The Dark Side of Interdependence

How Global Ties Tied Our Hands in Russia

The site of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash in Donetsk, July 17, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev / Courtesy Reuters

In recent months, the United States and the EU have ratcheted up diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia in response to its activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Although the United States has hit major Russian companies with significant sanctions, the EU has remained decidedly more hesitant. It took the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, purportedly by Russian-supplied separatists, and Russia’s increased involvement in eastern Ukraine in the weeks thereafter, for the EU to even begin matching its threats with real action. 

The EU’s reticence is understandable; the union’s countries are some of Russia’s main trading partners and rely heavily on Russian energy exports. This attitude has nevertheless drawn the ire of U.S. policymakers, many of whom believe that Europe’s hesitance is indicative of a general unwillingness among the United States’ transatlantic allies to punish international aggression. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said as much on a recent television interview. “The Europeans are not going to do anything,” he said, continuing, if anyone believes the Europeans will impose firm sanctions, “I have some beachfront property for them in Arizona.” 

Those with such mindsets, however, have forgotten something important. Economic interdependence between the EU and Russia is the direct result of U.S. policies in the 1990s. During the Clinton administration, the United States actively tried to integrate Russia and the former Soviet republics into the liberal free trade framework that it was promoting throughout Europe. The policies were based on a deeply held belief that political and economic integration is the best way to avoid potential conflict in Europe.

And that creates a paradox. Greater interdependence might, in fact, reduce the likelihood of conflict between nations or groups of nations. After all, it increases the cost of conflict for all of them. However, as the EU-Russian case shows, the logic can also work in reverse. It is incredibly difficult to punish economic partners for international aggression. The rational fear of economic backlash creates

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