Forgive me for working through a not-fully-formed idea that hopefully is not half baked, that the current sanctions war has put the West in the bizarre position of implementing reverse colonialism, after spending hundreds of years of building wealth, and sometimes even empires, on building colonies so as to control and exploit key resources or high value goods, like spices.
Many independent commentators have made a seemingly-obvious observation that is for the most part verboten in official discourse: that it was not so smart to keep escalating sanctions with a designated bad guy, Russia, when said bad guy is a large supplier of many commodities on which goods production in advanced economies depend. This approach is even more dubious in the case of Europe, whose two industrial engines, Germany and Italy, were particularly dependent on cheap Russian gas.
Of course, it’s not so hard to see how we got here: our feckless leaders, after decades of believing their own PR about Russia, had convinced themselves that the shock and awe sanctions of late February would prostrate Russia, leading to the rapid ouster of Putin and Zelensky and Victoria Nuland toasting each other in Moscow.
They managed to miss the obvious: that unlike the late 1990s, the Russian banking system was not dependent on foreign deposits, so it would not obligingly fall over with the cutoff from SWIFT and the seizure of hundreds of billions of FX reserves. They also missed the degree to which Western companies would self-sanction in dealing with Russia. The business and political press cheered when big brand name companies like Ikea and McDonalds and L’Oreal stopped trading in Russia.1 However, the self-sanctioning even early on went beyond formal sanctions. For instance, the US made a”don’t blame us” statement over the summer, that Russian fertilizer was not sanctioned. But that didn’t make shipowners less worried about carrying that cargo, nor did it help African countries who’d had their banking ties to Russia cut by Western measures.
The US and EU, having only mediocre hacks in charge, could not admit error and try to find a sanctions Plan B, which could have attempted face saving by being more surgical (“Oh, we really want to pound those evil Rooskies, but these vulnerable populations are suffering too much, so here’s how we are refining the program.”) No, the answer to failed and self-harming sanctions has been even more failed and self-harming sanctions. And the media has evidently done a great job of covering for the sanctions disaster. Even with the start of some public pushback in America, the noise has been about shoveling ever-more taxpayer dollars into the Ukraine money pit and the risk of nuclear war, and not the sanctions debacle.
Consider where this own-goal economic program is winding up. Putin argued at the SCO that the US designs on Russia were ultimately colonialist in nature, and that put Russia on the same side as other victims of colonialism, which is pretty much everyone ex non-native North Americans and Europeans. Putin greatly sharpened his rhetoric at his speech commemorating the “liberated” territories joining Russia (which was actually not formalized until the following week):
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West decided that the world and all of us would permanently accede to its dictates. In 1991, the West thought that Russia would never rise after such shocks and would fall to pieces on its own. This almost happened. We remember the horrible 1990s, hungry, cold and hopeless. But Russia remained standing, came alive, grew stronger and occupied its rightful place in the world.
Meanwhile, the West continued and continues looking for another chance to strike a blow at us, to weaken and break up Russia, which they have always dreamed about, to divide our state and set our peoples against each other, and to condemn them to poverty and extinction. They cannot rest easy knowing that there is such a great country with this huge territory in the world, with its natural wealth, resources and people who cannot and will not do someone else’s bidding.
The West is ready to cross every line to preserve the neo-colonial system which allows it to live off the world, to plunder it thanks to the domination of the dollar and technology, to collect an actual tribute from humanity, to extract its primary source of unearned prosperity, the rent paid to the hegemon. The preservation of this annuity is their main, real and absolutely self-serving motivation. This is why total de-sovereignisation is in their interest. This explains their aggression towards independent states, traditional values and authentic cultures, their attempts to undermine international and integration processes, new global currencies and technological development centres they cannot control. It is critically important for them to force all countries to surrender their sovereignty to the United States.
In certain countries, the ruling elites voluntarily agree to do this, voluntarily agree to become vassals; others are bribed or intimidated. And if this does not work, they destroy entire states, leaving behind humanitarian disasters, devastation, ruins, millions of wrecked and mangled human lives, terrorist enclaves, social disaster zones, protectorates, colonies and semi-colonies. They don’t care. All they care about is their own benefit.
