A militarizing world in the shadow of the Ukraine War

Bob Sheak

May 8, 2022

This post focuses on the Ukraine War and presents updated information and raises and addresses important issues. The main points are as follows. One, inspired by the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, the US and its allies are increasing military spending significantly, enabling the resistance to push back against Russian ground forces. Two, I refer to updated figures on the destruction, death, and displacement of Ukrainians generated by the Russian war. Three, I refer to the goals in the war of Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky and Russian head of state Vladimir Putin and the lack yet of meaningful negotiations. Four, I raise questions about the argument that Ukraine can win the war and drive the Russians out of the entire country. Five, Putin has said that he would, under certain circumstances, use nuclear weapons. I discuss the dangers. Six, I discuss the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and some allies, how they are working, the limits of sanctions, and how they gave a particularly severe impact on low-income countries. Seven, I touch on the reasons why Putin wants to basically annex the Donbas and the southern part of Ukraine. And, eight, what to expect in coming months.

US support for Ukraine is increasing

Support for increasing military aid, inspired by Ukrainian resistance

The Washington Post editorial staff captures the current dominant narrative regarding what the US should do directly to assist Ukraine forces in Putin’s “war” on the country. Putin refers to it as “a special military operation.” Whatever the name, the WP editors take the position that the US should not only continue but increase its military support of Ukraine (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/04/30/defeating-vladimit-putin-ukraine-war-requires-larger-risks). They, along with the US government and a majority of the public, are impressed with the resistance put forth by the Ukrainians, especially the defense of the capital Kiev. And it is clear that Ukraine needs ongoing and increased military assistance against the Russian onslaught. The assumption behind giving military assistance to Ukraine is that Moscow will not relent in its calamitous path. Therefore, the US and other countries must continue and escalate support for Ukraine now and for the foreseeable future, as long as the Ukrainians are able and willing to go on fighting.

It will be a costly and probably long-lasting war

The Washington Post editors write, “a longer, more costly military struggle looms. Russia’s aim is to push westward from its redoubts in Crimea and Donbas, eventually breaking through and encircling Ukrainian forces. Stopping this is the reason Ukraine needed an immediate infusion of heavy weaponry; actually enabling Ukraine to go on the counteroffensive later this spring and summer is the reason it will need still more in the coming weeks. Thus, President Biden’s request for $33 billion in new aid for Ukraine, of which $20 billion will be military, was not only appropriate but urgent, and Congress should respond accordingly. Coupled with the recent approval of a revived ‘lend-lease’ system, Mr. Biden’s proposal puts the United States in position to bolster Ukraine over the long haul.”

In an update on May 3 for CNBC, Amanda Macias reports that “President Joe Biden called on Congress to quickly pass $33 billion in additional U.S. assistance to Ukraine, as the war-weary country approaches its 10th week of fighting off a Russian invasion” (https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/03/russia-ukraine-live-updates.html). She adds: “Biden’s latest military aid package of $800 million was announced on April 21, the eighth such installment of security assistance. It brought the U.S. weapons and security commitment to Ukraine up to $3.4 billion just since Russia’s late February invasion.” Of the most recent request for $33 military aid, $20 billion would be for weapons, with additional funding “to help Ukraine run its government and money for additional humanitarian and food aid.”

Spencer Bokat-Lindell notes that, if the $33 billion in requested aid is passed by the US Congress, the US will then have “authorized a total of $46.6 billion for the war, equal to more than two-thirds of Russia’s entire annual defense budget (https://nytimes.com/2022/05/04/opinion/peace-ukraine.html). European countries are also sending military aid to Ukraine. According to Bokat-Lindell, “France, Britain and other NATO allies have also scaled up their donations.”

Recent polls indicate a majority of Americans support the position of the Biden administration (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/05/02/poll-ukraine-support-biden).

The Biden administration’s current hope is that military support for Ukraine – along with economic sanctions – will ultimately make Putin realize that the cost of trying to destroy Ukraine as an independent state is ultimately too costly. However, it may take years, if ever, to reach such a turning point. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “told the House Armed Services Committee that he expects the conflict in Ukraine to last for years” (https://thehill.com/news/3260171-top-us-general-says-he-expects-russia-ukraine-conflict-to-be-measured-in-years). And, sadly, if the war goes on as it has, what will be left of Ukraine? Putin seems bent on either subjugating or devastating the country, while controlling no matter what parts of the country. The US and allies support Ukraine to avoid such calamitous outcomes.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell reports on how the US involvement in Ukraine has escalated (https://nytimes.com/2022/05/04/opinion/peace-ukraine.html).

