what sanctions do
If I were in Russia today I’d have been sentenced to death. This isn’t because I’m particularly brave or democratic: I’m in hospital, that’s all, taking seven or eight pills a day and waiting for an operation to replace my aortic valve. It’s a procedure that’s routine these days in the developed world — and of course it depends on global trade, both in medical staff and in medicines.
Noah Smith points out that one of the consequences of the economic sanctions on Russia will be that the country very soon runs out of medicines. Last year, Russia imported $10.2bn worth of “packaged medicaments”. Only car imports were worth more ($11bn). Already the chemists’ shops in Moscow have stopped selling things at pre-war prices, according to twitter. The people who suffer from this shortage will not be soldiers. For the most part they will be the old and the poor, and those with chronic conditions.
My baseline for what happens when Russia runs out of medicines dates from around 1991, when one of the local people in the Independent’s offices in Moscow had to be rushed to hospital for emergency surgery on their stomach. It may have been appendicitis but I can’t remember the detail of the complaint, only that the hospital was out of anaesthetic, and she was offered instead an icebag to hold over her stomach while they cut her open. At this point the paper stepped in and arranged for real health care.
The collapse of the Russian economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the intended result of deliberate Western action, but the effects of a collapse in trade are the same whatever causes it. In both cases, the best connected and the richest suffer least and some will hardly suffer at all. So when we impose sanctions we are punishing the weakest in the enemy society just as surely as the Russians are when they shell whole cities indiscriminately or hospitals with a malign discrimination.
This isn’t a conclusive argument against sanctions. But it should annihilate the delusion that real wars could be fought like the Falklands, between consenting adults and in private.
The use of starvation and disease as a weapon of war was a feature of British policy throughout the twentieth century. We can start with the roundup of the Boers into “concentration camps” in the Boer War and go on to the blockade in the First World War, which led to mass starvation at the end of it, and the similar blockade in the Second — Hitler of course was trying to do the same to us with submarine warfare.
Then there were the sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s. Among my most embarrassing mistakes — and a sign of how deep the colonial instincts of my family went — is that I believed that the only upside of an invasion of Iraq was that it ought to lead to an end to sanctions once the war was won. I thought that a competent, benevolent administration would be installed and could arrange for the sort of aid programme that was put in place for Germany in 1945/6 — remember, that effort is how Oxfam got started. Silly me.
Before this century killing enemy civilians was understood as necessary, where not actively desirable. I suppose the first large-scale Western revulsion came in the Vietnam war, though even then it was hardly general. In Iraq, we simply pretended it was not happening. In line with that revulsion from clear sight the earlier cases have also been airbrushed from our history.
So what’s the moral? The simplest course would be to say that it is always and everywhere wrong to punish enemy civilians and that it must never be done. But that’s not really workable unless you’re an absolute pacifist. If we are neither going to declare an economic war on Russia, nor fight a conventional one, then we might as well just urge Ukraine to surrender and have done with it. That is in fact the position of the Trumpist Right but Europe and most of America have rejected it.
In the end, some forms of force are only deterred by superior force. And wars are attempts to direct the whole force of a society against another. When that happens retaliation in kind may be the only way to resist and we discover that as part of that we have no choice but to hurt enemy civilians even if this is done indirectly by immiseration rather than shellfire. Whether or not the troops on the ground are Ukrainian or Nato, it is also absolutely necessary to weaken the opposing war machine as far as possible, and that entails maximum economic damage. And that will mean killing perfectly innocent Russian civilians.
That these deaths will be caused by poverty, deliberately inflicted, rather than by shellfire or whatever other horrors the Russian army has in store for Ukraine, seems to me a difference of degree, rather than of kind. This is not to say that both sides are as bad as the other. The Ukrainians are fighting a just war, and the Russians an unjust one. But to fight a war at all is to engage in something terrible, even when it’s necessary. And this is something which is concealed by the intoxication of vicarious participation through the media.
That’s one reason to turn to the poems of Keith Douglas, who wrote with such astonishing honesty about the cost of heroism— both to the heroes themselves and to the innocent.