I want to underscore again that their insatiability and determination to preserve their unfettered dominance are the real causes of the hybrid war that the collective West is waging against Russia. They do not want us to be free; they want us to be a colony. They do not want equal cooperation; they want to loot. They do not want to see us a free society, but a mass of soulless slaves.
Now this may seem a bit overheated, but the direction of Western capitalism under neoliberalism has been to weaken national sovereignity, which in turn allows multinational corporations to successfully contest nation-based efforts to protect their people, such as labor and environmental laws. And even before the off-shoring and globalization were as far advanced as now, the US saw fit to overthrow governments that stood in the way of its resource-grabs, witness the CIA’s successful 1953 coup against Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh or the 1954 coup in Guatemala.
Consider the logic of colonialism: creating a system that allows for resource exploitation. In the modern era does not require subjugation of territory; captured leaders and national-sovereignity-gutting trade provisions like ISDS go a long way, although some argue US garrisons, um, bases, produce very cooperative host governments.
What is the logic of sanctions? Readers can feel free to correct me, but it strikes me as a new and improved blockade, designed to starve the cordoned territory or nation into submission.
But blockades run both ways: they deny they targeted population of resources, but they also prevent the party implementing the blockade from getting at the target territory’s resources too, at least until it cries uncle and submit.
The West has bizarrely refused to see that blockades for the most part don’t work. The most recent one that arguably did was the US denying Japan of oil shipments, which led to its Pearl Harbor attack. They failed with Cuba. The tiny island nation is poor but unbowed and has despite the sanctions has developed a world class biotech industry. They have also failed with the bigger and much more self-sufficient Iran.
It still boggles the mind that the clever folks in various US think tanks did not consider that Russia is the country best able to operate as an autarky, and unlike Cuba and Iran, is a critically important player in many essential commodities.
And Russia, save perhaps its excessive legalism over the globe-trotting Gazprom turbine, has not withheld supplies from the West. The restricted access to Russian materials is entirely of US and EU design.
Now the US has been going to countries like Venezuela, hit with both sanctions and regime change schemes, groveling for oil, only to come up empty. Saudi Arabia, despite have Presidents for decades go through ritual obeisance to the royal family, still jumped when the US snapped its finger. Now that the US is not longer a top customer and is also in a weakened position, Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi officials are clearly relishing in defying the US. One can infer the US has been presumptuous and high-handed in these dealing. Festering resentments are finally getting an outlet.
We will give China short shrift from the moment, save to say that picking a major fight with the landlord and labor supplier of your manufacturing base (as well as most of the time actual owner/operator of these entities) is another reverse colonialism move. Quite a few business analysts have pointed out that many advanced chip makers in China will take significant revenue hits, to the degree that it will lead to cuts in their R&D budgets that are likely to exceed US subsidy levels. In addition, China’s military does not use these advanced chips despite the official patter; this move is strictly about trying to crimp China’s progress. But with the US continuing to eyepoke China, particularly over Taiwan, it’s reckless to assume that China will follow Russia and hold back from economic retaliation.
In other words, the US is already trying to selectively undo its soft colonialist exercise with China, but even these tactical retreats do not look as if they are likely to work out to America’s advantage, particularly given our weak executive competence across the board and distaste for industrial planning.
This is a long-winded way of saying that the degree of US self-destruction is even more fundamental than it seems. It isn’t just that the US is apparently unwilling to back out of deindustrializing Europe, which at best will only short-term gains for the US (cannibalizing important customers is just another way of eating your seed corn). The West through hubris and refusal to engage in any forward-thinking, is slamming into reverse gear as far as colonialism is concerned. That model did sometimes bring spillover benefits to the subject countries, like English law legal systems (which for Singapore later made it a highly desirable trade entrepot), early infrastructure investments. But it’s clear the big winners were the exploiters. And they are now in the process of breaking that model on the shoals of Russian resistance.
1 In the end, these were probably necessary reputational moves, plus the tightening bank sanctions would have made it cumbersome to keep operations going. Note, however, quite a few companies did quietly keep the option of returning open by mothballing as opposed to shuttering operations, such as continuing to pay rent.