“In recent weeks, U.S. war aims have expanded beyond defending Ukrainian sovereignty, raising the stakes of the conflict even higher. After a recent trip to Kyiv with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.’

Bokat-Lindell quotes an article by Robin Wright, who writes that “the U.S. role has evolved — from a reactive response to Russia’s unjustified war to a proactive assertion of American leadership and leverage’ and that “Putin’s rhetoric has, in turn, become bolder and more aggressive. The war could now play out in many disparate ways,” according to Wright. “Each carries its own dangers — for the U.S. as well as Ukraine.”

Even nuclear war?

“One of those dangers, of course, is nuclear war. Last week, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that he viewed NATO as being engaged in a proxy war with Russia by supplying weaponry to Ukraine, raising the odds of nuclear conflict. ‘The danger is serious, real,’ he said. ‘It must not be underestimated.’

“Some analysts believe these threats are empty. But The Times’s David Sanger reports that some U.S. officials are indeed taking seriously the risk of Putin turning to stepped-up cyberattacks on Western infrastructure, chemical weapons or his arsenal of tactical, ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons.” It’s one of the reasons, the US has avoided supplying Ukraine with the fighter planes or the weapons that would enable Ukraine’s army to strike targets in Russia. However, the US reluctance on this score may gradually lessen as the Russian military continues its destruction of Ukraine.

Russia has already caused massive destruction, death, and displacement

The Russian assault

In an update, CNBC’s Amanda Macias cites a senior US Defense official who said “Russian forces are carrying out about 40 to 50 missile strikes a day against Ukraine, with a high focus on the Donbas region and north of Mariupol” (https://cnbc.com/2022/05/04/russia-ukraine-live-updates.html).

She added the following information.

“The U.S. has observed Russian aircraft fly nearly 250 sorties over Ukraine, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share updates on the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“‘They are still hitting Mariupol and they are still wary of flying in Ukrainian airspace so they’re largely launching these things from outside Ukrainian airspace to the degree that they can.’

“The airstrikes are largely targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure, including electricity and railroads, according to evolving U.S. military intelligence. The official said that so far the strikes have not had an appreciable impact on Ukraine’s ability to continue the fight.” At the same time, “the U.K. defense ministry said Russia is probably unable to effectively discriminate targets when conducting air strikes in Mariupol [and elsewhere] because of its likely use of unguided free-falling bombs,” which also increase the risk of civilian casualties.

Physical damage and economic costs

The World Bank estimated on April 21 that Ukraine had already suffered “physical damage at roughly $60 billion so far,” as reported by David Lawder and Chris Gallagher (https://reuters.com/world/world-bank-estimates-ukraine-physical-damage-roughly-60-billion-so-far-2022-04-21). The Bank said that the damage will rise as the war continues. Ongoing news coverage of the war clearly documents that the Russian bombardment of Ukraine continues to be extensive and highly destructive. World Bank President David Malpass “told a World Bank conference on Ukraine’s financial assistance needs that the early estimate of ‘narrow’ damage costs does not include the growing economic costs of the war to Ukraine.”

In a virtual address to the conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

“told participants in interpreted remarks that Ukraine needs $7 billion per month to make up for economic losses caused by Russia’s invasion of his country.” Zelensky added: “we will need hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild all this later.” He also said that some of the money for reconstruction could come after the war from the “sanctions and freezes on Russian assets.” US Secretary Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, also attending the conference, agree that “Russia should shoulder some of Ukraine’s rebuilding costs.”

“Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who attended the conference in person, said “[i]f we do not stop this war together, the losses will increase dramatically,” adding that Ukraine would need a rebuilding plan similar to the post-World War Two Marshall Plan that helped to rebuild a war ravaged” continent.

Ukrainian deaths and casualties from Russia’s invasion

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified a total of 3,280 civilian deaths as of May 4, 2022, and 3,280 injuries (https://statistica.com/statistics/1293492/ukraine-war-casualties). OHCHR acknowledges these are under-estimates.

Other estimates suggest much higher rates of civilian casualties. Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko says more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in the city, according to a report on April 11 by David Child and his colleagues for Aljazeera (https://aljazeera.com/news/2022/04/11/three-killed-in-russian-attacks-ukraine-donetsk-liveblog). They add: “The mayor of Bucha reveals authorities in the Ukrainian town have found 403 bodies of people [in a mass grave] they believe were killed by Russian forces.” In addition, they write, “The United Nations demands an independent investigation into allegations that Russian forces have raped women and committed other forms of sexual violence.”

