Aleksandr Podrabinek: On a misunderstanding and an appropriate reaction

31 January 2022

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

Many of the world’s calamities are the result of a misunderstanding, from family feuds to wars between countries. Someone might think he’s chosen the right tactic to resolve the conflict, and then failure, tears, blood, and martial law unexpectedly ensue. It’s good if the person who made the mistake hangs on to his life. The events connected with Russia’s anticipated invasion of Ukraine are following this lamentable scenario. On one hand, attempts by sensible Western politicians to restrain Russian expansion can only be welcomed. On the other, the naiveté of their calculations is astonishing.

The West is proposing economic and individual sanctions as their main leverage against the aggressor. As U.S. President Biden says, “very powerful sanctions.” Others confirm that yes, we’ve never had ones like that. True, everyone agrees in advance that sanctions won’t affect the SWIFT payment system because that would hit Russian natural gas supplies to Europe too hard. True, Joe Biden could veto sanctions yet again, as he has already done more than once to proposals from Congress. True, a dozen more reasons could be found for easing the sanctions. Nonetheless, Russia will have to pay dearly for an intervention, Western political leaders amicably warn. But what does “dearly” mean?

This is where the misunderstanding of what present-day Putin’s Russia is comes in. Western politicians are choosing instruments of  leverage that would overturn Western governments in a heartbeat if those sanctions were aimed against them. They’re choosing the “peaceful” weapon they consider the most terrible for themselves—a blow at the economy, a banking collapse, a payments crisis, the threat of social upheaval. Not a single Western cabinet minister could withstand such a blow. He would resign and forget about winning in new elections for a long time.

The problem is, though, that there aren’t any elections in Russia. The government and president are not risking suddenly not being elected next time. They are not responsible to the nation. They are irresponsible people in both form and substance. Nothing is holding them back: not a law, not the Constitution, not international law, not their obligations to other countries. The Russian regime is free — like a sniper shooting at random passersby from a window in his house.

Yes, economic sanctions may seriously degrade the situation in Russia and have a ruinous effect on ordinary citizens’ standard of living. But what would be a headache for a regime in the West, the regime in Russia simply won’t notice. The threat of social upheaval? For that they have the Investigative Committee, the FSB [Federal Security Service], and well-developed methods of political repression. People are going to fall ill or starve to death? Who does that upset! The present-day Russian leadership comprises the spiritual heirs of those who laid to rest millions of their fellow countrymen during collectivization and Stalin’s terror. They don’t consider other people’s lives; they safeguard only themselves and those close to them. They don’t even hide the fact that they miss the old totalitarianism and consider the USSR’s collapse the worst geopolitical catastrophe of all time. Can they be frightened by economic sanctions, let alone individual ones? They’ll weather those easily, but more than likely they’ll simply evade them or wait for the restrictions to be lifted.

The free world’s response to the aggression against Ukraine should be neither powerful nor exceptional. It should be appropriate. It’s useless to try to threaten a maniac shooting at passersby with fines and public censure. Only reciprocal force will stop him. And if he hasn’t started shooting yet, the real threat of reciprocal force might bring him to his senses. There are no other means, unfortunately. From Russia, all this seems obvious; the majority in the West think this is an excessive reaction. Different cultures, different political experience, different historical paths. A different kind of people in power, and they have different values and hopes. It’s a misunderstanding.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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