Ukraine War Shifts to Economic Warfare

nord stream

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, realized early, in his country’s invasion of Ukraine, that adversaries do not always fight wars on a battlefield. The realization that Russian military superiority could not easily overcome Ukraine’s moral superiority and its defensive capabilities succeeded the recognition by Ukraine’s NATO allies that Russia could not be defeated militarily and might be defeated by imposing sanctions that throttle Russian industry, including its agriculture. Defeat will be accomplished by economic warfare, reaching eventually to a politics of starvation ─ starve the industry, starve the body, and starve the mind. A defeated and succumbed people will force its government to capitulate.

The Russian leader heeded NATO’s thrust and abruptly adopted a militarized economic warfare strategy that sits well with the Russian people ─ Russian casualties will be minimal and Ukraine casualties will not be reported in the Russian Press. Russian armies have slowed their offensive actions and concentrated on destroying Ukraine’s energy sources and laying waste to its agriculture. In a move to show the futility of supporting Ukraine, Russia extended its politics of starvation to include blocking Ukraine grain shipments to nations throughout the world. The latter maneuver proved counterproductive and the Kremlin retreated from this drastic action.

In the early months of the Ukraine invasion, battles occurred on a front that extended from Southeast Ukraine to western Ukraine and to northeast Ukraine. Casualties grew on both sides as the battles intensified. In 2023, battles have diminished and are confined to a small strip of land in the Donets Basin. Escalating economic warfares, in which the Russian military pounds economic targets and NATO sanctions pound the Russian economy, have become the decisive and deciding strategies of the war. Which strategy, in this new war of attrition, will prove more decisive and has the greater possibility of achieving its goal can be analyzed by examining previous examples of economic warfare.

Examples of militaries waging economic warfare are the allied World War II bombings of German and Japan infrastructure and the U.S. bombing campaigns of North Vietnam and Vietcong territories. The World War II bombing campaigns did not have the precision and firepower of present day weapons but the intensity, number of sorties, and years of carpet bombings intended to overcome the limitations. Did these attempts to cripple economies prove vital in ending the wars?

A Table on P.191, Die Deutsche Industrie im Kriege (The German War Industry), R. Wagenfuhr, indicates that at the end of World War II, German industrial production was 10 percent higher than in 1942 and consumption had not diminished. The German industry circumvented the carpet bombings that destroyed German cities. Nazi Germany continued manufacturing tanks, airplanes, and munitions in factories throughout Europe, some of them underground, until military forces captured the ground where the factories existed. The German people maintained morale and endured the economic hardships until final surrender. Economic warfare did not defeat Germany. Defeat came on the battlefield from the combined strength of Soviet and allied ground forces.

The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor started a military war between the United States and Japan. Before that date, the two antagonists were already engaged in an economic war. Concerned with Japanese military moves into Asia and the Empire’s seizure of resources that increased Japan’s military and economic might, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dictated measures to contain Japan. From The Path to Pearl Harbor

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in July 1940, cut off shipments of scrap iron, steel, and aviation fuel to Japan even as he allowed American oil to continue flowing to the empire. Japan responded by entering resource-rich French Indochina, with permission from the government of Nazi-occupied France, and by cementing its alliance with Germany and Italy as a member of the Axis. In July 1941, Japan moved into southern Indochina in preparation for an attack against both British Malaya, a source for rice, rubber, and tin, and the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. This prompted Roosevelt to freeze all Japanese assets in the United States on July 26, 1941, which effectively cut off Japan’s access to US oil.

The economic war had one accomplishment ─ it led to a conventional military war that shifted into a militarized economic war. Faced with eventually having to invade the Japanese mainland and suffer huge casualties, the U.S. adopted a strategy that sacrificed Japanese lives and saved American lives.