There are also reports of “mass graves,” identified by satellite imagery. Mass graves have been identified outside the city of Mariupol (https://cnn.com/2022/04/22/europe/mariupol-ukraine-inti-hnk/index.html), in Vinohradne, 7.5 miles from Mariupol (https://usatoday.com/picture-gallery/news/world/2022/04/26/mass-grave-sites-discovered-ukraine-grim-signs-death-toll/9538928002), and in Bucha outside of Kiev (https://cnn.com/2022/04/03/europe/ukraine-bucha-horros/index.html).

Displacement – to  where?

The BBC refers to estimates by the United Nations, as of May 6, 2022 (https://bbc.com/news/world-60555472).

The estimates indicate that over 5.7 million have fled their homes, with 3,143,550 going to Poland, 856,941 to Romania, 727,712 to Russia, 551,000 to Hungary, 452,038 to Moldavia, 391,592 to Slovakia, and 26,149 to Belarus. Unspecified, but much smaller numbers, have gone to countries in Europe, the US, and other locations. The BBC report notes, for example, that the “EU has granted Ukrainians who flee the war a blanket right to stay and work throughout its 27 member nations for up to three years” and “will also receive social welfare and access to housing, medical treatment and schools.”

Biden administration has rolled out plan for Ukrainian refugees, as reported by Maria Sacchetti (https://washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/04/22/biden-ukraine-refugees-resettlement-united-states). A month ago, back in March, “President Biden pledged…to accept as many as 100,000 Ukrainians, about 2 percent of the refugees, but the administration has not offered clear guidance on the process until now. Approximately 15,000 Ukrainians have arrived without permission over the past three months, mostly at the U.S.-Mexico border, senior administration officials said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the new program.”

Sacchetti continues. “The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security said they are creating a new “‘streamlined’ program called Uniting for Ukraine that will grant most refugees ‘humanitarian parole’ to come to the United States for up to two years, as long as they have a sponsor willing to support them.”

The program “will provide an expedient channel for secure, legal migration from Europe to the United States for Ukrainians who have a U.S. sponsor, such as a family or an NGO,” Biden said.” Sponsors could be “ordinary citizens and organizations such as churches … but officials also warned that Ukrainians attempting to cross via Mexico will be denied entry starting next week.”

However, Sacchetti points out, “Ukrainians cannot directly apply to the parole program. Instead, starting Monday [April 25], U.S.-based sponsors such as private citizens, churches and civic groups may apply online to the Department of Homeland Security to sponsor Ukrainian citizens.” Many refugees applying to the new program “are expected to have relatives in the United States who could sponsor them, officials said. More than 1 million people of Ukrainian descent live in the United States, with significant numbers in states such as New York, California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.” There are also “organizations such as Welcome.US, an effort led by former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to aid refugees, are expected to help, along with a number of Ukrainian American civic and church groups and ordinary citizens.

Sponsors “must clear background screenings and declare that they will support the new arrivals financially.” Additionally, Ukrainians must meet certain eligibility requirements, namely, they “must have resided in their homeland as of Feb. 11, just before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, and pass security checks and meet vaccine requirements.”

The UN also estimates that 6.5 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced, that is fleeing their homes but remaining in the country. These estimates are based on research carried out by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) between March 9 and 16. So this estimate is likely to be higher now. “The IOM estimates that more than half of the people who are internally displaced are women, and many are deemed particularly vulnerable because they are pregnant, have a disability or are a victim of violence.”

The estimates also indicate that about “12 million people are…thought to be stranded or unable to leave areas affected by the fighting.”

The overall total of people in these three categories comes to 14.2 million. This is out of a total population of 41.5 million. Thus, about 34 percent of Ukraine’s population are refugees, internally displaced, or stranded. This is a mind-boggling, morally-wrenching situation caused by Russia’s destructive, law-breaking invasion. Bear in mind, the invasion was only launched on February 24, 2022, just over 10 weeks from ago (as of May 6, 2022). With no negotiated settlement in sight, the near-term future of Ukraine looks grim, that is, unless Ukrainian forces can begin to repulse the invaders. Otherwise, it may the war may continue.

What does Ukraine’s President Zelensky hope for?

