WITHix million households in Britain face the possibility of morning and evening blackouts this winter to maintain sanctions against Russia, as do consumers across Europe. This is despite Europe pouring about $ 1bn a day into Russia to pay for the gas and oil it continues to consume. This seems crazy. Proposals by the EU to halt the payments are understandably being opposed by countries close to Russia and heavily dependent on its fossil fuels; Germany buys 12% of its oil and 35% of its gas from Russia, figures that are much higher in Hungary.
The EU in Brussels seems not to know what to do. A diplomatic compromise has been raised – exempting sanctions on imports via pipeline, which would spare Hungary and Germany – but no practical plan has been agreed. The real reason is that arguments over the sanctions weapon have been reduced to macho rhetoric. They are supposed to induce a foreign regime to change some unacceptable policies. This rarely if ever happens, and in Russia’s case it has blatantly failed. Apologists now claim that sanctions are merely a deterrent, intended to work in the medium to long term. As war in Ukraine shifts into a different gear, that term could be long indeed.
Sanctions may have harmed Russia’s credit-worthiness, but the 70% surge in world gas prices alone has supercharged its balance of payments. Its current account trade surplus, according to its central bank, is now over three times the pre-invasion level. At the same time, sanctions are clearly hurting countries in western and central Europe who are imposing them.
It is absurd to expect Hungary to starve itself of energy and, as it says, “nuclear bomb” its economy, with no fixed objective or timetable in sight. Sanctions have an awful habit of being hard to dismantle. Worse is to come. Russia’s reaction to sanctions has been to threaten to cut off gas to Europe, further driving up prices to its advantage. It is already blocking the Black Sea ports, from which millions of tons of Ukrainian grain are normally shipped to the outside world. This blockade has seen cereal prices rise 48% on their 2019 base, devastating markets, particularly across Africa. This in turn has increased the value of Russia’s own massive grain exports. Russia has offered to lift the blockade if sanctions are lifted. Whether it means this is moot, but the west cannot be blind to the unintended consequence of its sanctions war.
Nato has been sensibly scrupulous in not escalating the war in Ukraine into a Europe-wide conflict. Sanctions know no such subtlety. Millions of innocent people across Europe and far from its shores will suffer as food and energy prices soar. Supply lines are disrupted. Trade links collapse. The victims are overwhelmingly the poor.
The objective – to compel Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine – has patently not been achieved. Military aid has been far more effective in that respect. But the harm done to the rest of Europe and the outside world is now glaring. The EU should stick to helping Ukraine’s war effort and withdrawal economic sanctions against Russia. They are self-defeating and senselessly cruel.