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Biden’s sanctions punishes peoples who have nothing to do with Ukraine war

Apr 20,2022 - Last updated at Apr 20,2022

The Biden administration has reverted to a policy toward Russia originally designed in 1947 by the US State Department's George Kennan to "contain" the defunct Soviet Union. This doctrine, spelled out in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs, called for the West to adopt "a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies”.

He urged applying "counterforce" to various shifting locations to resist “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” and the spread of Communism.

This controversial policy was criticised as early as 1952 by John Foster Dulles, secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration — who favoured  a "roll-back" of Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe and the "liberation" of Soviet bloc countries.

Both approaches involved constant pressure on the Soviet Union despite the 1944 "Percentages Agreement" reached without US consultation by British Prime Minister Winston and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on the division of influence in five key countries. The deal granted the Soviet Union sway in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania while the West was to hold Greece and the sides were set to contest Yugoslavia where Communist partisan commander Josip Broz Tito took power. He broke with Stalin and became a founder of Non-Alignment along with India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The world has moved on since Kennan's policy of "containment", the Soviet Union has not only been rolled-back but collapsed in 1989-1991. Countries which were a part of the Soviet bloc have been freed of Moscow's iron rule.

From 1990 Russian leaders were given assurances that NATO did not intend to expand by admitting former countries in the Soviet sphere of control and influence.  US Secretary of State James Baker (1989-92) pledged that the alliance would “not [move] one inch eastward” during a meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9th, 1990.

This was the first and most explicit of the assurances given to Russia to ease its fear of being surrounded by NATO. Ex-US Central Intelligence Agency Director Robert Gates (1991-93) was critical of "pressing ahead with expansion of NATO eastward when Gorbachev and others were led to believe it wouldn't happen". Among the other Western leaders who expressed their opposition to NATO expansion were President George H.W. Bush and West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. The US and its NATO allies did not honour this commitment. If they had there would be no war in Ukraine now.

In March 1999, hard-line US Secretary of State Madeline Albright (1997-2001), welcomed Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO in the alliance's initial expansion. This started the NATO ball rolling eastwards to the borders of Ukraine and Russia.

Ahead of this event, Kennan had warned that the expansion of NATO into Central Europe was "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era". Along with other experts on Russia, he quite rightly believed that this policy would make an enemy of Russia rather than cultivate a working partnership.

Last month, Gates wrote in the Washington Post, “Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has ended America’s thirty-year holiday from history,” i.e., the US return to great-power conflict. US President Joe Biden intends to do this on both the military and politico-economic fronts.

His administration is doing its utmost to arm Ukraine in order to defeat Moscow's offensive and roll-back Russian forces. This may be a protracted effort lasting months which will further devastate a battered Ukraine and risk US/NATO clashes with Russia. The outcome is foregone. Despite Ukrainian vows not to cede any territory, Russia will continue to occupy the Donbas region and link it up through Mariupol to Crimea, which Russia has annexed.

This would mean that Russia has achieved the fundamental military objective of its campaign at great expense to itself, Ukraine, and the rest of the world. Furthermore, Russia would secure its political aim by denying Ukraine membership in NATO which has been renounced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

However, these gains would come at a high price. Russia could face NATO recruitment of neutral Finland and Sweden, a development which can only destabilise the Baltic Sea region.

The Biden administration also seeks to contain Moscow by isolating and imposing long-standing punitive sanctions on Russia. This effort has already met strong opposition from China and India, the two most populous countries on earth, as well as Saudi Arabia, the prime mover  —  along with Russia — in the cartel of oil exporting states (OPEC+).  The US gets away with slamming killer sanctions on Syria, Iran, Myanmar and other minor players on the global stage but cannot count on the backing of major players like China and India when sanctioning Russia. They have been drawn into global interdependence and the free flow of goods and produce. They do not agree with the US stance and are not going to acquiesce in the wrecking of the current world economic order.

The most punitive of the sanctions imposed on Russia involve the banking sector and have impacts on countries dealing with Moscow. Foreign currency assets of the country's central bank have been frozen to deny access to $630 billion in reserves. This measure initially caused the value of the Russian rouble to fall by 22 per cent but when Moscow responded by insisting that all payments for its oil and gas be made in roubles, the currency recovered. Foreign branches of Russian banks have had their assets frozen or closed and some have been suspended from the international money ransfer system. In reaction, Russia could default on paying some of its debts.

Russia's GDP was $1.7 trillion in 2021, slightly larger than that of Australia. Its economy is inefficient and its public sector bloated but Russia's position in world trade looms large. Russia is the biggest exporter of natural gas, the third biggest producer of oil, the fifth largest of steel, the fourth largest of electricity and the third largest exporter of wheat. Russia's customers as well as Russians are already suffering from deprivation due to the war and sanctions.

Biden’s call for lasting sanctions can only punish countries and peoples who have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine and depend, to some extent, on Russia for essential fuel and food supplies at prices they can afford. The US cannot replace Russia, which must not only end the war on Ukraine but be returned to the global economy as soon as possible.

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