Despite the vast military advantage Russia has over Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN’s Jake Tapper on April 15, as reported by Jeremy Herb, that Ukraine is not willing to give up territory in the eastern part of the country to end the war with Russia, and Ukraine’s military is prepared to fight Moscow’s military in the Donbas region in a battle he says could influence the course of the entire war” (https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/17/politics/zelensky-russia-war-tapper-interview-cnntv/index.html). Zelensky told Tapper that the weapons supplied by the US and the West are important but they need more weapons. He also told Tapper that he’s prepared to engage with Russia diplomatically to try to end the war but that Russia’s attacks [and negotiating demands] on Ukrainians make it harder to do.”

The question continues to be whether Russia will ever agree to stop its war and negotiate. Right now, the terms that Russia might accept (see in the next section) appear to be unacceptable to the Ukrainian government. In the absence of a Ukrainian victory in the war and in the absence of viable negotiations, the unmitigated and law-breaking destruction by the Russian forces is ongoing.

What does Putin want?

Bogat-Lindell refers to what Russia sees as possible grounds for a negotiated settlement. It would give Russia control of large areas of the eastern and southern parts of the country. “In March,” he writes, “the Kremlin said it would halt its assault on Ukraine if Kyiv met several conditions: commit to never join NATO; rid itself of any weapons that could pose a threat to Russia; recognize the annexed Crimean Peninsula as Russian territory; and recognize Ukraine’s Russian-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics.”

Bogat-Lindell recognizes the desirability of a negotiated settlement between Ukraine and Russia, but Russia’s terms are harsh.

He also raises another issue, namely, that, while the Russian attacks continue, the US should enter into parallel negotiations with the Kremlin to resolve the issues involving NATO expansion and sanctions and that such discussions might increase the chances for an eventual peace agreement that is less one-sided than now proposed by Moscow.

He continues.

“We can’t know for certain whether more rigorous U.S.-Russia diplomacy — including discussions surrounding NATO expansion and Ukrainian neutrality — might have succeeded in preventing Russia’s invasion,” writes Alex Jordan at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “We won’t know because it was — according to White House officials — never really tried.”

“NATO itself also needs to clarify its objectives, what it is willing to compromise on and how, argues Rajan Menon, a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Does NATO want to maintain sanctions indefinitely to diminish Russia’s power, or are there conditions it could meet to lift them? ‘It is within Putin’s power to wind down this war,’ he writes, ‘but what NATO does matters as well.’

“And if the goal is still a negotiated settlement, ‘We need to find a way of somehow discreetly conveying to the Russians that we would be willing to ease sanctions,’ George Beebe, a former chief of Russia analysis for the C.I.A., said. ‘The military aid to Ukraine could also be used as leverage.’

“Don’t give up completely on diplomacy. Even though U.S.-Russia relations are at a nadir, Fred Kaplan points out in Slate that the two countries still managed to carry out an elaborately planned prisoner exchange last week.”

An argument that says Ukraine can win the war

There are also analysts who think Ukraine can eventually defeat the Russians. In a column for the Washington Post, Max Boot argues that “Ukraine can win” (https://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/05/02/west-should-not-fear-russia-escalation-threat-urkaine-war). If the Ukrainian forces with foreign military aid can defeat the Russians on the battlefield, then the need for a negotiated agreement would be irrelevant. Boot sees this as a possibility.

He points out that the Russians have already lost the battle of Kyiv. Now Vladimir Putin “is trying to salvage military success in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. His army’s progress has been ‘slow and uneven,’ and that’s even before all of the heavy weaponry committed by the West reaches the defenders. Once the Ukrainian armed forces incorporate all of their new equipment, they should be poised to launch a counteroffensive that could regain lost territory.”

In the absence of Russian military progress in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, Putin could “announce an expanded war effort in Ukraine. Having previously tried to pass off the invasion as a ‘special military operation,’ he could now declare war and announce a total, World War II-style mobilization. He might imagine that he could crush Ukraine with vastly more tanks and troops. But that will risk social unrest [in Russia] and still probably won’t deliver victory.”

Boot argues that Russia does not have a strong enough military to succeed even if he declares the conflict to be a full-blown war. He questions whether Russia has enough well-trained troops to advance the war, or enough up-dated equipment for such an invading army, or the logistical know how to continuously supply such a force. He also argues that Putin is not unhinged enough to employ nuclear weapons On the capabilities of the Russian military, Boot writes:

“On paper, Russia has more than 2 million former servicemen in reserve, but, according to the Institute for the Study of War, few of them receive any refresher training. A 2019 Rand report found that only 4,000 to 5,000 reservists would be considered comparable to U.S. National Guard or reserve members. The defense ministry launched an initiative in 2021 to expand the reserves to 80,000 to 100,000 troops, but there is no indication that this ambitious objective is being achieved.”

