Putin’s threat to weaponise energy neutralises West’s response

Sanctions on banks and oligarchs are paltry response to Russia’s belligerence

The interconnectiveness of the global economy should, in theory, act as a deterrent to hostile military action. The potential loss of trade, the likely economic and financial sanctions, should be too high a price to pay for the aggressor. Russia's brutal assault on Ukraine, its seeming indifference to world opinion or any possible blowback and the West's entirely impotent response appear to prove the opposite.

In this case it’s the aggressor’s economic footprint that has neutralised the global response, facilitating an attack that could rewrite the post-Cold War security order.

"Punitive", "severe", "the toughest ever" are just some of the terms western leaders used to describe their sanctions on Russia but they were anything but. They appear carefully crafted to avoid a major economic fallout and predicated on a fear of retaliatory action from Russia.

The idea of bouncing Russia out of Swift, the global payments system, was initially jettisoned after objections from Germany and Italy, which are fearful that Russia would respond by shutting off gas supplies. Russia supplies about 30 per cent of the European Union's energy needs and the fear is that Russian premier Vladimir Putin will weaponise energy in response to more biting sanctions.

The United States, the EU and Britain have now agreed to block "selected" Russian banks from the system.

Economic self-interest

The fact that the international community has so far confined its response to limiting the operations of Russian banks and freezing the assets of a few high-profile oligarchs in the face of such belligerence – albeit there are now plans to clampdown on Russia’s central bank’s access to the country’s foreign currency reserves – is an extraordinary reflection of the economic self-interest that prevails and must feel like betrayal in Kyiv.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was persuaded to surrender its nuclear missiles. It had found itself – all of sudden – independent and the third-largest nuclear power in the world. Moscow had stationed thousands of nuclear missiles on Ukrainian soil during the Cold War. The country was, however, convinced to denuclearise in exchange for security and sovereignty guarantees from the US, the UK and Russia, under the Budapest Memorandum. How is that decision now viewed in Ukraine?

Probably the most compromised of all Russia’s current critics is the UK. For all prime minister Boris Johnson’s tough talk – he accuses Putin of launching “a cynical and brutal invasion for his own vainglorious ends” – the UK is a global hub for dirty Russian money.

London has become the western city of choice for Russia's super-wealthy. New figures from anti-corruption group Transparency International suggest that up to £1.5 billion worth of property in the country has been brought by Russians facing allegations of corruption or with ties to the Kremlin.

There are also 2,189 companies registered in the UK that have been linked to 48 money-laundering and corruption cases.

The UK government has been dragging its heels about introducing tougher anti-money laundering legislation and, even now, has given no firm indication when this legislation will come.

In addition to the sanctions already announced, the UK government said it was planning to ban major Russian companies from raising finance on UK markets and to prevent Moscow from raising sovereign debt in London while imposing more penalties and travel restrictions on oligarchs and diplomats.

Commenting on this, a diplomatic source told the Guardian: “These are people who have international lifestyles. They come to Harrods to shop, they stay in our best hotels when they like, they send their children to our best public schools, and that is what’s being stopped.

“So that these people are essentially persona non grata in every major western European capital in the world. That really bites.”

Is inhibiting wealthy, Kremlin-friendly Russians from shopping in Paris or London really an adequate response to the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government in Europe?

Economic costs

Alongside the EU's top financial officials, Eurogroup president Paschal Donohoe said on Friday that the EU had taken "decisive and collective action" to hold Russia accountable while warning there would be economic costs.

Many seemed to think he was talking about the economic costs of the crisis itself – European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde warned Russia's invasion of Ukraine will slow European economic growth this year through higher energy prices and lower business confidence and, to some extent, trade – but Donohoe was talking about the economic consequences of retaliatory sanctions from Russia."The impact will be different for different member states," he said.

Russia seems undeterred. It has been operating under sanctions since its 2014 annexation of Crimea and has announced sanctions of its own, banning British flights to and over its territory in retaliation to a similar UK ban on Aeroflot flights.

Putin is banking on western leaders putting their economic self-interest ahead of a more punitive, wide-ranging response. So far that’s working.

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