Putin is in international disgrace - the west must make him feel it. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Any financial loss to Britain mustn’t obscure the aim of sanctions on Russia

The cost of recent economic sanctions will be felt in the west, but it’s a cost we can – and should – withstand. 

Barack Obama’s claim that “we have to see concrete actions, and not just words”, in an attempt to justify heightened economic sanctions on Russia, reveals a hidden optimism. The assumption being made is that the new sanctions will genuinely bring about material changes in the behaviour of Vladimir Putin’s shady regime.

The sanctions “have made a weak Russian economy even weaker,” claimed Obama. Maybe so, but this effect is not necessarily sufficient to bring success in altering Russia’s course of action. Moreover, there is the unpalatable potential for strongly adverse effects on the western economies themselves. That potential is now being realised. The US increased its economic sanctions on 16 July, and has done so again since. In the aftermath of the shooting down of flight MH17 on 17 July, the EU has joined it in imposing sanctions. The US’s sanctions began targeting particular Russian companies: two banks, two energy companies and eight arms ones. Four officials were also in the sights. The effect of these sanctions is to freeze assets, refuse financing and prevent the use of business links in the US.

This brings serious economic bite to bear against Russia. Since these are an example of “smart sanctions”, it is hoped they will avoid humanitarian damage, insofar as they are directed at specific members of Russia’s elite and not its people. Yet it is those same Russian citizens and companies with whom the west has the intimate, and mutually beneficial, business ties it uses for its own prosperity. This means that we must wield these particular sanctions as a double-edged sword.

For its part, the EU has also prevented Russian banks from accessing its capital markets. New contracts for military goods and oil-related equipment are also off limits. Yet as a backdrop to these moves lies Russia’s supply of energy to the EU. Thirty per cent of European energy is estimated to be imported from Russia, and the Baltic states, among others, are fully dependent on the nation for their supplies of gas. European companies with a stake in Russia are risking punitive action on their shareholdings and operations, as well as dreary prospects for the value of their shares at home.

This effect is not reserved for energy companies. Renault, the French automotive company, saw its shares fall by 4.5 per cent; BP is also set to suffer. It has a 20 per cent share in the oil group Rosneft, which is tied to the Kremlin. Today, Volkswagen and Siemens “voiced concerns,” and shares in Adidas have dropped by 15 per cent following its announcement of a profit warning. Britain is very vulnerable. The City of London is a global financial hub and Russian money is accustomed to flowing freely through it. The decrease in business for various overseas companies will result in further consequences for British banks. Now Anthony Bamford, chairman of JCB, has exerted his business influence, making his opinions known; he claimed that the sanctions seem "absurd" and "could put hundred of British jobs at risk".

To the credit of western nations, they have noted these effects, trading them off against the changes they wish to instil in Putin’s regime. The new Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s eloquent recognition of this fact came in his point that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. The western nations are breaking all sorts of eggs. The meal in mind is their objective of forcing Russia to quell the anarchy it is funding in eastern Ukraine. It is a noble aim, spurred on by the flight crash. Such a flagrantly unnecessary loss of human life is a worthy cause for international action. If we can forget the duplicity involved when considering the situation in Gaza, western leaders have shown admirable resolve. The Russians had already been permitted too much room for diplomatic cant and propaganda.

But what of concerns voiced over the supposed impotence of western nations; over how, in reality, the losses we in the west will have to endure will not be worth it? Economic sanctions are the only occupants of the middle ground between diplomatic pressure and military action. The latter is unthinkable. Despite claims that Asia will be Russia’s loophole, and condemnation of the damage these sanctions will do to relations in the future, western governments do need to take a stand. When we are positioned at the bridge between an epoch of hostility and war, and a supposed “new world order”, failure to enforce standards of decency on the international stage produces nothing. Worse, in fact, it sets a much more dangerous precedent. The secession of land that has taken place in Ukraine was the first in a series of unacceptable actions from Putin, which must not continue. The US and EU must let that be shown, at the very least by defending the principles they supposedly support. Perhaps stronger sanctions still will prove necessary. We should be ready to deliver them.

Hope stems from an unlikely voice – Iran. In April, officials from Tehran claimed that the US has a capacity for “vicious” sanctions, as the nation has experienced. They advised the Kremlin to avoid being on the receiving end of such punishment. “The Americans essentially forced businesses to choose between doing business in dollars or dealing with Iran. That’s a no-brainer for most,” read the complaint. Should such humility eventually come from Putin’s regime, then progress would be made.

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The public like radical policies, but they aren't so keen on radical politicians

Around the world, support for genuinely revolutionary ideas is strong, but in the UK at least, there's less enthusiasm for the people promising them.

You’re probably a getting a little bored of the litany of talking head statistics: trust in elected officials, parliament, the justice system and even democracy itself has been falling steadily for years and is at record lows. Maybe you’ve seen that graph that shows how people born after 1980 are significantly less likely than those born in 1960 to think that living in a democracy is ‘essential’. You’ve possibly heard of the ‘Pasokification’ of the centre-left, so-named the collapse of the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok, a technique being aggressively pursued by other centre-left parties in Europe to great effect.    

And so, goes the logic, there is a great appetite for something different, something new. It’s true! The space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come.

In my new book Radicals I followed movements and ideas that in many cases make someone like Jeremy Corbyn seem positively pedestrian: people who want to dismantle the nation state entirely, use technology to live forever, go off grid. All these ideas are finding fertile ground with the frustrated, disillusioned, and idealistic. The challenges of coming down the line – forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people – will demand new types of political ideas. Radical, outsider thinking is back, and this does, in theory at least, offer a chink of light for Corbyn’s Labour.

Polling last week found pretty surprising levels of support for many of his ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. According to a recent YouGov poll, Brits actually prefer socialism to capitalism, a sentiment most strongly held among younger people.

There are others ideas too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.

The BNP effect used to refer to the problem the far-right had with selling their ideas. Some of their policies were extremely popular with the public, until associated with the BNP. It seems as though the same problem is now afflicting the Labour brand. It’s not the radical ideas – there is now a genuine appetite for those who think differently – that’s the problem, it’s the person who’s tasked with delivering them, and not enough people think Corbyn can or should. The ideal politician for the UK today is quite possibly someone who is bold enough to have genuinely radical proposals and ideas, and yet appears extremely moderate, sensible and centrist in character and temperament. Perhaps some blend of Blair and Corbyn. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But this is politics, 2017. Anything is possible.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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