Ask Prof Wolff: What Europe Got Wrong about Sanctions on Russia

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Patron of Democracy at Work asks: "Why, in your opinion, did European countries go along with the USA on sanctions on Russia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year? Did European leaders miscalculate negative impacts that these sanctions will have on Europe or counted on some benefits that will be worth the losses? Are any benefits present?"

This is Professor Richard Wolff's video response.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

This is Richard Wolff from Democracy at Work responding to another Ask Prof Wolff question from our Patreon community. And this one comes from Irina. And Irina asks a question that has bothered many of us. I've spent quite a bit of time trying to answer this so I want to thank Irina for sending it in, because my guess is it'll be of interest to many. The question is simple: why have the European countries, kind of lockstep fashion, swung in behind the United States in terms of supporting Ukraine in the war with Russia, supplying Ukraine with weapons - lots of them; financial assistance - lots of it - and generally whooping it up in all the forums of the world against Russia and for Ukraine? In a crude way we can ask what's in it for Europe? Why are they doing this?

So here's the answer, as best I can fashion it. First of all, the Europeans did it out of habit. For the last 75 years, since the end of World War II, most of Western Europe has felt supported by the United States, protected by the United States military and having their interests best served economically, politically, culturally, militarily by being good allies of the United States. That's what their politicians in power today, that's what they have felt and believed and been trained in throughout the entirety of their careers. That's their go-to place in general.

The second reason is that the United States effectively persuaded the Europeans, if they didn't already believe it, that in a contest between the United States, with its GDP of 21 trillion dollars, and Russia, with its GDP of one and a half trillion dollars, the outcome would come quickly, happily and definitively. In other words, Russia would collapse. And if you go back and look at the headlines across Europe in the weeks after February of 2022 that's what they all predicted. So it was a way of being close to mother U.S at little risk, given what they thought would happen.

Other than that, the beneficiaries in Europe were the military producers. And that's an important group of business men and women. Because they could see that the demand for equipment to send to Ukraine would require that that equipment be replaced. And that would be fat orders for their military. It would also be good news for the military themselves, best illustrated by Germany, which appropriated a vast additional amount of money to its armed forces compared to what they have been doing for years into the past. So the military benefited.

And here's another one: a number of governments have shifted from the center-left to the center-right. The center-left is typically more skeptical about the alliance with the United States. They support it but with criticism, with skepticism. The center-right champions it as what's best for Europe. So swinging in behind the United States was a chance for the center-right to prevail, to build up in the publicity around protecting Ukraine political support for themselves inside each of their countries.

But here, then what happened? It didn't work out. The Europeans got those benefits but they have also incurred spectacular costs. And it's crystal clear to me that they miscalculated badly. The costs are huge. The first one comes from the fact that they misunderstood, and in all likelihood the United States led them in that misunderstanding, that Russia would fold and collapse overnight. It's easy, of course, for me to say that, here that we're over a year into the war and the promised collapse is nowhere in sight. But they should have understood what the connections built up over years between Russia, Turkey, India and, above all, China, what they would mean. What they would mean, that the Russians would have friends, that the Russians would have allies, that the Russians would be able to solve the problems of the sanctions from the West against them. By simply doing what President Obama once called American foreign policy's big change. He called it pivot to Asia. Well, Russia pivoted way more than the United States. And, boy, did it pay off. Russia is powerful, Russia has really big friends, selling its oil and gas to them, trading more with them. Russia has really pivoted to Asia and the Europeans are caught. They miscalculated, they are looking for a way out. It's hard for them to find one. They don't want to disappoint the United States but they're afraid.

And I want to end today by making it clear what they're afraid of, that their miscalculation may have made them - and this is the important point - choose the wrong way. What do I mean? There are now two blocs in the world, it's more clear today than it ever has been. On the one hand the United States with Europe. On the other hand China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the BRICS countries and the new countries applying for entrance into BRICS. That's half the world's people, if not more, with a powerful economic machine at its base in China. Wow!

The Europeans are caught between the United States, their old ally, and the temptation to find a new ally, where there's more money to be made, where there's more trade to be done, where there's a safer ally to work with. And watching the ceremony a week ago when China brokered a peace between the Sunni and the Shi'ite Islamic communities, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, under the auspices of China; peace where there was war, prosperity where there wasn't. China, one of the world's leading countries, needing energy, is now the protector of the two most important countries producing oil in the world - Iran, Saudi Arabia. They already have Russia. Wow!

The world is splitting. And the anguish in Europe is did we choose wrong? And even if the consensus remains - no we didn't - it would be very naive for anyone to doubt that that question is being asked more and more with ever greater urgency day after day. And may explode into the public view at any moment. The world is changing in major ways and the direction of change is now clear. And Europe is right at the cusp of what it means to stop denying and to finally confront the implications of these changes for each European country.

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Transcript by Brendan Tait

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