Following the latest drip-feed of EU sanctions announced just a couple of weeks ago, Russia does not appear any less implacable nor has their indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and urban centers subsided over the Christmas and New Year period.
Convinced that cash-strapped Kyiv is on the cusp of blinking first given its lackluster summer counteroffensive coupled with reported dire artillery shortages, Putin continues to drive a hard bargain and rule out any face-saving off-ramp or peaceful resolution put forward by third-party interlocutors.
Meanwhile, from within their ivory towers, European policymakers have contented themselves with a loophole-ridden economic crusade against Moscow, justified by sweeping press releases. The sluggish, piecemeal manner in which round after round of half-baked punitive measures are being administered affords Kremlin-affiliated surrogates and front men the freedom to come up with stealthy workarounds for targeted sectors and state-owned entities allowing them to generate badly needed income.
Embargoed Russian crude, is now being rerouted to the oil-guzzling behemoths China and India, who collectively account for around 90% of total consumption. The potential shortfall in budgetary revenue stemming from Brussels’ recent prohibition of diamond imports will invariably be offset by ramping up uncut and finished gemstone sales to “friendly” emerging markets.
At this stage, Putin’s agenda behind waging asymmetric warfare against Ukraine is wholly ego-driven and premised on glossing over how much of an unmitigated disaster the “special military operation” has been. He has no qualms about throwing good money after bad to raise the stakes on the battlefield, regardless of the marked upsurge in single-parent households across Russia and the irreversible brain drain fueled by his jingoistic hysteria.
The State Duma rubber-stamping a 70% hike in defense expenditure for 2024 is a clear giveaway that its armed forces are playing for keeps and have no intention of deescalating the conflict anytime soon. Domestically, this move risks being interpreted as a prelude to yet another mobilization wave and hence, propelling a further exodus of fighting-age men.
Not only can Russia ill-afford to hemorrhage more taxpayers and breadwinners, but their upper echelons are finding it increasingly untenable to keep the populace docile upon transitioning to a retrograde wartime economy. The sheer volume of fallen soldiers returning home in body-bags does not bode well for the former KGB officer. It renders a blood-soaked, Gaddafi-esque end to his “father of the nation” reign almost inevitable as bereaved families with nothing more to lose proliferate.
The biggest strategic miscalculation by transatlantic powers was that moving heaven and earth to seize Russian oligarchs’ foreign assets would ultimately get them to turn on their commander-in-chief and usher in new leadership. Ex-Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s fall from grace and eventual liquidation last August will have led budding mutineers in high places to abandon any fantasy of ever staging a lone wolf coup.
Rather than pinning its hopes on a cabal of corrupt, self-serving tycoons still at Putin’s mercy to bite the hand that feeds them, engineering a grassroots resistance movement is perhaps the free world’s best bet to decapitate the current regime.
Previous sanctions packages have left Russia’s working- and middle-class largely unscathed, not least since mobility remains a major blind spot of participating jurisdictions. The G7 along with other first-world democracies - namely Australia, New Zealand and South Korea - have stopped short of instituting a harmonized, Baltic-style entry ban for fear of painting all Russians with the same brush.
That said, discerning principled and like-minded émigrés from malevolent ones has proven to be something of a fool’s errand for Western immigration authorities. The desperation to flee Russia is such that Kremlin loyalists will gladly masquerade as anti-war critics or LGBTQ activists for the sake of evading enlistment and getting a shot at rebuilding their lives in mainland Europe or further afield.
It is no secret that Russia uses the expedited granting of citizenship to dupe undocumented Central Asian migrants into forced conscription. Worse still, the Russian passport is now officially up for grabs for foreign mercenaries who commit to serving at least a one-year stint in Ukraine while the vetting process that applicants and their immediate relatives undergo has been short-circuited to just a month.
Having painstakingly managed to phase out Russian hydrocarbons, the EU should be at the forefront of imposing draconian visa constraints on the aggressor’s roughly 150 million inhabitants and undermining the appeal of vox-pop naturalization. Fellow member states’ reservations about meeting the Baltics, Poland and Czechia halfway when it comes to the outright barring of Russian visitors from their territory casts serious doubt on the very sanctity and legitimacy of Schengen, as does the reinstatement of internal border checks throughout the CEE region.
Notwithstanding, the renewed push for enlargement after more than a decade of inertia gives Brussels far greater leverage over ambivalent candidates like Serbia, Montenegro and Georgia which still maintain an open-door policy vis-à-vis Russia and issue residence permits galore to draft dodgers. Gone are the day of having it both ways as these peripheral states now face a clear-cut choice between future accession to the world’s largest trading bloc or blindly tethering themselves to an empire-building pariah cut off from the international community at large.
Washington’s refusal to designate Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SSOT) has spared Moscow from a “maximum pressure campaign” such as that imposed on its co-belligerents Iran, Syria and North Korea are reeling under. The fact that practically all diplomatic efforts aimed at getting Putin to come to his senses have been exhausted together with his withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) three months ago makes such a course of action far more palatable today than at the full-scale invasion’s outset.
In terms of optics, it is incumbent on the Biden administration to reaffirm their solidarity with Ukraine against the backdrop of stalled US aid. Adding Moscow to the SSOT list will have a direct bearing on the ease with which ordinary Russians can open offshore accounts, conduct cross-border transactions and by extension, funnel foreign currency back into the Kremlin’s coffers. They will find themselves systematically flagged as undesirables by reputable banks and financial institutions the world over owing to the compliance nightmare their onboarding would entail.
More importantly, however, a drastic yet bold undertaking of this kind will place an unprecedented stain on Russia’s relationship with the Global South. Needless to say, Putin’s bullishness on the newly expanded BRICS as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is not shared by his own people. Both groupings are still seen as mere talking shops with no real raison d’être aside from paving the way for an alleged “redistribution of power.”
Nonetheless, winning over their “fence-setting” constituents by making the cost of doing business with Russia exceedingly high, and rolling out secondary sanctions, if necessary, could be a game changer for the West.
Saahil Menon is an independent wealth advisor based in Dubai with an academic background in business, economics, and finance.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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