After seizing island bases that brought the Japanese mainland within striking distance of long-range bombers, the US, in early 1945, halted a two year lull from the 1942 Doolittle raids and resumed bombings of Japan. The US Strategic Bombing Survey describes the goal of the bombing assault that destroyed Japan’s major cities in the period between May and August 1945 as “either to bring overwhelming pressure on her to surrender, or to reduce her capability of resisting invasion. . . . [by destroying] the basic economic and social fabric of the country.”

The economic effects of the air attacks against the Japanese mainland appear in the US Strategic Bombing Survey.

…some 40 percent of the built-up area of the 66 cities attacked was destroyed. Approximately 30 percent of the entire urban population of Japan lost their homes and many of their possessions….The railroad system had not yet been subjected to substantial attack and remained in reasonably good operating condition at the time of surrender….Damage to local transport facilities, however, seriously disrupted the movement of supplies within and between cities. Urban incendiary attacks destroyed the electric distribution systems in the burned-out areas simultaneously with the consumer load previously served by them. The hydro-electric generating plants and the transmission networks survived without substantial damage. Twenty-six urban steam-generating plants were damaged as an incident to other attacks, the aggregate loss of capacity being less than one-seventh of Japan’s total generating capacity.

Four hundred and seventy thousand barrels of oil and oil products, 221,000 tons of foodstuffs and 2 billion square yards of textiles were destroyed by air attacks. Ninety-seven percent of Japan’s stocks of guns, shells, explosives, and other military supplies were thoroughly protected in dispersed or underground storage depots, and were not vulnerable to air attack.

Physical damage to plant installations reduced physical productive capacity by roughly the following percentages of pre-attack plant capacity: oil refineries, 83 percent; aircraft engine plants, 75 percent; air-frame plants, 60 percent; electronics and communication equipment plants, 70 percent; army ordnance plants, 30 percent; naval ordnance plants, 28 percent; merchant and naval shipyards, 15 percent; light metals, 35 percent; ingot steel, 15 percent; chemicals, 10 percent.

The bombing campaign may have intended “to reduce her capability of resisting invasion. . . . [by destroying] the basic economic and social fabric of the country,” but it did not spare casualties.  The March 9, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo is considered the single-most destructive raid of World War II. Sixteen square miles of city were destroyed and an estimated 80,000 – 130,000 Japanese were killed, more than those who initially died in the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Did the militarized economic warfare push the Japanese into surrender; evidence does not support that assumption. If the U.S. command thought that to be probable, the orders to drop the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been issued. If the atomic age had not occurred and conventional bombing would have persisted, it is more likely that Japan would have surrendered but not unconditionally. A continued bombing campaign would have caused mounting casualties and impeded further offensive actions by the Imperial Army but would not have prevented a capable defense of the islands. The Japanese could accept the former as long as they had control of the latter. Doubtful that the U.S. would be willing to suffer a massive amount of casualties to achieve unconditional surrender; more likely that President Truman would have ended the war if the Japanese offered a conditional surrender.

The militarized economic warfare did not end the war; it needed more to bring an unconditional surrender. In this case, the more was excessive deaths. The specter of a slaughter of the Japanese by more atomic bombings, which gave the appearance of eventually extinguishing the entire population, prompted the emperor to agree with the surrender terms.

The Vietnam War is easily analyzed. Despite blasting North Vietnam and the Vietcong countryside, the U.S. lost the war. The military economic warfare proved futile and ground forces were incapable of making up for the futility.

Sanctions drive the economic war. After World War II, the United States imposed sanctions against more than 35 countries that Washington accused of intolerable behavior. North Korea, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua, Burma, Sudan, Iraq, Cuba, Liberia, Soviet Union, Sierra Leone, Syria, Somalia, Russia, and Yugoslavia are some of the many nations that have been whipped by U.S. sanctions. Only Burma and Nicaragua  corrected violations of human rights; both have returned to dictatorial rule. All of these nations have suffered greatly from the sanctions, with Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq enduring the most punishment.

