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What Is the Cost of Inaction?

Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been muted by concerns about the cost of any response. Germany has always been mercantile in its foreign policy—just remember its efforts to erode Iranian sanctions for the sake of short-term profit, even at the time National Intelligence Estimates agree that Iran was experimenting with nuclear bomb triggers. Germany, too, appears to have been the source of much of the chemical munitions Saddam Hussein used in the 1980s against the Kurds. It should not surprise, therefore, that German chancellor Angela Merkel is reluctant to impose biting sanctions on Russia in response to its aggression, for she rightly points out that Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond by cutting off gas shipments to Central and Eastern Europe.

Putin has leverage over the United States as well: Not only might he nationalize the operations of American companies doing business in Russia, but he also effectively holds U.S. military equipment hostage since much of it is being transshipped across Russia as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan.

While the costs of doing something are high, it’s imperative that policymakers also question the cost of doing nothing. For years, a major argument against significant sanctions on Iran was what the result might be at the gas pump. But the idea that the status quo was and is tenable is nonsense: Should Iran develop nuclear weapons, then it would be in a position through blackmail or otherwise to drive up the price of oil even further. After all, who would stop Iran utilizing conventional forces to disrupt oil flow if Tehran boasted its own nuclear deterrent?

The situation is now similar with regard to Russia. There is no doubt that any response will be expensive. But a more important question is what will the expense be a decade down the line should Putin push into the Baltics or should he conclude that Western officials are so craven and such paper tigers that he can conduct pipeline blackmail anyway? Sometimes inaction may seem like the best of all short-term options, but seldom does it pay off in the long term.


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