Why Did Putin Decide to Invade Ukraine?

It’s impossible to say for certain what could have stopped Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But it is possible to situate the war in recent historical context and game out its geopolitical and economic consequences, including the effects of heavy sanctions.

It seems now that Vladimir Putin was keeping his plan to invade Ukraine a secret from almost everyone, even in Russia. (Dimitro Sevastopol / Pixabay)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Nearly one month ago, Russia shocked the world by launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As people all over the world scramble for a foothold of understanding in this era-defining conflict, host of the Jacobin podcast The Dig Dan Denvir sat down with Nick Mulder and Sophie Pinkham on March 10, 2022, to discuss the war, its origins, how it’s being perceived by Ukrainians, Russians, Americans, and Europeans, and the geopolitical ramifications of the Western response, particularly heavy sanctions.

Sophie Pinkham is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. She has written about Russian and Ukrainian politics for the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the New Left Review, and elsewhere.

Nick Mulder is a professor of modern European history at Cornell University. He writes about international politics and economics for a variety of magazines and newspapers and is the author of the new book The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.


DD

I was, erroneously, way too skeptical that Russia would mount a full-scale invasion because Ukrainians themselves seemed so very skeptical. Incredulous American headlines portrayed the citizens of Kiev conducting themselves with unreal normalcy and calm. Even in the days leading up to the invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky insisted to the international community that talk of war only made its prospect more likely. Why did so many Ukrainians believe that this wouldn’t happen?

SP

A lot of Russians didn’t think it would happen, either — with some exceptions. From the Ukrainian side, there were probably several things going on. Many Ukrainians have been through so much already that they’ve become a bit inured to a constant sense of danger.

Certainly, some Ukrainians were expecting it and preparing for it. I was just reading an interesting article by Tim Judah in the New York Review of Books that was filed six hours before Russia invaded Ukraine. He writes about how, in Odessa, there was target practice and preparation for the possibility of invasion. Some people expected it, but a lot of people didn’t.

I often think of a close friend of mine in Kiev, whose mother, whatever happens, always says, “It’s not as bad as Chernobyl” and refuses to react, which is perhaps emblematic of a certain mentality: when you’ve been through so much, you are less inclined to panic. A lot of people in Ukraine had reached a similar conclusion to a lot of Russia specialists, both foreign and within Russia, who evaluated the situation and felt that it would simply be so irrational and almost insane for Vladimir Putin to launch a full-scale invasion that they couldn’t believe it.

A lot of people believed that he might do some cyberattacks, meddle, reignite the conflict in the Donbas, and so on, but the thought of him invading Kiev, up until he did, seemed unimaginable to most people.

NM

I’ve been in contact with friends and journalists in Kiev and Moscow who had a sense of foreboding that things were definitely not going in the right direction in Russia, particularly in the last few months. But that still doesn’t add up to any realistic expectation that something as crazy as this could happen. The first few days after it happened, we were both really asking ourselves, “How could we have misjudged this? How were we lulled into the sense that this was impossible?”

In particular, there’s been a buildup over so many months — extremely highly documented. There was a very conscious effort on the part of Western governments who had intelligence about that military buildup to try and expose it to the public, which is clearly part of making it more difficult for Putin to commit aggression.

There’s also residual skepticism about the abilities of military and intelligence experts, who clearly could see these things. There’s a sense that even though they have a lot of technical skill, these experts were maybe missing something political. These people know a lot about military equipment, but they’re not necessarily people who have special insight into the minutiae and subtleties of Russo-Ukrainian relations.

The difficult thing is to try and come up with an analysis that puts all of those things together. In retrospect, this was staring us in the face, but the political decision to do it didn’t really make sense to us. That’s because we were starting by looking at it politically, rather than militarily or technically. It made it hard for us to wrap our heads around it.

SP

A lot of Russian independent journalists, for example, didn’t think it was going to happen. They thought it was a bluff. It didn’t make sense. It seems now that Putin was keeping his plan a secret from almost everyone and that there was no preparation or advanced warning for what was going to happen, even, it seems in relatively high levels of the military — certainly in the different government structures, which were taken completely unaware.

This meant that journalists in Russia with sources in those places were skeptical that there could be an invasion — because how could you launch a full-on war without at least telling a few people? It seems to have been kept under wraps to an almost astonishing degree, with the caveat that, as Nick said, the troops and the military intelligence were staring us in the face.

