The Ukraine Conflict, Economic-Military Power Balances, and Economic Sanctions: Lessons from the Past for Future EU Policies

Written by | Monday, June 29th, 2015

Christopher Davis (Fundación Real Instituo Elcano)

There are many discussions about what Europe should do to respond adequately to the current situation in Ukraine. If we take a look at some historical parallels, we could find a rather straightforward solution. Similarly as today, during the Cold War, the United States and Europe imposed sanctions on the then-Soviet Union. Some of the sanctions were not strictly implemented by all countries, especially when energy was at stake, while others lasted for only a brief period of time. The Soviet Union subsequently responded to those sanctions by introducing its own punitive measures, such as embargo or espionage. Thanks to the latter, the block was able to obtain technologies that had been denied by the West. Despite all obstacles, the communist state managed to become a major economic powerhouse and the second biggest military superpower. The Soviet Union in the end collapsed mostly because of internal problems, military over-expenditure and discontent simmering among its citizens. The best thing the European Union could do now is if it disassociated its own sanctions away from those of the United States. Europe’s economic ties with Russia are much more important than those of the U.S. Moreover, Washington imposed disproportional conditions such as the uncompromised return of the Crimea to Ukraine, which is something Russia will never be willing to accept.

Another example can be found in the 1970s. The United States was then unsuccessfully providing frail regimes throughout the Third World with arms and weapons. When the regimes failed, the supplied arms often fell into the hands of the foes, which was the case of Vietnam in 1973, Ethiopia in 1974 and Nicaragua and Iran in 1979. NATO’s potential decision to help arm Ukraine would be a similar mistake. American weapons can be efficient if they are well maintained and used by qualified soldiers. However, the performance of Ukraine’s military forces has so far been rather unsatisfactory, at least in the first two active phases of the current conflict. Therefore, it is unlikely that they could manage to properly handle U.S. military equipment. Moreover, the Russian intelligence agencies would not have any difficulties getting the information about the deployment and the number of any weapons supplied by the NATO. Therefore, Europe should discourage the United States from any military intervention in the Ukrainian conflict.

(The study can be downloaded here)

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