Already heavily sanctioned, Iran’s entrance into the atomic age provoked a series of new sanctions. The economic warfare affected Iran’s industries and welfare. After decades of different sanctions, annual inflation increased to more than 42 percent, the national currency lost more than half of its value in the years fro 2019-2022, and oil exports fell from roughly 2.5 million barrels per day in 2017 to less than 0.4 million barrels per day in 2020. Gross Domestic Product peaked at $644 billion in 2011 and fell to $185 billion in 2020.

Going into the year 2023 tells a different story. The Iranian government budget predicts 1.4 million barrels of crude oil per day, inflation increased to 55 percent, and Statista predicts the GDP to rise to $368 billion.

Economic warfare has not halted Iran’s nuclear activities, changed any aspects of its behavior, or prevented it from signing contracts with foreign firms to develop energy resources. Exports grew to $71.6 billion in Dec 2021, compared with $46.9 billion in the previous year, with liberated Iraq, war ravished Russia, and independent China filling the gap as trading partners.

Economic warfare has caused Iran’s industry and Iran’s people to suffer. Iranians did not accept defeat, did not succumb, and the economic warfare has not forced its government to capitulate.

The decades old economic, commercial, and financial embargoes placed on Cuba hampered the Cuban economy. The American Association for World Health and the American Public Health Association ascertained that it also caused significant deterioration in Cuba’s food production and health care:

  • Cuba was banned from purchasing nearly 1/2 of new drugs on the market.
  • Physicians had access to only 890 medications, down from 1,300 in 1989.
  • Deterioration of water supply increased water borne diseases.
  • Daily caloric intake dropped by 33% between 1989 and 1993.

The Cuba of 2023, politically, socially and culturally is still the Cuba of 1960. More than 60 years of economic warfare against Cuba has accomplished nothing for the U.S. and has greatly harmed the Cuban people.

North Korea
The proud and impoverished nation of North Korea (DPRK) has been continually subjected to sanctions, threats of economic sanctions, and hastily withdrawn sanctions. The media is peppered with the words: “U.S. Lifts sanctions,” “U.S. recommends sanctions,” “South Korea wary of sanctions.”  After its 2006 claim of conducting a nuclear test, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic Korea) leaders responded to intended sanctions by labeling them “a declaration of war.”

The DPRK has suffered from economic warfare, which includes restrictions on trade and financial transactions. Export to the DPRK of items that have both military and non-military uses have, at times, been prohibited.  During March 2012, the politics of starvation entered the situation; angered by an intended North Korea missile test, the U.S. suspended food aid to the “hermit kingdom.

Sanctions, intended to collapse the North Korea regime, have not halted its development of nuclear weapons and guided missile delivery systems. They have collapsed the economy and harmed the North Korean people; starvation during droughts have occurred. Although some international assistance has been provided to North Korea, the intensive economic warfare waged against the “hermit kingdom” has exacerbated its problems, without any apparent benefit to its principal antagonist, the United States.

Sanctions against Iraq began August 6, 1990, four days after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and featured a near-total financial and trade embargo. Resultant suffering has been outlined in a UN Report on the Current Humanitarian Situation in Iraq, submitted to the Security Council, March 1999. Due to the length of the report, only significant features are mentioned.

Pre Gulf War

  • Before 1991, Iraq’s social and economic indicators were generally above the regional and developing country averages.
  • Up to 1990, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) cited Iraq as having one of the highest per capita food availability indicators in the region.
  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), prior to 1991, health care reached approximately 97% of the urban population and 78% of rural residents. A major reduction of young child mortality took place from 1960 to 1990; with the infant mortality rate at 65 per 1,000 live births in 1989 (1991 Human Development Report average for developing countries was 76 per 1,000 live births). UNICEF indicates that a national welfare system assisted orphans and children with disabilities and supported the poorest families.
  • Before 1991, southern and central Iraq had well developed water and sanitation systems, with two hundred water treatment plants for urban areas and 1200 compact hundred water treatment plants  to serve rural areas, as well as an extensive distribution network. WHO estimates that 90% of the population had access to an abundant quantity of safe drinking water.