The other unanswered question for me is Zelensky’s behavior right before the invasion, which was another reason I thought the United Sates couldn’t have definitive intelligence — because if they had such definitive intelligence, surely they would have shared it with the president of Ukraine, and he would have responded differently.

I still don’t know whether he did have access to that intelligence and, for some reason, chose to keep a stiff upper lip and hope until the end that Russia wouldn’t go through with the attack, or whether something was withheld from him. I don’t know if any Ukrainian investigative journalists have gotten to the bottom of that yet.

DD

Given the asymmetry in Ukrainian and Russian military capabilities, this war has often been compared to another set of twenty-first-century invasions — the ones that our country did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet there’s obviously a different texture to this conflict. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan led lives that were, in many respects, pretty different from ours in the United States and were portrayed as extremely different, profoundly other to Americans.

This, by contrast, is a supremely intimate war. That doesn’t mean there’s any sort of ethical difference. Both sorts of war are profoundly immoral, but it does mean that the war is being experienced in a certain way, both by Ukrainians and Russians. Many have relatives on the other side of the border, and there are deep cultural and historical ties. What does that all mean for how Ukrainians and Russians understand what’s happening right now?

SP

It obviously fuels the overwhelming outrage and shame that is felt by the segment of Russians who are fully aware of what’s going on and who haven’t been deceived, blinded, or hypnotized by the immense amount of propaganda that they are exposed to — and by, at this point, the final strangulation of any independent media in Russia.

It’s one thing, if you don’t have family or friends in Afghanistan, to be outraged about the US war in Afghanistan: no matter how disgusted you are by it, if you don’t have ties in that region, it’s geographically far away. It probably feels culturally far away. And this is a completely different thing. It’s your cousins being bombed, your former coworker being bombed. There’s so much movement back and forth between Russia and Ukraine, even post-2014. It has declined, but there’s still loads of movement as well as family ties.

And then there’s the physical proximity — it’s unbelievable. Bombs are dropped in Afghanistan, you read about it in the newspaper. You can’t see it from across the border. I was talking to someone in Belgorod, a Russian city on the border, just across from Kharkiv. That’s where a lot of the troops were gathering. You can see the explosions from there.

How you interpret these explosions, as a Russian person, depends on which propaganda you have succumbed to or whether you still have open communication with friends in Ukraine. So it varies. But the fact remains that you see the explosions; it’s an absolutely different experience of a war.

That goes back to the question of why people didn’t expect this. It’s much easier to sell your population on an unjust and pointless war that is prosecuted very far away, with people who have limited ties to the people you’re asking to fight the war. But such an intimate war is a much harder sell and is much more likely to provoke intense outrage and anger.

The flip side of that is that there are plenty of Russians who have believed the propaganda, who have become convinced that Ukraine is a Nazi country and has to be de-Nazified by the noble Russian army. To be deceived by that when it’s the neighboring country, when odds are you could probably find a Ukrainian friend of a friend, at most, to email about it or call on the phone to discuss it — they would tell you that this is a horrifying war, it’s a monstrous invasion, everything Putin is saying is a lie, and you still believe in the Russian TV propaganda — that’s a pretty unbelievable leap.

This also speaks to the overwhelming rage that a lot of Ukrainians are feeling. And that’s a historical rage, of course, but I think it also has to do with the intimate feeling of this violence.

NM

One thing about the experience that has stood out to me, as a European person, is the way in which the massive refugee crisis caused by this war has been perceived very differently and has led to a totally different reaction from almost all countries in the European Union compared to previous refugee movements. It’s really quite striking.

If you go back only a few months to October and November of 2021 — this is less than half a year ago — you’ll remember the big standoff at the Polish-Belarusian border and on the border between Belarus and Lithuania. At that point, Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, moved a large number of Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans, and other Middle Eastern refugees, gave them cheap flights, and essentially used them to test the eastern border of the European Union.

It was very clear that the same prejudice of many Europeans toward Middle Eastern immigrants — which was already on display in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war in 2015, when a million refugees entered Europe — was coming back. Last fall, it was striking how quickly the Polish government, which is itself in the process of a major cleansing of its own civil society of liberal elements — bans on abortion, incredible curtailments of women’s rights, and a nasty politicization of the judiciary — was, in one or two weeks’ time, portrayed as the Eastern rampart against dangerous refugees weaponized by the Belarusian dictator, when for many months it had been cast by the most well-thinking people in Europe as the biggest threat to the rule of law in Europe.