Furthermore:

“Even if Russia were to throw vast numbers of ill-trained conscripts into battle, it would have difficulty equipping them. The Russians claim to have more than 10,000 tanks and 36,000 other armored vehicles in storage, but most are likely antiquated and dilapidated. Russia is losing its best military equipment in Ukraine and will find it hard to field replacements. Western sanctions are strangling Russian military production lines by stopping the flow of microchips.”

As already noted, Boot does not think Putin would resort to using nuclear weapons, though, if and when Russia is losing the war, the Russian leader might order the use of “nuclear weapons against Ukrainian bases or population centers,” implying the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Even then, Boot argues, “NATO could launch [non-nuclear] airstrikes that would rapidly sink the entire Russian Black Sea fleet and destroy much of the Russian army in and around Ukraine. That would shake Putin’s criminal regime to its foundations.”

Questions

Boot’s argument for winning the war assume that the Russian army will ultimately be defeated by Ukrainian forces and driven out of the country. Indeed, Ukrainians have done better so far in the ground war than expected, with increasing support from the US and its allies. But Boot’s argument may under-estimate the impact of the sheer size of the Russian military forces, the large population it can draw on for recruits, however ill prepared, and the fact that, with its air force, artillery, naval and submarine lunched bombs and missiles, it has been able to deliver a level of destruction, death and displacement not seen in Europe since WWII.

There is also a good chance that Putin will further escalate the war, increasingly targeting the railroads, roads and bridges by which weapons are brought from Poland and elsewhere into Ukraine. Tom Nichols writes this:

“…Putin might call for a final push to overwhelm the Ukrainians by throwing men and machines into a meat grinder. This war was a deluded scheme hatched in Putin’s COVID-isolated bubble, and even now Putin seems truly unable to understand the disaster he’s unleashed on Ukraine and the damage he’s done to Russia. Advised by a tight circle of hawks—some of whom will fear getting tagged with blame if things continue to deteriorate—he might see doubling down as a realistic option” (https://theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/putin-speech-may-9-victory-day-russia/629742).

Tactical nuclear weapons – a misnomer

It is also important that all sides understand the meaning and terrible consequences of the use of “tactical nuclear weapons.” Boot seems somewhat blasé about such a potential situation.  

Nina Tannenwald, who teaches international relations in the Political Science Department at Brown University and has published on the non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945, worries about how Putin would respond to a situation in which Russia is losing the war in Ukraine (https://scientificamerican.com/article/limited-tactical-weapons-would-be-catastrophic).

Putin already “has given orders to increase the alert level of Russia’s nuclear forces and has made veiled nuclear threats. The blatant aggression against Ukraine has shocked Europe and the world. The war is a tragedy for Ukraine. It also exposes the limits of the West’s reliance on nuclear deterrence,” or the idea “that possessing nuclear weapons protects a nation from attack, through the threat of overwhelming retaliation. This concept is widely credited for helping prevent war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.” However, Putin now is ignoring the old idea of “deterrence” and threatening to use at least tactical nuclear weapons if his forces are losing the war. Tannenwald reminds us that nuclear weapons, smaller or larger, are more destructive in their impacts than even the largest conventional weapons. It may be that Putin is as naive about the effects of such weapons as Trump. She writes:

“In the world of nuclear weapons, tactical means an exceedingly large amount of explosive energy and strategic means even larger. Most nuclear weapons today are variable-yield, or “dial-a-yield,” providing a set amount of explosive energy that can range from fractions of a kiloton to multiples of a megaton. (For example, the U.S.’s newest version of its B61 nuclear bomb can release 0.3, 1.5, 10 or 50 kilotons of explosive energy. In comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.) Russia has about 4,500 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. Of these, the ones of largest yield—the “strategic” weapons—are deployed on submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“But Russia also possesses some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons kept in storage facilities throughout the country, developed to be used against troops and installations in a small area or in a limited engagement. Such weapons can be launched on the same short-range missiles Russia is currently using to bombard Ukraine, such as its Iskander ballistic missile, which has a range of about 500 kilometers. And these are not the only tactical weapons that could be deployed; the United States has about 100 nuclear “gravity bombs” (with less sophisticated guidance) stationed around Europe.”

