Trump is Putin’s Pearl Harbor

How mismanagement of the Crimean Crisis led to 2016’s president-elect.

In the months leading up to the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, perturbed by Japan’s aggression throughout east Asia and their newly forged alliances with Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union, U.S. officials tightened economic sanctions on the nation. Eventually they imposed an all-out embargo on exports to Japan, froze Japanese assets in U.S. banks, and increased supply and aid deliveries to China along the Burma road.

To be fair, none of this was new. The U.S. had been slowly restricting militarily valuable supplies to Japan and providing significant aid to China with whom the Japanese were at war for months. At the same time, relations between Japan and the west had been poor and getting poorer throughout the late 1930’s and 1940. It wasn’t the novelty of the sanctions, but the extent. Their strangulation both on the Japanese economy and military wherewithal was significant. Seeking negotiations, then-Japanese Prime Minister Konoe requested multiple meetings with President Roosevelt in response, but the requests were unanimously rebuffed. If Japan would not meet American demands, some of which were strategically and logistically impossible in short order, they were told they wouldn’t get a meeting. So, believing themselves backed into a corner, they attacked. Yet, advocates of economic sanctions in foreign policy in general and American apologists more broadly have spent the past seventy-five years insisting The United States played no active role whatsoever in its entrance to World War II. The version most often taught in schools is simple: we were attacked on our own soil without provocation and had to respond.

Fast forward to 2014, when some astute observers expressed concern that economic sanctions levied against Russia in retaliation for their annexation of Crimea could provoke another war and these revisionist historians were out in full force once again. The enduring question they posed: can economic sanctions be considered a provocation if levied against an already aggressive nation? If Japan, for instance, was already at war with China, allied with our enemies, and actively seeking an end to western occupations in its sphere of influence in east Asia, can the sanctions we imposed be held up as the catalyst for their attack on Pearl Harbor? Or, more to the point: if Russia had already breached international codes of conduct, undermined democracy in a neighboring sovereign state, and then annexed a chunk of that neighbor’s land, can economic sanctions imposed in response be considered a provocation from the west? The answer, from those who advocate the use of economic sanctions as diplomacy and believe the U.S. can do no wrong, is always a resounding no. But I have to wonder if these apologists have never heard the phrase, “the straw that broke the camel’s back?” Or been taught that to each coin there is two sides?

Perhaps they would simply be more comfortable with the term ‘escalation’ rather than ‘provocation.’ Whatever the linguistic or logical acrobatics required however, one thing is clear: it’s time to admit the economic sanctions against Russia not only failed, but contributed significantly to our current predicament. Not the least of the reasons for which is that leaders made many of the same mistakes in designing and handling the 2014 sanctions on Russia as they did the 1940’s version against Japan. Then, perhaps we can face the notion that the outcome has not been so different either.

A study of nearly two-hundred instances of economic sanctions by researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) found that successful sanctions nearly always have four things in common: the goal is modest, the targeted country’s economy is significantly smaller than that of the imposing country, the sanctions are applied quickly and decisively, and they avoid negative impact on the imposing country’s own economy. Yet, in designing sanctions against Russia three of these four criteria were missed completely and as a result the fourth was a mixed bag.

While, to use the PIIE example, an action along the lines of the release of a political prisoner is a modest goal that may be effectively campaigned for with the aid of economic sanctions, but sanctions against Russia had no such clear or simple objective. Instead leaders in the U.S. and EU expected Russia to kowtow to western demands as broad and ambiguous as ceasing to “undermine democratic institutions.” In any case the stated goals were noble and worthy, but never the kind of outcome that can be hoped for with limited economic sanctions levied mostly against elite business and government officials.

Meanwhile, though the Russian economy is smaller than the U.S. economy, it doesn’t even come close to the discrepancy reported by the PIIE study which averaged an imposing-economy 245 times larger than its target. Including 21 instances where the GDP ratio exceeded 2000:1. For comparison, the 16.77 trillion U.S. GDP as reported by the World Bank in 2013 outpaced Russia’s GDP by only about eight times, with per capita production lagging by less than a factor of four.

At the same time, for all the lofty goals and difficult economic matches confronting them, leaders still didn’t seek to apply the sanctions quickly in order to prevent Russia from putting other accommodations in place to circumvent the intended effects. Instead, echoing once again the sanctions slowly ratcheted up against Japan in the 1940’s, President Obama rolled out a suite of sanctions first over the course of weeks and then months. And it’s an approach that has been mirrored by other world leaders both then and since.

The result: Russia was not only able to adjust to and soften the blow of the sanctions as they came in, they had both the time and wherewithal to respond with damaging sanctions of their own, eventually banning all agricultural imports from the U.S., EU member countries and many of our allies, a move that would ultimately hurt the economies of a handful of EU states. Internally, as the economy tanked — something that, in hindsight, many experts says was a side effect of the global oil price drop rather than the sanctions themselves — many Russians saw weathering the economic hardship as an act of patriotism. Forced isolationism allowed spontaneous economic hurdles to become someone else’s fault, bolstering Putin’s approval ratings among the Russian people.

Yet, through all of this reporting on the sanctions in the west has been largely positive. A problem probably rooted in hopeful thinking, but also, in significant part, the result of a faulty measuring stick. Hinging perceived success on the performance of the Russian economy rather than the Russian response to that economy meant top economists and foreign policy journalists alike failed to identify the failure of the sanctions both as they happened, and in the ensuing years. Even as both the U.S. and our allied world powers have repeatedly renewed sanctions that failed to inch the situation in the region even incrementally closer to peace.

If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it’s that even if leaders in the west didn’t learn the lessons history had to offer, perhaps Putin did. Where we may have failed to realize that the size of our adversary in doling out sanctions matters, Russia seems to have taken our own size into consideration. War with another major power is a risky endeavor. Japan lost. Russia would almost certainly lose too. But realignment of the world power structure is malleable if you’re patient — and can be even more rewarding.

After all, with a fellow strongman at the helm of the strongest military and most influential economy on the planet, eight years of soft power malpractice by the U.S. in the middle east at our backs, and the nationalistic movements that have ensued peppering the globe, opportunity for a man like Putin abounds. President-elect Donald Trump is his Pearl Harbor. The only difference is that he wants us to fight this next one alongside, rather than against, him.

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Diana Prichard is a freelance journalist who has reported on development, politics and policy from three continents. You can follow her on Twitter or subscribe to received regular columns like this one by email .