That was going on just five months ago. Now, in the last two weeks, two million Ukrainians have entered the EU. The numbers and the speed at which this exodus has happened are astonishing — not just how quickly they’ve been accommodated across multiple countries but how many people in Western Europe are organizing mutual aid groups, doing enormous amounts of fundraising, and hiring vans to drive medical equipment to the borders of Poland and Belarus with Ukraine.

It’s an incredible world of difference. And it says something about the proximity that Europeans feel toward Ukraine. Since 2014, Ukrainians have cast their desires for a normal, stable life by wrapping themselves in the European flag, which is blue and yellow, like the Ukrainian one.

The way Europe deals with migrants has really stood out to me. And that obviously doesn’t at all mean that Ukrainians shouldn’t receive the kind of care and refuge that they are getting, which is really important and great. But I can imagine that it does feel painful to people from the Middle East and other Europeans who have had to fight and struggle tremendously to gain their right to acceptance in the European Union.

SP

It’s interesting to think back to when Russia was bombing Syria, when there was rhetoric about Putin weaponizing refugees — “He’s bombing Syria in order to send refugees to Europe to destabilize it” — language that I found extremely disturbing at the time. It’s interesting that this hasn’t been reactivated in any way with the Ukrainian refugee crisis. I’m glad that it hasn’t been reactivated, but it again shows very different perceptions of specifically Russian bombing campaigns in different countries that led to an influx of huge influx of refugees into Europe.

DD

During that whole recent Polish-Belarusian border crisis around refugees, there was a lot of reporting around Lukashenko’s weaponization of refugees against Poland and the EU and not very much recognition of the fact that Lukashenko could only weaponize refugees if Poland and Europe were so predisposed to see refugees as weapons and threats in the first place.

SP

Absolutely. And when you compare the numbers of refugees in the Ukrainian exodus now and the Belarusian refugee situation that happened a while back, the numbers are not even possible to compare. The numbers of Belarusian refugees were minuscule compared to what’s happening now, but the response is absolutely different.

One thing being discussed by some Ukrainian scholars that I know and by people more well-versed in Eastern European history and politics is the definition of whiteness, which is pretty capacious in this instance. But one does wonder if the openhearted welcome for Ukrainians will continue indefinitely, or whether, if people end up staying for a long time, if people end up settling long-term in Europe, and especially if they get EU working permits, people will feel less fervent in a few months and start remembering, for example, all the resentment of Polish workers after Poland joined the EU, which helped fuel Brexit, among other things. And whether people will relapse into a certain resentment of Slavs, which has a long history as well.

DD

The specter of the Polish plumber is a reminder that these racial and civilizational categories are not fixed in place. Many of us on the American left condemn Russia’s invasion while also recognizing the role that post–Cold War geopolitics, particularly NATO expansion, played in laying the groundwork for this present moment. But the political space here in the United States for making this sort of argument has become distressingly constrained.

Is it fair to say that for most Ukrainians, this sort of context is not discussable at all? Obviously, that would be far more understandable for them than it is for Americans who are not suffering from this war and yet are energetically stigmatizing all left-wing critiques.

NM

At this point, almost all the Ukrainians I know and speak to would probably say that that ship has sailed and that the time for discussing the politics of NATO expansion is long gone. Russia has attacked, and that’s all that matters at this point. So the people I know have absolutely no patience for that discussion.

For me, it’s been frustrating, first of all, to see the extreme polarization of this discussion and the unwillingness to accept any kind of middle ground. I don’t see why it’s so hard for people to accept that, in particular, the 2008 statements by George W. Bush about bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO made Russia angry. It’s not surprising that they made Russia angry. Any country in that schema of power in that scenario would probably have been made angry by that. It’s not surprising. It’s not an out-there leftist conspiracy theory to say that; it’s sort of obvious.

At the same time, this in no way justifies Putin’s behavior. And it also doesn’t fully explain Putin’s behavior. People knew that even though Bush had talked about Ukraine joining NATO, it was in the air that NATO was not really going to accept Ukraine, just as the EU was not going to accept Ukraine. To a significant extent, it was symbolic.