Tannenwald’s major point: “No one should imagine, however, that it makes sense to use a tactical nuclear weapon. A thermonuclear explosion of any size possesses overwhelming destructive power. Even a “small-yield” nuclear weapon (0.3 kilotons) would produce damage far beyond that of a conventional explosive….It would also cause all the horrors of Hiroshima, albeit on a smaller scale [unless more than one tactical nuclear bomb was dropped]. A tactical nuclear weapon would produce a fireball, shock waves, and deadly radiation that would cause long-term health damage in survivors. Additionally:

“Radioactive fallout would contaminate air, soil, water and the food supply (Ukrainians are already familiar with this kind of outcome because of the disastrous meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986).

“No one knows if using a tactical nuclear weapon would trigger full-scale nuclear war. Nevertheless, the risk of escalation is very real. Those on the receiving end of a nuclear strike are not likely to ask whether it was tactical or strategic. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on February 6, 2018, then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated ‘I do not think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game changer.’” Russian leaders have made clear that they would view any nuclear attack as the start of an all-out nuclear war.

“Especially worrisome is the possibility that the war could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. By increasing the alert level of Russian nuclear forces, Putin increases the risk of nuclear use through miscalculation or accident in the fog of war. In the worst scenario, if the war is going badly, Putin could reach for a tactical nuclear weapon out of desperation. While this is still unlikely, the risk is not zero.”

Tannenwald continues. “And increasing that risk is unacceptable. Although innumerable nuclear weapons have been tested over the years, not one has been used in warfare (or terrorism) since 1945. The 77-year-old tradition of nuclear nonuse—the nuclear taboo—is the single most important accomplishment of the nuclear age. It is a primary obligation of leaders today to make sure nuclear weapons are never used again. Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov should stop threatening nuclear weapons. Other leaders should express shock and outrage, and make it clear that nuclear threats are irresponsible and unacceptable.”

She concludes: “This war will likely upend the European security order. It also demonstrates how little real protection nuclear weapons provide. The world would be better off without these weapons.”

What about the sanctions?

In a post I sent out on April 22, “The effects of Putin’s brutal invasion,” I wrote the following on US sanctions.

“There are other important issues stemming from Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. For example, the US and allied imposition of sanctions is a significant issue. The sanctions – and they are being increased over time – are designed to reduce the foreign wealth assets of Putin and Russian oligarchs, to persuade American and Western companies to leave Russia, to drive down the availability of products available to Russian consumers and undermine the Russian economy, to have Russia default on his foreign loan obligations, to reduce access to dollar-based currency, to induce Germany and other countries to make plans to reduce their purchase of Russian natural gas and oil, and to curtail agricultural and other export products from Russia. The New York Times provides an extensive list of the sanctions imposed by the US (https://nytimes.com/article/russia-us-ukraine-sanctions.html).

Here I present two different views on the effectiveness of sanctions.

Yes, sanctions are having the desired effect on the Russian economy

Jen Kirby gives a rundown of the effects of the sanctions imposed by the US and its allies as of early May and argues that are having the desired effect on “dismantling the Russian economy” (https://vox.com/23049187/russia-sanctions-ukraine-rubble). He writes: “The United States and its allies imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia in the wake of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The swiftness and intensity of the penalties crashed the ruble, forced the Russian stock market to close, and sent Russians to line up at ATMs to withdraw dollars from their bank accounts.”

Despite the Kremlin’s attempt to ease the impact, “[t]he West’s sanctions are isolating Russia, cutting it off from key imports that it needs for commercial goods and its own manufacturing to make its economy work. That means high-tech imports like microchips, to develop advanced weaponry. But it also means buttons for shirts.” Kirby quotes Maria Shagina, a visiting fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“Russia is facing a deep recession, one the Bank of Russia says will be ‘a transformational nature.’ The Finance Ministry has predicted the Russian GDP will shrink by about 8.8 percent in 2022. Inflation is expected to clock in as high as 23 percent this year. Russia is looking at a looming debt default. All of this will mean hardship for ordinary Russians, who are already seeing their real incomes shrink. Some tens of thousands have tried to flee, especially those in tech, prompting a potential ‘brain drain.’ And these are the things we know; Russia will cease publishing a lot of economic data, a tactic, experts said, Moscow has used before to obscure the effects of sanctions.

The US and European allies are adding more penalties as Putin’s war continues. “The EU has proposed a phase-out of Russian oil products.” For the time being, however, Russia “is still exporting a lot of gas and oil, including to places like Europe, which gets one-third of its natural gas imports from Russia.” Eventually, the sanctions on gas and oil will intensify the economic pain in Russia.

