By Stephen Gowans
June 22, 2022
Journalist Patrick Cockburn decries Russian president Vladmir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine as manifestly dumb. Putin, “convinced himself,” writes Cockburn, “that a Russian army of inadequate size would easily topple the government in Kyiv and the Ukrainian army would meekly surrender.” 
If Putin believed about Ukraine that he only had to kick in the doors and the whole rotten structure would come tumbling down (as Hitler believed about the Soviet Union), the expectation has, to be sure, turned out to be decidedly wrong. But we’ll have to wait to find out whether the invasion represents “the most disastrous decision in Russian history,” as Cockburn contends. The key question, from the perspective of Russian raison d’état, is whether the decision makes the Russian state and the elites it represents stronger relative to what they would have been had the invasion not been carried out. It’s too early to tell.
If Putin has blundered, and he may have, then so too, on the surface, has Biden. Biden’s decision to embargo Russian hydrocarbons, and to pressure Canada and the EU to do the same, has hurt Western consumers far more than it has hurt Russia.
According to the New York Times, “oil and refined fuel prices” in the United States “have risen to their highest levels in 14 years, due largely to sanctions on Russia oil.” Gasoline prices are up by more than 60 percent over last year. And higher fuel prices are rippling through the US economy, contributing to record high inflation. 
The Eurozone is dealing with a similar set of problems. “High prices are already sending shudders through an economy that is geared up to run on cheap Russian energy,” reports the Wall Street Journal. This has fueled record-high inflation and prompted some industrial companies to close. 
With monetary authorities raising interest rates to temper strong upward pressure on prices, Western economies are on the brink of a recession, and tens of millions teeter on the precipice of economic hardship. 
Meanwhile, this month alone, Moscow’s “coffers were expected to receive $6 billion more in oil and gas revenue than anticipated because” embargo-induced supply restrictions sent oil prices soaring. As the New York Times reports, “China and India, the world’s most populous countries, have swooped in to buy roughly the same volume of Russian oil that would have gone to the West. Oil prices are so high that Russia is making even more money now from sales than it did before the war began four months ago. And its once-flailing currency has surged in value against the dollar.” 
An embargo to punish Russia that ends up punishing Western consumers with higher energy prices, but allows Russia to reap the benefit of rising prices, surely rivals Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine for sheer stupidity.
Or does it?
If Biden’s goal is to punish Russia while protecting Western consumers, then his embargo decision has clearly backfired. But are these his goals?
Another view is that the US aim is to shift Europe’s energy dependence from Russia to sources under US control, in order to weaken Russia, and its oil and gas industry, and strengthen the oil and gas industries of the United States and its allies. Europe stands to lose big time, since sourcing energy from further afield will raise the continent’s energy bill. Additionally, by shifting Europe’s energy dependence to US-controlled suppliers, Washington increases its leverage over a Europe that increasingly seeks strategic autonomy at US expense. Washington has complained about Russia’s ability to use its energy supplies to blackmail Europe. Dependence on US-controlled suppliers simply shifts the role of potential blackmailer from Moscow to Washington.
According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration had discussed, even before Russia launched its invasion in February, the possibility that its response to the invasion would cause global spillover effects, in rising energy costs, food shortages, and a global recession. Moreover, US officials said they were willing to countenance these consequences.  (Fine for them; buffered by great wealth, they’ll hardly feel the effects themselves.)
If Western consumers are paying more for gasoline, natural gas, and groceries; if Africa and the Middle East are on the brink of a food crisis; if hundreds of millions are teetering on the edge of joblessness as the world economy slips closer to recession; it’s not because a stupid decision was made by a blundering Biden administration that has had calamitous unanticipated consequences; it’s because these are the anticipated and countenanced consequences of a US strategy to weaken Russia and bring Europe more firmly under the US thumb.
If Biden is stupid, his stupidity promises to produce welcome results for US energy companies, to say nothing of corporate America as a whole, which, on balance, stands to profit from Washington gaining greater leverage over Europe, one of the world’s largest economies and rival for world economic supremacy with corporate USA.
If there’s stupidity at play here, it’s the stupidity of believing that Washington’s actions are aimed at protecting and enlarging the interests of ordinary people. On the contrary, you and I are merely the means to the ends of—and collateral damage of the decisions taken to benefit—the elite of billionaires and wealthy investors who are the only people who really matter in Washington.
The war in Ukraine didn’t have to happen. For months, Moscow pressed Washington and NATO to negotiate a new security architecture in Europe. Moscow’s entreaties were dismissed out of hand. Once the war began, Washington could have launched efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution. Instead, it did the opposite, pumping billions of dollars of arms into Ukraine, and pressing its allies to do the same. This has been a boon for investors in US arms manufacturing, but a menace to the world, which now lives under a sword of Damocles in an elevated risk of nuclear war with Russia.
Tally up the consequences of Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Rising energy prices.
- Record-high inflation.
- A world economy on the brink of a recession.
- A looming food crisis.
- An increased risk of nuclear war.
These consequences harm you and me, and everyone else like us, but they hardly affect the wealthy, if they affect them at all (with the exception of the last.)
But there are other consequences—effects that are hardly calamitous but, on the contrary, are pleasing to a narrow spectrum of the population, namely, corporate USA and wealthy US investors. These are:
- Soaring demand for US arms.
- The promise of a cornucopia of future profits for US weapons makers as NATO members hike their military outlays and two new members, Finland and Sweden, join the alliance. (To ensure interoperability of forces, NATO members largely buy their equipment from a common provider, the US arms industry.)
- Growing opportunity for the US hydrocarbons industry.
- US control of Europe’s energy supplies and therefore greater US political leverage over Europe.
- Higher energy costs for European businesses, reducing their competitiveness relative to US firms.
Government decisions that hurt you and me may appear to be evidence of government stupidity. It’s more likely that the consequences are not calamitous for everyone, and the calamity for the rest of us is anticipated and countenanced.
1. Patrick Cockburn, The Age of Stupidity: From Johnson and Biden to Putin and Xi Jinping, counterpunch.org, June 21, 2022.
2. Clifford Krauss and Marie Solis, “U.S. Gas Prices Hit a New High: $5 a Gallon,” The New York Times, June 11, 2022.
3. Joe Wallace and Eric Sylvers, “European Natural-Gas Prices Jump as Russia Cuts Supplies Again,” The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2022.
4. Paul Hannon, Yuliya Chernova and Georgi Kantchev, “Russian Inflation Makes U.S. Price Rises Look Tame,” The Wall Street Journal May 20, 2022.
5. Victoria Kim, Clifford Krauss and Anton Troianovski, “Western Move to Choke Russia’s Oil Exports Boomerangs, for Now,” The New York Times, June 21, 2022.
6. Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe, “With scant options in Ukraine, U.S. and allies prepare for long war,” The Washington Post, June 17, 2022.