As many Ukrainians have been pointing out recently, no one has done more to make Ukrainian public opinion pro-NATO than Putin. It was vastly lower in, say, 2011 than it is now, when the overwhelming majority, according to the latest poll that I saw, wants to join NATO for extremely obvious reasons. Putin was ready to invade their country and to try to destroy it. Of course they want to join NATO.

For me, the most frustrating part of the story is the way that NATO and the United State put forth the idea that Ukraine could join NATO, which predictably enraged Russia, but didn’t let Ukraine join NATO. This was especially true of the US from the time of Bush’s statement, which many high officials at the time in the United States opposed. They knew it was provocative, and they were upset that he said it. The geographer Gerard Toal has a good book about this that gives the whole story in illuminating detail — it’s called Near Abroad.

My feeling has always been — and I also feel this way about the United States giving weapons to Ukraine or engaging in activities clearly intended to strengthen Ukraine’s military, but not that much — is that you should make the choice: either do it or don’t do it. This middle ground was the most dangerous place for Ukraine to be. To some extent, the events that we’ve seen over the last two weeks have borne out that idea.

If you’re gonna invite Ukraine to join NATO, you should let them join NATO promptly. You have to go all the way so that they can at least have the protection of NATO. But this idea of holding out that opportunity to NATO — for ideas that were really about US ideology and George W. Bush’s evangelical approach to all the nations of the world, regardless of geography and so forth — was in the United States’ best interest, and in Ukraine’s worst interest. Either invite them and make them part of NATO, so they’re protected; or don’t invite them, and then Russia will not be enraged.

I’m not even going to say that this would have stopped Russia from invading. The decision to invade Ukraine is not only so wrong, but also so irrational that it’s not clear to me that, even if the United States had signed a paper saying Ukraine can never, ever be in NATO, Putin wouldn’t have invaded. But all the same, I think it would have been fairer to Ukraine, and more rational from a geopolitical standpoint, to just pick one side early on rather than keeping them in this incredibly dangerous limbo.

DD

Given that these longstanding divisions among Ukrainians oriented toward Europe and NATO, others oriented toward Russia, and still others oriented toward neutrality have recently evaporated to a great extent, is this war constructing or reconstructing Ukrainian national identity in real time? And if so, what sort of national identity is being made?

SP

The national identity has probably changed since Maidan, and especially since the start of Russia’s aggression in 2014. That has caused a huge uptick in a sense of nationalism, a sense of patriotism, a sense of animosity towards Russia. Preference for speaking Ukrainian over Russian for political reasons has built up.

This is one of the things that Putin probably didn’t understand when he made this unbelievable plan. It’s built up a level of national feeling that contributes to the unbelievable solidarity, organization, and commitment to fighting to the bitter end that we’re seeing now in the resistance to the Russian invasion.

Obviously, this is a level of militarization that was not seen in 2014. And it’s always a question how that will transform a country. Of course, Ukraine has already had some issues with the far-right militias that were formed in 2014 in response to the Russian invasion, and those included some very unsavory elements. That was a very small faction of the Ukrainian response to the Russian invasion, but even a small faction that is militarized and heavily armed can cause political problems.

Now, I haven’t heard anything about those far-right elements so far in the resistance, but I think that, unfortunately, the sudden, extreme militarization of a country can often have very dangerous knock-on effects, especially when — and I feel almost guilty criticizing anything about Ukraine at this moment of crisis — but Ukraine is, after all, an extremely corrupt country. There have been popular movements aimed at rooting out corruption, and they have not met with a lot of success.

It’s a very poor country as well. It has all sorts of economic problems. And when you inject a very large number of weapons into that kind of situation, and you have this extreme militarization, I do worry about what will happen down the road. Of course, the Russian invasion is the primary threat right now, but I wonder what will happen, even once the Russian invasion, I hope, ends. And if some kind of peace is brokered, there will still be so many guns on the street.

There are already some problems with the civilian defenders. In Kiev, they just distributed guns to anyone who asked for one on the second day of the invasion. Now they have all of these random people with weapons. There have been friendly fire incidents; people get confused. I was reading an article by Shaun Walker in the Guardian where he told a story about this guy from Dagestan who joined the Territorial Defense Forces in Kiev but looks like he’s from the Caucasus. Apparently, he can no longer leave his apartment without being escorted by the other guys from the Territorial Defense Forces, because he’s at risk of being shot as a Chechen. There are, famously, Chechen forces who have come to help with the Russian invasion.

