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“Putin Is Bluffing”: Historian Alfred McCoy on How to End Ukraine War with Solutions Beyond Sanctions

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We speak with historian Alfred McCoy about how the Russian invasion of Ukraine could possibly end. McCoy argues the European Union is essentially funding the war by buying energy from Russia, and says sanctions will not deter Russian President Putin from war so long as his economy continues supplying energy for the world. McCoy says the European Court of Human Rights should instead force the EU to start deducting a portion of regular natural gas payments to Russia and reroute this money to a Ukraine compensation fund. Russia’s loss of energy income could incentivize Putin to roll back the invasion, says McCoy. His latest piece for TomDispatch is headlined “How to End the War in Ukraine: A Solution Beyond Sanctions.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its third month, we look at how it could end. In a sign of escalating tension, the Russian company Gazprom has cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, saying both countries refused to begin paying in rubles. The president of the European Commission accused Russia of using gas as an “instrument of blackmail.”

This comes as Germany announced Tuesday it will begin exporting dozens of armored anti-aircraft vehicles to Ukraine, in a marked shift. And U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed allied nations will also do more to help arm Ukraine.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres met Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, who agreed in principle to allow the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help evacuate civilians from a besieged steel plant in Mariupol. Guterres is meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky in Kyiv today.

For more, we’re joined by Alfred McCoy, history professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of numerous books, including To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. His new piece for TomDispatch is headlined “How to End the War in Ukraine: A Solution Beyond Sanctions.”

Professor McCoy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by laying out your solution?

ALFRED McCOY: Sure. Very simple. As soon as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, two international courts — the International Court of Justice, which is the U.N.’s highest body, and the European Court of Human Rights — gave orders to Russia to desist immediately — immediately — from their damage to Ukraine. And the European Court of Human Rights was very express in its statements about stopping the damage to civilian infrastructure. The European Court of Human Rights enforces the European Treaty on Human Rights. And in that treaty, in that declaration of human rights, there are specific provisions for the protection of property as one of the prime aims of the European Convention on Human Rights. Right? So there were clear court orders, and Russia simply ignored them, simply defied them. And that, of course, is the underlying problem of the whole rubric, the whole artifice, the whole attempt at ending conflict by international law: enforcement. There simply has been no way of enforcing judgments on superpowers like Russia.

So, but there is a very — I think, a very simple solution, blindingly obvious and simple. Russia has pipelines, massive pipelines, involving countless billions of dollars, running through Ukraine and underneath the ocean, Nord Stream 1, that provides about 40% of the natural gas for Europe. This generates about $800 million a day of revenues for the Russian state gas monopoly, Gazprom. So, since Gazprom is a Russian state agency, it’s an instrument of the Russian state. And so, what the European Court of Human Rights could do is simply assess damages, say that, “OK, you have defied our order. We told you to immediately desist from damaging Ukraine’s infrastructure.” Just like a court in the United States can garnish wages for a deadbeat dad, the European Court of Human Rights could, in effect, regard Vladimir Putin as the globe’s ultimate deadbeat dad and simply order that all European nations importing gas from Russia, when they pay their regular payments to Gazprom, deduct, say, 20%, all right, to start, from those payments and put them into a reparations fund for the reconstruction of Ukraine. In the first month of the war, it’s estimated that there was $68 billion of direct damage to Ukraine’s civil infrastructure, and a total of about $600 billion to date, and it’s rising very fast as the war continues. And so, in about a decade or so with these deductions, this garnishment, if you will, of these payments to Gazprom could actually fund the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Now, the question is: What will Russia do if they got ordered to deduct 20% of their receipts from gas? You know, my feeling is that Vladimir Putin would probably froth and fulminate and threaten to cut off the gas, but faced with the loss of all of those revenues, which are absolutely critical for sustaining Russia’s economy and funding the war in Ukraine, that Putin would ultimately be forced to go along.

And we saw that, actually, recently. There’s what you mentioned about Russia cutting off the gas to Bulgaria and Poland because they’re not paying in rubles. Russia tried the same thing with Germany. They announced that they would — they threatened to cut off Germany’s gas deliveries if Germany didn’t pay in rubles. And Germany simply said no. And Putin called the chancellor of Germany, Scholz, and he capitulated. So, in other words, that when it comes to the major shipments of Russian gas to Europe, Russia would blink, but they would ultimately have to pay up, because faced with the loss of all revenues versus the loss of 20% of the revenues, they wouldn’t have much choice.