“Oil and gas revenues help, but if sanctions against energy tighten, as with the EU’s proposal for a gradual oil ban, or Russia is forced to sell its gas on the cheap — or if the threat of running afoul of sanctions deters even the bargain hunters — the safety net frays over time. Russia has already said oil output is expected to decline as sanctions hinder investments and trade.”

The overall impact of the sanctions will be to increasingly isolate Russia’s economy over time. “Data from other countries has shown that it is already beginning to happen, as imports to Russia are crashing. For example, Finland’s exports to Russia are down 60 percent; South Korea’s are down about 62 percent.

Kirby refers to other effects as well.

No, the sanctions will not bring Putin to the table

Jeffrey D. Sachs lists six problematic and limiting aspects of sanctions (https://commondreams.org/views/2022/04/21/only-answer-war-ukraine-negotiated-peace-deal). He is a University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where he directed The Earth Institute from 2002 until 2016. He is also President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the UN Broadband Commission for Development.

“The first is that even as sanctions cause economic distress in Russia, they are unlikely to change Russian politics or policies in any decisive way. Think of the harsh sanctions the US has imposed on Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. Yes, they’ve weakened these economies, but they’ve not changed the politics or policies of these countries in the ways the US government has sought.

“The second problem is that sanctions are easy to evade at least in part, and more evasions are likely to emerge over time. The US sanctions apply most effectively to dollar-based transactions involving the US banking system. Countries seeking to evade the sanctions find ways to make transactions through non-bank or non-dollar means. We can expect a rising number of transactions with Russia in rubles, rupees, renminbi and other non-dollar currencies.

“The third and related problem is that most of the world does not believe in the sanctions—and also does not take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war. Add up all of the countries and regions imposing sanctions on Russia—the US, UK, European Union, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and a handful of others—and their combined population comes to just 14% of the world population.

“The fourth problem is the boomerang effect. Sanctions on Russia hurt not just Russia but the entire world economy, stoking supply-chain disruptions, inflation and food shortages. This is why many European countries are likely to continue to import gas and oil from Russia, and why Hungary and perhaps some other European countries will agree to pay Russia in rubles. The boomerang effect will also likely hurt Democrats in this November’s midterm elections as inflation eats away at the real earnings of voters.

“The fifth problem is the inelastic (price-insensitive) demand for Russia’s energy and grain exports. As the quantity of Russian exports is reduced, the world prices of those commodities increase. Russia can end up with lower export volumes but nearly the same or even higher export earnings.

“The sixth problem is geopolitical. Other countries—and most importantly China—see the Russia-Ukraine war at least in part as a war in which Russia is resisting NATO enlargement to Ukraine. That’s why China repeatedly argues that Russia’s legitimate security interests are at stake in the war.”

The global economic shock of the sanctions

In the meantime, the destruction, disruption, and death continue in Ukraine, with the effects of the war reverberating around the world, as supply chains are disrupted and shortages of gas and oil, food, and important industrial commodities (e.g., computer chips) lead to rising prices across the world, with particularly serious economic impacts on people in low-income countries.

Democracy Now devoted part of its program on May 5 to the impacts of the war in Ukraine on food prices and access in low-income countries

(https://www.democracynow.org/2022/5/5/ukraine_war_causing_food_crisis_africa). Here’s their overview.

“This week U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is in Nigeria, where he warned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is leading to a growing hunger crisis in Africa. A new report by Human Rights Watch finds the Russian invasion of Ukraine has worsened food insecurity, particularly for African countries that were already experiencing a hunger crisis. Russia and Ukraine are leading exporters of wheat and other grains, while countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Uganda are among the largest importers. With climate change and trade stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, ‘all these changes within the availability of food has sent the food prices to new levels,’ says Lena Simet, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Advocates are calling on exporting countries such as the United States and Canada to ‘open their markets, to not introduce export restrictions, and provide essential grains at an affordable price to humanitarian organizations,’ she adds.”

Patrick Cockburn, investigative journalist and the author of War in the Age of Trump, addresses the crisis-spreading effects of Putin’s war on Ukraine on global grain supply and access (https://counterpunch.org/2022/04/28/241051). He writes:

“In small and large ways, the war in Ukraine is affecting the rest of the world, but nowhere is its effect more devastating than on countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and South Sudan, to name but four, which have been torn apart by decades of warfare. For them the Ukraine crisis is the final destructive blow for weak governments and societies that are barely holding together.

“Some 80 per cent of Syrians are rated as impoverished with many on the edge of starvation, while 12.4 million are described by the World Food Programme as being ‘food insecure.’