One does wonder if this is going to end up in a Balkan scenario. I have a friend from high school who is from Kosovo; he has a childhood memory from after the wars of the ’90s, when they finally organized a weapons amnesty. His family was not involved in fighting, but people had just accumulated a lot of weapons for self-defense. He remembers going with a shopping cart of weapons with his mom on the bus to drop them off at the amnesty point. I certainly hope that it doesn’t get to that point in Ukraine, but I think it’s something to consider and possibly be concerned about down the line.

NM

This is a huge war, and I do think the Yugoslav wars and the wars in Chechnya are important precedents that people should keep in mind. There’s a discourse right now among a certain group of Western liberals that this is a major geopolitical conflict, the likes of which have not been seen in seventy years; that World War II was the last time that we saw fighting on this scale. Understandably, Russia is involved, so you can see why people make that claim, but there is a real erasure of the wars in both Yugoslavia and Chechnya, both of which killed more than 100,000 people over the course of several years.

This war is already killing thousands of people, too. But those wars were in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they’re still extremely significant on that scale. I also worry about seeing some of the dynamics from those wars if the war in Ukraine drags on. One of the big misconceptions is to assume that this incredible unity among Ukrainians will persist. There are genuine political differences that exist; war doesn’t erase politics, and particularly when everyone gets weapons, you have new means with which to pursue politics.

Over time, as the decisions that the Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression faces become more acute, it’s definitely possible to think of certain groups making local deals in the cities that are now encircled in the east, north, and south of the country. In order to save local people there, they’ll quite likely strike some sort of deal with the invader to allow food through — perhaps even sell and engage in trade with them. Those certain dynamics were very common in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, over the course of several years where you had certain groups — Croats and Bosnians, for example — who would trade with Serbs that their own ethnic brothers and sisters in other areas were fighting.

The local politics of this conflict, particularly because Ukraine is a very large country, are likely to get much more complex over time. It’s going to chafe against the narrative of national unity. And it’s going to lead to problems for the Ukrainian political cause, because it means that it becomes much more difficult over time to bring everyone who is fighting under the Ukrainian flag to agree to a ceasefire or some sort of compromised negotiated settlement that will end this war, if that is even in the cards.

The danger of political division and fractions over time is supercharged by the flood of weapons and the size of the country. Holding this all together is Zelensky, very much a compromised figure. These are the sort of dynamics that, based on Yugoslavia and Chechnya, we can probably expect.

DD

This widespread sense of deeply felt solidarity with Ukrainians is, on one level, moving, and it’s happening for obvious reasons. People are suffering brutality at the hands of an invading Russian army. It’s not hard to see which side is the good side and which side is the bad one.

But on the other hand, I’ve encountered people who know nothing about politics yet who suddenly feel so moved and have such strong feelings right now. I don’t want to disparage people for feeling solidarity with Ukrainians. I wish people felt a more universal sense of solidarity with people who suffer and are oppressed. But this global sentiment must be difficult to watch from Yemen or Palestine.

What do you make of this social media–mediated mass solidarity that we’re seeing? It’s humane and nice, but also kind of weird and militaristic. Is it just that Ukrainians are white, or is it more that Russia is the enemy? What makes this war so relatable and resonant to Americans?

SP

It’s partly that Americans are so well-prepared to see Russia as their enemy, which is not to say that what Russia is doing is not monstrous. It’s absolutely monstrous, but Americans have not been trained to despise Saudi Arabia. That’s a country that you could find quite a lot to criticize in, especially if you are in Yemen.

Americans — and especially liberal Americans, especially after the Donald Trump–Russiagate years — have been trained to almost obsessively hate Russia and to see Putin in particular as a global supervillain. They’re very prepared to be on the side of whoever is not Putin. But that said — and I think the Syrian case demonstrates this as well — it’s a lot easier when the victims are Europeans, when it’s people who are read as white, even though they would have been read as racially other by Adolf Hitler, for example.

Then there’s the fact of geography. Especially for Europeans, it’s so close by; it doesn’t feel safely far away in the way that wars in the Middle East do, although they aren’t that far away. And there’s the symbolism of war in Europe and war involving Russia and another European country, which obviously is easily linked to World War II, which remains the totemic war.

