Wishful Thinking: Russia and Ukraine

George Soros had an article about Ukraine in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books[1] that captured many of the dominant attitudes about Russia’s foreign policy and what we should do about it. His main argument is that the EU should be funneling a lot of money to the Ukrainian regime to allow it to resist the forces of evil from within and without, and that we should maintain and if necessary increase economic sanctions on Russia to (punish? deter?) aggression.

The article captures the zeitgeist on Russia and Ukraine, and it presents us with many opportunities for discussion, not the least of which is that rich people should probably not assume that they are masters of all disciplines simply because they are very good at one thing. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The two most important issues I see with this argument are: 1. We really have no idea how to “funnel money” to other countries to make them pursue the particular economic and political pathways we want.[2] If we knew how to do that, pretty much every country in the developing world would have an open, functioning economy and thriving democracy. 2. Economic sanctions rarely, if ever, work to achieve political outcomes, and when they do, they work best against relatively small and isolated states. There’s plenty of research on this in political science, and plenty available in the realm of common sense if you stop and think about it: probably the most effective sanctions regime in place today (“effective” if we’re talking simply about actually stopping the flow of goods and services to a country) is the one against North Korea (and even that’s not perfect), and that hasn’t worked so far; decades of sanctions did not dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba; and I could go on, but I suspect I would lose you, dear reader. I was dismayed when the United States slapped sanctions on Russia in response to the incursion into Crimea and more recent fighting in Ukraine. They really don’t work very often as instruments of foreign policy, but they like drone strikes at least allow the administration to appear to “do something” in the face of behavior it finds unacceptable. I’m also puzzled about why Soros argues that falling oil revenues in Russia are evidence that current sanctions are “biting,” when everyone knows global oil prices are in the toilet.

For me, Soros’s argument about Ukraine also highlights the difference between policy and political science. Political science is (at least in theory) a discipline[3] whose practitioners apply consistent theoretical frameworks to understand the world around them and to develop recommendations for how to respond to the world. Policymakers do not have to apply these consistent frameworks to their thinking, and it is glaringly obvious that they do not. Soros’s piece, for example, berates the EU for its shoddy management of the recent debt crisis in Greece (an EU member state), but his main recommendation is for the EU start shoveling (more) money towards a non-EU state. How exactly is that going to happen given the incentives that prevented the EU from providing a timely and generous bailout for one of its own members?

At its core, Soros’s piece is also based on the assumption that Russia is inherently aggressive and that its advance must be halted lest all of Europe (and eventually the United States) fall to communism. No, wait—not communism, because the Cold War is over, right? Indeed this piece smacks of orthodox Cold War reasoning. There’s no evidence that Russia and/or Putin have grand designs about taking over the world. Russia is a state with a faltering oil-based economy trying to make limited territorial gains it views as essential to its own security. “But they’re intervening in Syria!” you say? So is France! So are we! So is Saudi Arabia, which has been funneling money and arms into the region for years! Why aren’t we getting all wound up about Saudi Arabia’s efforts to dominate the Middle East, but we think Russia’s behavior is evidence of a plan to take over the world?

I’m not really doing justice to Russia here, I admit—I’ll take up the issue of Russia’s foreign policy behavior and why we should stop acting as if a New Cold War and/or WWIII is dawning in a future post. For now, let me say that Soros’s recommendations for Ukraine are founded on nothing more than wishful thinking and a weird nostalgia for Cold War-era resistance to Russian “aggression.” The “loss” of Ukraine (to what? The dark side?) will not lead to a “failed state,” nor would “saving” it lead to some magical transformation in European politics or a change in Russia’s behavior.


[1] “Ukraine and Europe: What Should Be Done?” New York Review of Books, vol. LXII, no. 15 (October 8, 2015).

[2] Unless we’re talking about funneling money to an established dictator to maintain his/her hold on power—there’s been some success with that in the past.

[3] I’ll admit that here I’m talking about international relations as a field within political science; this is distinct from “international relations” as a multidisciplinary field or degree in which students study economics, political science, languages, etc.