And moreover, you know, this could be done in a way, let’s say, scaled payments. If you desist in the war and begin negotiations, genuine negotiations — these’s ceasefire negotiations — then it’s 20%. And if it’s another week, if you delay by a week, it goes up to 25%. And add 5% a week to make it a substantial bite. And I think this would have an immediate impact.

In fact, if you think about it, it’s potentially a four-way win. First, it punishes Putin for a policy, a foreign policy, that essentially, since back to 2015 in Syria, Russia’s foreign policy can be summarized as simply flattening and destroying one city after another — Aleppo, and now Mariupol. And the number of cities that Russia is destroying in Ukraine is rising almost by the day. OK? So, it would punish Putin for his foreign policy of flattening cities without any concern for civilian infrastructure, without any proportionality between the object sought and the damage done, which is, by definition, a war crime. OK?

Second, it would fund the very substantial cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction, which by the time this is over is going to be at least a trillion dollars. And that, by anybody’s accounting, whether it’s in the United States for the Build Back Better Act or for anything else, is an enormous cost. Right?

It then, of course, avoids the massive damage to European — Europe’s economy that would come from an immediate suspension, an embargo on gas shipments. If the Europeans were to cut off the gas completely, it would send Europe’s economy into recession, and particularly Germany’s economy into recession.

And finally, it would avoid the environmental damage that might occur should Germany be forced to fire up its abandoned coal-fired electricity plants.

So, in effect, it’s a four-way win. And I think it’s a — you know, in effect, it’s a blindingly simple solution. And beyond this conflict — and I think we have to think beyond it —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor —

ALFRED McCOY: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor McCoy, I’d like to ask you, though — I mean, theoretically, this sounds great, but it assumes two things. One, it assumes there’s a ceasing of hostilities between the two parties, and also it assumes that the United States would want to get involved with the International Court of Justice. What’s the potential blowback to the United States of recognizing the International Court of Justice’s authority to make these kinds of decisions, in terms of wars that the United States has been involved in in the past?

ALFRED McCOY: The advantage of this is that it avoids the United States and our very problematic role with the International Court of Justice, OK? You know, what this — the original case that appeared before the European Court of Human Rights was Ukraine v. Russia. And so, under the European Court of Human — the European Convention on Human Rights, any group of Ukrainian citizens, any Ukrainian organization, such as a city, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Lviv, any Ukrainian city or the Ukrainian government — which actually filed that case — they can file a case — they can go to the European Court of Human Rights and make a motion for the imposition of a fine on Russia and for damages because of Russia’s defiance of the court’s order to immediate cease its damage to the civilian infrastructure of the Ukraine.

And the European Court of Human Rights can then ask the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which is a kind of a volunteer organization. It’s not the European Union. But nonetheless, the Council of Ministers basically is the foreign ministers and some of the prime ministers of Europe, who meet in this collective body. And they could order them or suggest that they enforce this fine upon Russia. And if Europe acted collectively — and Europe gets about 40% of its natural gas from Russia — that would have such powerful diplomatic strength and such a powerful potential economic impact on Russia, that Russia would not have, I think, much choice but to comply. So, in fact, it kind of circumvents the very real problem that you’ve identified, which is the problematic relationship the United States has with the International Court of Justice. And it allows the —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what if Europe stops buying Russian oil completely? Will that affect the Russian economy sufficiently to hamper its war in Ukraine, especially given the fact that there are so many large countries in the Global South that continue to trade with Russia, whether it’s China or India or South Africa or others? Won’t this really just redirect where energy flows go in the future?

ALFRED McCOY: You’re right about the oil. And Europe is already discussing cutting off its imports of Russian oil. Right? And oil is fungible. It’s maneuverable. Right now much of that oil from Russia comes to Europe via oil pipelines. And that oil can be readily loaded on tankers and shipped anywhere in the world.

The beauty of taking 20% of the natural gas payments is that Russia has invested countless billions of dollars in laying down absolutely massive gas pipelines, many of which run through Ukraine. They run under the Baltic Sea. And they are not maneuverable. You can’t move them. All right? These natural gas deliveries are not made in LPG form on oceangoing freighters. All right? They come through the gas pipelines, and those pipelines can’t be picked up and moved. So Russia is stuck. It’s laid down this massive multibillion-, probably multitrillion-dollar infrastructure between Russia and Europe to provide 40% of Europe’s natural gas supplies. And so Russia is stuck.