It also has to do with the media element, though not so much the spontaneous social media element. The coverage of Ukraine in the US media, in the English media, and, to my knowledge, in a lot of European media is pretty unbelievable. . . . I don’t want to say “one-sided,” because again, there’s no justification for what Russia is doing. But I read a newspaper cover to cover this weekend, and I felt like the Ukrainian ministry of information wrote it. A lot of the coverage feels more like Ukrainian propaganda. I’m using the word “propaganda” in a fairly neutral way, but it felt more like Ukrainian war propaganda than like journalism.

When people are exposed to that, they respond. A lot of people are not very critical news consumers in the United States or in Europe, as in Russia, although the Russian media is vastly more mendacious than the American or British versions. But people were primed by past events and past media coverage of Russia, and now they’re being whipped into a very fervent state by the coverage of the conflict.

People have also commented on how Ukrainian military resistance to this invasion is portrayed as absolutely different from military resistance or armed resistance in Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine people in Afghanistan being celebrated for frantically making Molotov cocktails and throwing them at people, as is happening in Ukraine now. That phenomenon was evident during Maidan as well, with the violent elements of the protest being so much more acceptable than they would have been in other contexts.

DD

In, say, the West Bank.

SP

Especially in the West Bank. Speaking of the West Bank, Ukraine, ever since Maidan, has very explicitly identified with Israel and tried to make parallels between its situation and Israel’s situation, which I’ve always found to be extremely bizarre — because in that scenario, Russia and Palestine are equated. It really doesn’t hang together at all, but I’ve heard it over and over.

I’ve always wondered whether it has to do not so much with any similarity in the two situations — because I think they are so absolutely different that it’s laughable to compare them — but whether it has to do with an aspiration on Ukraine’s part. Ukraine has historically been a very important recipient, like Israel, of US aid. I’ve wondered if that comparison has to do with Ukraine hoping to achieve the same level of favored status that Israel has achieved in American politics.

DD

Let’s turn to sanctions and the economic dimensions of geopolitics. What are the sanctions currently in place, and specifically, how do the various particular sanctions rank in terms of the impact that they’re having or will have on the Russian economy?

NM

At the moment, a whole slew of sanctions have come into place. The best place to start is in 2014: the year of Maidan, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the start of the war in the Donbas. At that time, the United States and the European Union began to impose sanctions on Russia. They started to restrict the access of the Russian government to international debt markets. And they began to put sanctions on the ability of the Russian oil and gas industry to get long-term capital from Western investors. Long-term joint ventures were curtailed.

They were quite gradual sanctions. There were also a number of sanctions on individuals — some oligarchs, people related to the Russian military-industrial complex. In years since, there have been a number of other ones on Russian arms exports and Russian mercenaries, but those are basically the sanctions. They were definitely a form of economic pressure exerted on Russia. They had an effect on Russia’s long-term growth rate, but they were always constructed with an eye to making sure that the European-Russian economic relationship could still survive.

This was a compromise by the two sides of the North Atlantic Alliance, between the United States and Europe. It was also an attempt to try to lower the amount of capital and money that the Russians had at their disposal in the long run, particularly in the oil and gas industry, to cap how far they could expand in that realm.

In the last month now, a number of new sanctions have been added. The most important ones are probably the fact that a number of Russia’s large financial institutions have been cut from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network, which is the messaging system that international banks use to send money across borders. That’s a pretty significant step. The only time that this had happened in the past was against Iran, which was cut from the SWIFT network in 2011.

SWIFT is a private company; it’s based in Belgium. The European and American governments’ decision to do this was a pretty significant step, because it’s meant to be a kind of neutral, apolitical, neoliberal institution that doesn’t do politics. But they’ve used it as a mechanism for economic exclusion.

The other significant sanctions that we’ve seen include a ban on exporting high-tech components to Russia. That will affect their ability to have advanced Western technology, particularly microchips and semiconductors — not just for their military industry but also for all sorts of other manufacturing industries, like for airplanes and large vehicles.

One of the most significant set of sanctions is the freezing of the Russian central bank’s foreign exchange reserve, all of the foreign currencies that are located in the jurisdiction of the United States, Japan, and European countries — the euro, the dollar, the yen, and the British pound deposits in the central bank of Russia. On top of that, there’s a number of sanctions on individual oligarchs; a number of measures have been taken against Putin and people around him. But those are the main sanctions in place right now.

