When Sanctions Lead to War

As Ukraine battles separatists and Russia appears poised to invade, many historians and scholars are warning of ominous similarities to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. But they are ignoring a more important comparison: 1941.

The United States and Europe have until now relied almost exclusively on the threat of severe economic sanctions to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine. But sanctions — even crippling ones — won’t necessarily avert this.

For 20 years, economic sanctions have become Washington’s preferred policy to demonstrate resolve without using force. Yet the United States has not imposed harsh sanctions on major powers; Iran has been the toughest target, and it hasn’t unconditionally surrendered its nuclear program.

Washington has not tried to compel another major power with sanctions since 1940-41, when America imposed them on Imperial Japan, culminating in an oil embargo and the seizure of Japanese assets in July 1941. At that time, the United States sought to deter Japan from seizing Southeast Asia and demanded that Tokyo withdraw from Indochina and China. Japan in turn concluded that American sanctions made the occupation of Southeast Asia essential, as well as the devastation of the United States Navy.

Today’s policy makers would do well to study the American and Japanese choices that produced Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. American officials at the time widely assumed that Japan wouldn’t dare challenge the United States because, as then Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson later put it, “No rational Japanese could believe an attack on us could result in anything but disaster.” And they offered no “carrots” to Tokyo — only a weak stick, because, like President Obama today, Franklin D. Roosevelt never clearly threatened force.

Meanwhile, Japan viewed the American position as a demand to forgo its role as a great power — something unacceptable to a proud empire. Japan preferred to fight rather than cave in. Moreover, Japanese leaders saw little distinction between economic sanctions and warfare and realized that sanctions would make their country weaker over time — something that encouraged them to strike sooner rather than later. They also believed the United States was politically weak and would give up if the costs got too high or the war lasted too long.

This history has present-day implications. Harsh economic sanctions against Russia are unlikely to deter an invasion without an unambiguous warning that the United States will ensure Moscow’s defeat. If Russia does intervene, it will do so expecting even harsher sanctions and may see them as an act of war. Like Imperial Japan, Moscow might conclude that it is irresponsible to wait for new sanctions to gut the Russian economy before taking further military action to break the West’s will.

One way to challenge the West would be to invade Estonia or Latvia. As far-fetched as it may seem, some angry Russian politicians are already discussing this idea. To the Kremlin, European states look like a collection of struggling economies that couldn’t sustain a bombing campaign against Libya and routinely refuse to provide bases or troops to NATO. How would they react to the invasion of a small Baltic nation?

Western leaders comfortably assume that Moscow wouldn’t dare to attack a NATO member — believing that America’s and NATO’s conventional-weapons superiority and nuclear arsenals will deter aggression against member states. But the old logic of nuclear deterrence might not apply in this situation. Indeed, if President Vladimir V. Putin doesn’t believe that Mr. Obama would actually use nuclear weapons in an escalating war, then the Cold War model of deterrence could fail.

Attacking a NATO member would carry enormous risks and costs for Russia and is unlikely unless Mr. Putin believes his political survival is at stake. As Mr. Acheson wrote of the Japanese General Hideki Tojo, “No one in Washington realized that he and his regime regarded the conquest of Asia not as the accomplishment of an ambition but as the survival of a regime.” If Mr. Putin feels similarly, what will he do about it? General Tojo’s life was literally on the line in 1941, along with the lives of his closest political and military allies. While Mr. Putin and his allies seem less personally invested in Russia’s Ukraine policy, they may believe that a major humiliation could be destabilizing and threaten their rule.

The Kremlin’s earlier decisions have left it with bad options. Letting Kiev crush the separatists could actually make things worse for Mr. Putin if American and European leaders think ongoing sanctions could force him to give Crimea back, too. In that case, Mr. Putin would have to absorb a significant strategic and political defeat, only to face a new choice between escalation and a bigger defeat.

Avoiding such dangerous possibilities requires a policy that effectively deters an all-out Russian invasion but also avoids making Mr. Putin desperate.

Washington must explicitly promise that America will do whatever it takes to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine from succeeding, and remain flexible by accepting a serious and wide-ranging dialogue about Ukraine. Kiev now has an opportunity to leverage its recent successes to secure a favorable settlement; American officials should encourage Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, to do just that when he meets Mr. Putin in Minsk next week.

Some Americans will complain that negotiating rewards Mr. Putin’s aggression. But Russia’s own policy has already done huge damage to the country’s economic future by scaring off Western (and even Russian) investors and prompting European governments and voters to reassess their energy ties to Moscow. Those realities will endure for some time, with or without sanctions.

The terrible irony of today’s American-Russian confrontation is that just like Roosevelt facing Japan, Mr. Obama has set America on its current course precisely to avoid war. Hopefully he, and Mr. Acheson’s successors at the State Department, will soon recognize the great risks they are taking.

Paul J. Saunders is the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, and served as a U.S. State Department adviser from 2003 to 2005.

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