“Many are jobless or grossly underpaid after a collapse in the Syrian currency caused by harsher American sanctions in 2020 that established what amounts to an economic siege.”

Cockburn continues.

“The economies of these shattered countries in the Middle East and Africa were already close to capsizing because of endless military conflicts before the war in Ukraine began, but they are now close to sinking entirely.

“Catastrophic though their situation is there is limited international interest in their plight because world attention is fixated on Ukraine and what is fast becoming a proxy war between Russia and the US.”

Cockburn cites Matthew Hollingworth, the South Sudan country director of the World Food Programme (WFP), [who] says that of the 7.4 million people suffering from food shortages in South Sudan the WFP will only be able to feed 4.4 million because there is not enough money to pay for more rations.”

What to expect?

The Russian war in Ukraine is likely to continue for far longer than Putin expected in February, believing that Russian troops would face little resistance, be able to take over control of the capital Kiev, and then move ahead in to make the entire Ukraine a part of the recreated Russian empire. Nonetheless, it appears now that Putin will remain in power, despite the costs of the war, despite troop casualties, despite the economic hardship from the war and sanctions on Russia’s economy, Putin and his inner circle, and the general population.

Focusing on the Donbas

There are indications that Putin has modified his ambitions and would settle for an agreement that gave him control of the Donbas, having failed to make progress in other parts of Ukraine. Holly Ellyatt considers three reasons why the Donbas is important to Putin’s war (https://CNBC.com/2922/04/19/why-does-russia-want-the-donbas-region-so-much.html).

ONE, “Russia needs a victory,” and “the Donbas region includes two Russian-backed separatist ‘republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, in which Russian troops and separatists have been fighting Ukrainians since 2014.” Ellyatt quotes former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who says, “Putin has given up on his more ambitious goals completely,” and has changed the name of the war to “special military operation in defense of Donbas.’”

Putin and his inner-circle of advisers are now focusing their “efforts on the complete takeovers of key strategic cities in southern Ukraine and on the Black Sea, for example the port cities of Mykolaiv, Mariupol and Kherson. The latter two are almost completely in Russian control, despite pockets of fierce resistance from Ukrainian fighters.” Some experts and analysts also think that Russia is “looking to take over Odesa further up the coast to the west, although that’s seen as a much harder task.”

TWO, Russia wants a land bridge

There are economic benefits that come with the control of the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Ellyatt refers to two of them.

“Firstly, the Donbas itself is a heavily industrialized region known for its coal mining industry and large coal reserves that Russia could potentially access if it annexed the entire region.”

“And secondly, control of the region would also enable Russia to create a ‘land bridge’ to Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and which is a vital military and trading hub for Moscow on the Black Sea.”

ThreeRussian identity politics

Ellyatt identifies why. “Russia’s self-proclaimed defense’ of ethnic Russians in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions (which are overwhelmingly Russian-speaking) has formed a large part of its justification for invading Ukraine. “The area is no stranger to conflict; the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics have been the location of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces ever since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Figures vary, but it’s believed that around 14,000 people were killed during the prolonged but lower-level conflict in the area.”

Concluding thoughts

The war will likely continue

Stephen Walt argues, “even if Russia achieves some limited gains in the Donbass, the war will accelerate its relative decline. Putin may prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO, but the long-term consequences of that achievement will leave Russia worse off as a whole. Unless he erects a new Iron Curtain, talented young Russians will continue to leave. State revenues will decline as more and more countries wean themselves off Russian oil, gas, and coal. Ukraine will continue to move toward Europe economically, a process that was already underway before the war began” (https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/13/ukraine-war-realism-great-powers-unipolarity).

US military spending will continue

The Biden administration with the support of the US Congress will continue giving Ukraine military support and continue the sanctions, with the support of most countries in the European Union and a few others. The war will profit US armaments makers and shortages caused by the war will contribute to inflationary pressures in the US and across the globe.

NATO will expand

NATO will expand, admitting Sweden and Finland as members and increase its military presence in Eastern Europe. This will intensify the Russian anxiety and anger. And it will likely lead to a renewed Cold War, which, in turn, will justify continuing large military budgets in the US, Europe, Russia, China, and other countries.

The Republican Party will use the war for partisan purposes

In the US, Republicans will do their best to use increases in military spending to defeat Democratic initiatives on domestic, social, and environmental policies.

The future of democracy in the US and around the world is under threat

The big question, then, is whether, in a divided world awash in weapons, and in a country increasingly influenced by a growing fascist right-wing movement, what will remain of democracy – and what will become of Ukraine?

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