SP

With regard to the sanctions and also to the decisions by individual companies not to do business with Russia for either practical or ideological reasons, the large number of Russians fleeing Russia right now are the unfortunate collateral damage in this process. I’ve been working on a story about this, doing interviews all this week with people, and they’re being terribly affected. They’re caught between two fires, because they are in imminent danger, especially journalists who have broken the laws and spoken about the war. You don’t even have to speak against the war; you just have to mention the war to be at risk of a very long prison sentence, at this point.

People are fleeing; they’re abandoning everything they have. They don’t have access to their money because there are tight restrictions on what you’re allowed to take out of Russia. And, of course, you know, you can’t gather all your assets when you’re leaving the next day in haste, but now a lot of them are finding themselves in Tbilisi, Istanbul, wherever else, and, they face a situation where they can’t even pay for their hotel.

They don’t know what’s going to happen next, because Russian bank cards are ceasing to work anywhere except in Russia, because Visa and Mastercard will no longer service Russian cards. There are already some unfortunate victims, not only of Putin’s laws, but also of these sanctions and of the movement to cancel all economic ties with Russia.

NM

This has worked, and the central bank sanctions are the most significant of the entire Western sanctions package, because they have an immediate effect on the stability of the ruble, the Russian currency. One way to think of it is that the West has effectively engineered a financial crisis of a kind that one would have seen in the 1990s in an Asian emerging market economy or in a developing country — things that countries like Brazil, India, or South Africa have gone through in recent years.

This is what these measures are now putting Russia through, because without these central bank reserves, the Russian central bank cannot defend the value of the ruble. Over the last week, it’s fallen by more than 40 percent. And that immediately increases inflation; it makes things inside Russia much more expensive to import.

On top of that, there’s been a huge private sector boycott. Some people call this self-sanctioning, because it’s basically an overreaction by the global business sector to the measures announced by the government. The degree to which it’s happened was probably not foreseen by the designers of these sanctions, but it’s taken place. And it’s added to the effect of the sanctions, precisely because the measures were taken so quickly and so many of them were piled on within the space of a few days.

There was a panic reaction by the global business sector. Now, over the last week, an enormous number of very important Western companies in all sorts of sectors — car manufacturing, tech — even McDonald’s closed its famous restaurant in central Moscow, which was one of the first Western fast-food restaurants to open in the Soviet Union in 1991.

The corporate presence of Western investment in Russia is now rapidly being drained from the country. In some sense, that’s an overreaction to these sanctions, because not all the sanctions directly impede those businesses from doing business. For reputational reasons, they don’t want to be seen as being present in a country that’s committing such a heinous war of aggression against Ukraine.

But I think it’s also out of fear that, if the West took these sectors so quickly, there are probably going to be more sanctions coming down the pipeline. These businesses are all withdrawing; they’re fearful of future sanctions, and they’re worried about their reputations. You have the combined effect of an international state-driven sanctions campaign and a private sector boycott or self-sanctioning tendency coming together, putting a uniquely harsh squeeze on the Russian economy and the Russian population.

DD

How and why did these sanctions end up being so much stronger than almost anyone had imagined just days before they were put in place? Was it the tenacity of the Ukrainian resistance that continues to keep it a live issue?

NM

Some of the reporting that I’ve read about this suggests that Zelensky himself played a pretty important role in directly appealing to European leaders. The United States always has fewer qualms about imposing sanctions, because it suffers less as a very large and relatively self-contained economy. In many respects, it suffers much less blowback from sanctions than most European and Asian economies. It was always the Europeans who would have to be convinced, but apparently Zelensky himself was put on a video to European leaders and delivered an impassioned plea that convinced many of them that they should go much further than they had been prepared to go.

The other part of it was a panic reaction; many people were so taken aback by the Russian invasion that they felt something truly powerful was needed to respond. The unintended effect, or the only partially intended effect, was that the fear of the leaders in European countries about the Russian invasion led them to impose a very severe sanctions regime, and the speed with which that happened spread this fear to the international business world. This snowballing of taking more severe actions than intended spread from the public to the private sector.

