Quite a few years ago, I fretted here that one big obstacle could appear before too long to any U.S. government ambitions to squelch cyber attacks from rogue states with cyber retaliation of its own: Some of the main rogue states (like Iran and North Korea) and larger aggressors (like Russia and China) were likely to have a higher pain threshhold than America’s because they were so much poorer and their populations so much more used to hardship. So in any prolonged cyber duel, Washington could well be forced to cry “Uncle” before its adversaries.
Fast forward to today, and this very problem seems to be plaguing the U.S. and overall free world/western policy of punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine with various kinds of economic sanctions.
It’s not that Russia’s economy hasn’t suffered from these measures. But headlines and news developments like this have become awfully common in recent weeks:
>”Pressed by domestic economic challenges and a desire to see European nations contribute more to Ukraine’s defense, U.S. lawmakers appear more wary of committing further military aid for Ukraine or slapping new sanctions on Russia”;
And accompanying these reports have been news items and findings like:
As indicated, Russian stoicism isn’t all that’s at work. The country’s immense fossil fuel deposits, the world economy’s continued crying need for them (preventing the sanctions from being global in scope), and the high prices oil in particular has been fetching ironically because sanctions have crimped overall global supply, have enabled Moscow to keep its economy a going concern. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, clearly certain that he’d antagonize many foreign powers with his expansionism plans, has also been working for years to insulate his country from just these punitive measures. (See, e.g., here.)
But by the same token, for many years, Putin’s imperial ambitions, the massive amounts of resources they’ve commanded, the curbs on personal spending required to build a fortress economy, and the pervasive corruption he’s needed to tolerate (and even encourage) to keep potential rivals placated (and of course feather his own nest) have produced a dismal failure of an economy by virtually every important non-security-related measure. (See here and here for two especially insightful analyses.) And yet there’s absolutely no sign that conditions that western populations would find completely unacceptable have remotely immiserated the Russian people enough to spark any kind of revolt.
Moreover, considering this situation in light of the recent statement by Jens Stoltenberg, head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that the Ukraine conflict could last for “years,” it’s easy to see why the mounting energy shortages and historic inflation they’ve helped feed could tip the odds surrounding the current economic conflict of wills in Moscow’s favor.
And it’s no discredit to the American character to venture that U.S. resolve seems particularly vulnerable precisely because economic sacrifices continue to be demanded on behalf of a country whose fate has never been and is not now a vital security or economic interest.
To me, there’s an obvious message being sent by these trends and circumstances – along with the steady transformation of Eastern Europe into a genuine powderkeg that could all too easily explode into a nuclear World War Three: It’s becoming more important than ever to end this conflict and its clearly unforeseen, tremendous collateral damage ASAP, even if the outcome isn’t ideal from Ukraine’s standpoint.
But that’s not what the heads of government of the Group of Seven (G7) major industrial powers think. They’ve just declared at their current summit in Germany, “We will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support and stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes” – even though before too long these leaders may start running out of followers.