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Confronting war, rethinking sanctions

Summary:
So war is back in Europe, in its most brutal form. A country with 45 million inhabitants is being invaded by its neighbour with three times the population and eight times the weapons. Looking at it from a distance, one might be tempted to compare the situation to the border wars which opposed France and Germany three times between 1870 and 1945. Russia considers Crimea and the Donbass to be its property, as did Germany with Alsace and Moselle. However, there are several key differences. The demographic and military imbalance is even more marked this time (Germany was 60% more populated than France in 1870, 1914 and 1940), and the authorities in Kiev have already indicated that they are ready to discuss the political status of the disputed territories, while respecting the rights of the

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So war is back in Europe, in its most brutal form. A country with 45 million inhabitants is being invaded by its neighbour with three times the population and eight times the weapons. Looking at it from a distance, one might be tempted to compare the situation to the border wars which opposed France and Germany three times between 1870 and 1945. Russia considers Crimea and the Donbass to be its property, as did Germany with Alsace and Moselle.

However, there are several key differences. The demographic and military imbalance is even more marked this time (Germany was 60% more populated than France in 1870, 1914 and 1940), and the authorities in Kiev have already indicated that they are ready to discuss the political status of the disputed territories, while respecting the rights of the populations concerned. In absolute terms, one could imagine a democratic and peaceful process, as much as possible on such sensitive issues. The problem is that the Russian state is using this border conflict as a pretext to invade and destroy the whole country and to challenge the very existence of the Ukrainian state. From this point of view, we are closer to the German invasion of the Second World War than to the confrontations of 1870-1871 or 1914-1918.

The Western response to this dramatic situation has so far been totally insufficient. In particular, European countries have the means to immediately stop Russian gas and oil supplies. A German academic study has just demonstrated that an immediate halt to imports would cost a maximum of between 2% and 3% of German GDP. These hydrocarbons should never have been burned and are now financing the destruction of Ukraine. It is time to leave them in the ground. If we don’t act immediately and radically, we may well regret it bitterly.

On military aid, the US and Poland had promised planes to Ukrainian pilots to defend themselves against Russian bombing, but then changed their minds. Overall, this is probably the first conflict in history where economically and militarily much more powerful countries (NATO countries collectively have ten times the GDP of Russia, and five times the airforce capacity) have announced in advance that they will not intervene, no matter how much human or material destruction there is on Ukrainian soil. In 1853, during the Crimean War, France and the United Kingdom had gone to defeat the Russian empire in order to contain its expansion to the south. The disproportion of forces between the West and Russia is even greater today, and the choice is to do nothing.

The explanation most often given is that the nuclear threat now renders the conventional weapons gap inoperative and prevents the use of conventional weapons. This argument is not entirely convincing and will require some explanation. If taken literally, it would imply that we would also have to stand idly by in the face of a similar invasion of other territories, no matter how destructive.

The most convincing explanation for this military hesitancy is that the European powers remain deeply traumatised by the cycle of nationalistic and genocidal self-destruction they experienced between 1914 and 1945, and have decided since 1945 to turn to the weapons of law, economics and justice. This is basically a positive development, up to a certain point, and on condition that these new weapons are fully used.

This implies not only an immediate end to the financing of the Russian state through hydrocarbon purchases, but also a complete rethink of the functioning of economic sanctions, which today have a far greater impact on millions of ordinary Russians than on the small oligarchic and kleptocratic class on which the regime relies. It is claimed that the sanctions are aimed at the oligarchs, but the truth is that only a few hundred people are affected, without systematic control and with multiple loopholes, whereas tens of thousands of Russian fortunes invested in Western financial and real estate circuits should be targeted.

The stakes are high, not only to bring the Putin regime to its knees, but also to convince Russian and international opinion that the great speeches on justice and democracy are not empty words. In both Africa and Asia, more than half of the countries (and three quarters of the world’s population and GDP by 2100) have abstained at the UN. Western countries are suspected of forgetting all their past invasions and thinking as always only of defending their interests and domination. The problem is that the legal and financial system put in place by the West for several decades is primarily aimed at protecting the wealthy, wherever they come from, at the expense of others.

If an ordinary Russian loses half of his pension or salary because of the fall in the rouble and inflation caused by the sanctions, then there is no recourse, no court where he can complain. On the other hand, if you want to deprive an oligarch with 100 million euros of half his fortune, then there are multiple procedures to challenge the decision, and very often you don’t pay anything. We are so used to this that we don’t pay attention to it any more, but it is actually a totally biased and asymmetric rule of law. It is by going much further in law and justice that Western countries will be able to contribute to building a post-militaristic and post-colonial world.

Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty (7 May 1971) is a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality. He is a professor (directeur d'études) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), associate chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial professor at the London School of Economics new International Inequalities Institute.

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