SP

The process was also accelerated by the synergy of copious, extremely sympathetic media coverage as well as intense enthusiasm for the cause on social media. I don’t think that the sanctions would have advanced so quickly if we didn’t have social media in particular. I think that they got a really astonishing amount of momentum thanks to that phenomenon.

DD

How are these sanctions, and sanctions in general, supposed to work? What do the governments that apply them hope to accomplish? In reality, how do they work?

NM

That’s one of the big questions right now, because there are formal, written aims that European and American leaders have stated, which have to do with an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, withdrawal of old troops and equipment from the territory of Ukraine, and respect for Ukrainian independence and sovereignty.

All of that sounds pretty obvious on paper, although when you get into the technical details, Russia has technically been committing aggression against Ukraine by annexing the Crimea and fomenting the separatism in the Donbas for eight years. Does withdrawal from Ukraine also mean that Russia will have to depart from those regions? If so, it’s going to make it much more difficult to envision that they’re actually going to do what’s needed to lift the sanctions.

There is a willingness at this point to formulate clear goals for what these sanctions are meant to do, partially because they play very well with Western audiences. They are clear signs that the West is taking a very firm stand, not just supporting the Ukrainians, but punishing Putin and punishing the Russians, who are in some cases deemed not to have resisted Putin adequately.

There are all sorts of theories here; there isn’t one coherent one, because these sanctions allow people to project their own pet theories of political change onto government policy. There are definitely people who hope that these sanctions are going to bring down Putin and that they’re going to cause direct regime change.

The historical record of sanctions doing that is extremely uninspiring, and it actually suggests that it’s almost impossible to do with sanctions. There are vanishingly few cases of that ever working. In recent decades, the cases of Iraq, Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea all show that it’s going to be difficult to do that, especially because Russia is bigger and more powerful than most of those states.

The more limited aim of having a withdrawal, I think, is potentially feasible. But again, it needs to be made clear: What does Russia need to do in order to get some of these sanctions lifted? What would constitute a withdrawal? Would a ceasefire be enough, and a partial withdrawal? What’s the specific nature of those demands?

This is the most cynical, bleak vision of what these sanctions are meant to do, but some people actually don’t expect that the Russians are going to respond. The sanctions are not going to cause change; they’re simply meant as a weapon with which to weaken Russia as a great power and to limit Russia’s ability to do harm. There’s not any realistic expectation that they’re going to change things.

Those are the three main theories on sanctions. At the moment, most leaders will still say, particularly in Europe, that they are pursuing an end to the conflict, but in the United States, though also in Europe, more and more people are embracing the regime change and the long-run-damage schools of how sanctions are supposed to work.

DD

There’s a pervasive sense that sanctions are a risk-free, or at least a low-risk, way to deal with adversaries and enemies. How did we come to think of sanctions as a nonviolent alternative to war rather than as economic warfare?

NM

Part of it has to do with the fact that in the twentieth century, we had a number of experiences that have become the epitome of human violence: things like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, visions of total war, the Eastern front, Barbarossa, Vietnam, aerial bombardment, napalm, chemical weapons, the Gulf Wars, Somalia, and the genocides in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Those, for most people, are the meaning of what war is about. Sanctions, by comparison, simply don’t seem to register on the spectrum with the same degree of intensity. Partially, it’s the incredibly horrific nature of warfare in the last one hundred years that’s made it easier for sanctions to pass themselves off as such, despite the fact that they originate in the practice of economic blockade during war time.

Particularly in the current moment, there’s a widespread reluctance to put actual Western troops into faraway places. The highly interventionist phase of the “war on terror” has now been replaced by a much sleeker, low-cost, drones, special-forces-intelligence, and proxy-outsourcing phase of the war on terror. Sanctions fit into that paradigm of using measures that have a relatively lower visibility to publics in the West but that can still project force in a powerful way.

These two things — our memories and our public culture of what real war is, and the way in which leaders in Western democracies have come to see direct military intervention as politically costly — explain quite a large part of why we see sanctions the way that we do.

End Mark

About the Author

Sophie Pinkham is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. She has written about Russian and Ukrainian politics for the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the New Left Review, and elsewhere.

Nick Mulder is a professor of modern European history at Cornell University. He writes about international politics and economics for a variety of magazines and newspapers and is the author of the new book The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War.

About the Interviewer

Daniel Denvir is the author of All-American Nativism and the host of The Dig on Jacobin Radio.

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