Initially, everybody thought that Europe is stuck. You know, I think Putin was calculating that Europe is dependent upon me for their natural gas supplies, therefore they cannot do what they’re doing, shipping arms and imposing sanctions on Russia. OK? In fact, if you will, that balance of power, it can be potentially reversed by this kind of a sanction, this kind of imposition of reparations, so that Europe can take advantage of that massive gas pipeline infrastructure to punish Putin for its invasion of Ukraine and simultaneously fund the reconstruction of Ukraine. And this —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, I wanted to bring in what Vladimir Putin said just a few weeks ago, that Russian energy exports should be rerouted to Africa and Latin America. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] We need to speed up the execution of infrastructure projects, such as railways, pipelines, ports and so on, which would allow within the next few years to redirect deliveries of oil and gas from the West to the promising markets in the South and East. It is also important to see the prospects, together with the oil and gas companies, outline the plans for expanding export infrastructure to the countries of Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Russian President Vladimir Putin. Professor McCoy, if you can talk — what role China can play specifically and what you think the West is doing wrong and right?

ALFRED McCOY: Well, what the United States did wrong, right at the outset, the Biden administration’s initial tactic, its initial response as it became clear last year that Russia was moving towards an invasion of Ukraine — they began by November. As we know, there were intelligence reports that Russia was massing troops on the Ukrainian border. There were expectations of an invasion. OK? So, the initial U.S. response was a diplomatic one, to drive a wedge between China and Russia, feeling that that would isolate Putin diplomatically and make it very difficult for him to invade. The United States made, I think, a serious miscalculation about the depth of the bond, the diplomatic bond, between Xi Jinping, the president of China, and Putin of Russia. The depth of the bond is enormous. At the start of the Winter Olympics, Putin came to Beijing. They released a 5,300-word statement, a declaration of a de facto alliance, saying that there were no limits, there were no secrets, that this was a complete commitment, a complete diplomatic commitment. So, that failed right at the outset. OK?

In December, Washington had at least half a dozen contacts with China, trying to break the alliance, trying to get China to put pressure on Russia. And throughout the invasion, no matter how badly it’s gone, no matter how much damage has been done to Ukraine — and Ukraine is actually — Ukraine’s number one trading partner is China, and China had substantial investments in Ukraine — China has remained quiet about the war and has been generally supportive of Russia. So that didn’t work.

The next thing that the international community, led by Washington, tried was massive sanctions against Russia. The Biden administration announced a comprehensive program to collapse the Russian economy by 15%, to cut it off from the global supply chain and to plunge it into a serious recession. And that may yet happen, but it’s going to take a long time for an economy as large as Russia’s, as self-contained as Russia’s, to be impacted by these sanctions. So, over the immediate term, that isn’t working, right?

Now, you read me — you played Putin’s statement about seeking new markets for Russia’s energy exports, rail lines. They talked about — he talked about shipping gas and oil abroad. OK? And Europe is also talking about cutting off oil shipments. All right? So, as I said, oil is fungible. It’s maneuverable. Russia can in fact just simply stop shipping oil to Europe via pipelines and put it on ships and send it to global markets anywhere in this wide world. But that’s not true with gas. Russia does not have —

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than a minute, Professor McCoy.

ALFRED McCOY: Russia’s doesn’t have LPG. It takes about four years to build a terminal to convert gas into liquid for shipment on oceangoing freighters. All right? So, that would take a minimum of four years, and it takes many billion dollars for each terminal. And the volume of gas that Russia is exporting to Europe is so massive that it has nowhere else to go. So, basically, Putin is bluffing, OK? I think he’s trying to block the threat of an embargo or something like I’m proposing, this very simple solution of fining Russia 20% of all its natural gas exports to Europe in order to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine, punish Putin, and hopefully bring a quicker end to this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for your analysis, Alfred McCoy, professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Madison, most recent book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. We’ll link to your piece in TomDispatch, “How to End the War in Ukraine: A Solution Beyond Sanctions.”

Democracy Now! has an immediate opening for a news writer/producer. Visit democracynow.org/jobs to find out more. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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