladimir Putin for a foreign policy that has involved little more than flattening one hapless city after another — from Aleppo and Homs in Syria to Chernihiv, Karkhiv, Kherson, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and undoubtedly more to come in Ukraine. Once the world’s courts establish such a precedent in Ukraine v. Russia (X), would-be strongmen might have to think twice before invading another country, knowing that wars of choice now come with a prohibitive price tag.