HomeInvestmentWest Is Lazy on Russia’s Blockade of Ukraine

West Is Lazy on Russia’s Blockade of Ukraine

Trucks loaded with grain wait in a queue near Izmail, in the Odessa region, June 14.


oleksandr gimanov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

There are many escalations that

Vladimir Putin

hasn’t committed, from the weapons he might use to the targets he might hit, because he wants to survive and see a path toward something that for domestic purposes helps cement his hold on power.

He wants to avoid war with NATO, conventional or otherwise. This is one consideration that would turn the possibility of victory into the certainty of defeat. He has sacrificed a large number of troops to NATO-supplied weapons without hitting back at NATO personnel or supply lines. As far as has been reported, there’s been no repeat of the covert attacks on Czech ammunition depots that followed his 2014 Ukraine aggression.

Not a big risk, then, are various proposals for using NATO warships to challenge an undeclared, semi-gossamer Russian blockade of Ukraine’s grain ports. Mr. Putin would almost certainly fold. He would imitate the nonchalance he exuded when Finland and Sweden announced their intention to join NATO. If he can’t meet a challenge or setback, he pretends it isn’t one.

It’s the other moving parts that make such a project difficult to get off the ground: recruiting Turkish acquiescence; enlisting enough NATO countries to participate to make it clear that NATO isn’t at odds over the initiative.

The languorous prewar lack of urgency hasn’t quite been dispelled. Also the benefit for food prices should not be exaggerated. Russia and Ukraine account for a third of world wheat exports, but these exports are only 7% of world production. And Russia is still exporting and also stealing Ukraine’s grain and exporting it.

The 20 million tons of wheat that

Joe Biden

says is stuck in Ukrainian silos—2.5% of world production. So much of the problem in poor countries is actually an aftershock from the lockdowns and the West’s fiscal and monetary excursions, with local food prices being hit by the double whammy of inflation plus a strong U.S. dollar. (As Putin girl Friday

Dmitry Medvedev

keeps tweeting, the West’s fiscal and monetary chaos was a factor in Moscow’s overegged decision that the time was ripe to challenge the West over Ukraine.)

What the unblocking of Odessa might really reveal is that almost any forceful NATO intervention all along would have sent Mr. Putin into judicious retreat, under a flurry of propaganda assuring his people that all outcomes are testaments to his will and strength.

This is the best reason for moving forward while also not sending the wrong message in a panic over grain supplies. The world economy can do without Russian and even Ukrainian resources. Isolation is within our power to impose. In fact, it gets easier with each day. The costs of adjustment become sunk. The world moves on.

For NATO’s economies, 25 times bigger than Russia’s, the price mechanism is a friend. Price signals in the energy markets redirect investment and consumption. In the commodity markets, they tell farmers to bring new lands under cultivation, change their mix of crops. They signal to commodity users to invest in efficiency and substitutions. They signal to government and private aid agencies where emergency relief is needed.

These adaptations happen willy-nilly and can be aided by non-corrupt policy changes with respect to things like ethanol mandates, land-use regulation, environmental approvals and market-oriented water allocation. To be avoided are dumb gestures like grain hoarding behind export bans (India) or climate angst over whether poor countries should be helped to develop fertilizer industries (the European Union).

The strains on Russia’s economy and domestic politics and even internal peace will be slow-building but formidable. Mr. Putin is not as oblivious to this reality as he sometimes seems. He knows disruptions and upsets to Western economies because of sanctions on Russia are a wasting asset for him. Adjustments take place. Pretty soon new vested interests form that benefit from Russia’s exclusion. The public becomes ho-hum. In a year or two, the idea of welcoming Russian energy, grain and minerals back into world trade might begin to seem more disruptive than keeping them out.

The resource that hasn’t been fully tapped is Mr. Putin’s well-adapted capacity for retreat, seen over two decades. When his latest war started badly, he narrowed his focus to eastern Ukraine in a virtue that will allow him to declare victory and call for a cease-fire at any moment if the tide appears to be turning against him.

Of course a big caveat is an unspoken presumption among some Western officials that the war is already over except the shooting; a settlement is already in view, notwithstanding any Ukrainian offensive that might come in the fall, acquiescing in Mr. Putin’s unlawful occupation of eastern Ukraine. This may be the biggest reason members of the Western alliance are not in a hurry to inflict a new defeat on Mr. Putin by freeing up grain from Odessa.

Review & Outlook: By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has unified the NATO alliance, which will be stronger with Finland and Sweden as members. Images: Sputnik/TT News Agency/Lehtikuva/Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the June 29, 2022, print edition as ‘West Is Lazy on Ukraine Blockade.’

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