Sanctions began after the Gulf War, ostensibly as a means to remove Saddam Hussein, and continued until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  • Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that Iraqi GDP may have fallen by nearly 67% in 1991, and the nation had “experienced a shift from relative affluence to massive poverty” and had infant mortality rates that were “among the highest in the world.”
  • The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated the maternal mortality rate increased from 50/100,000 live births in 1989 to 117/100,000 in 1997. The under-five child mortality rate increased from 30.2/1000 live births to 97.2/1000 during the same period. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) calculates that the infant mortality rate rose from 64/1000 births in 1990 to 129/1000 in 1995 (the Human Development Report set the average infant mortality rate for Least Developed Countries at 109/1000).
  • Calorie intake fell from a pre-war 3120 to 1093 calories per capita/per day in 1994-95. The prevalence of malnutrition in Iraqi children under five almost doubled from 1991 to 1996 (from 12% to 23%). Acute malnutrition in Center/South rose from 3% to 11% for the same age bracket.
  • The World Food Program (WFP) estimated that access to potable water decreased to 50% of the 1990 level in urban areas and 33% in rural areas.
  • School enrollment for all ages (6-23) declined to 53%. According to a field survey conducted in 1993, as quoted by UNESCO, in Central and Southern governorates, 83% of school buildings needed rehabilitation, with 8613 out of 10,334 schools having suffered serious damages.

The U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq accomplished what sanctions failed to accomplish ─ after pushing Iraq into total ruin, the invasion brought total surrender and the removal of Saddam Hussein. A question, “Why go to war, if already had sanctions, or why implement sanctions if ready to go to war?”

As shown, economic warfare has rarely, if ever, accomplished its stated purposes. Applied to Russia, with the intent to degrade its ability to wage war and force it to eventually retreat from its wartime gains, economic warfare has little likelihood of achieving victory. The Bear has vast internal resources to use for any emergency, is a member of BRICS — an organization of five leading economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — and a member of the  Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia consisting of six post-Soviet states — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Many leading nations have refused to isolate Russia for its invasion —India, Israel, Serbia — and business with them remains as usual.

A Ukraine victory can only occur from a ground war that recovers the lost territory and brings the hostilities to the Russian border. For Ukraine to win the ground war, requires escalating the conflict to total war, which includes war on the Russian mainland. The result of this escalation will be vast destruction of Ukraine and millions of casualties. If facing defeat, will Russia use nuclear weapons? If Ukraine faces defeat, will NATO directly intervene?

It has been previously shown that militarized economic warfare by itself has not achieved victory. Circumstances are different in this war.

(1)    If Russia can contain its casualties, it will be patient in achieving its objectives. The U.S. government defied public criticism for 15 years in Vietnam and for 20 years in Afghanistan.

(2)    Unlike the European war, where all adversaries, except the United States, were subjected to homeland damage, Mother Russia has remained relatively immune from Ukraine attacks.

(3)    The Russians are not asking for unconditional surrender; they are requesting territorial surrender and Ukraine neutrality.

NATO’s economic warfare strategy has no chance of victory. It can only degrade into a land war that could lead to a Third World War. Russia’s militarized economic warfare strategy has been waged for several months, and, despite expecting Ukrainians to freeze, starve, have mental breakdowns, and run for the borders, the Ukrainian public has endured the bombings and remained relatively calm. The Russians are stalled, perplexed, contemplating, and probably feel they need to do more. The more may be similar to the more that American military strategists decided to use in their attempt to persuade Japan to surrender — more havoc and more civilian casualties — a growing more that leads to abundant catastrophes.

Neither side can win this war on the terms that have already been proposed. Ukraine demands complete withdrawal of Russian troops from all territories they have occupied; Russia demands recognition of annexation of territories it has seized and the demilitarization of Ukraine. This war has become a  war without end or ending only if one side is entirely obliterated. The only alternatives are (1) a cease fire, similar to Korea, that freezes the situation and permits each side to claim they have not surrendered. For the next years they can snarl, growl, threaten each other, and go on with their lives, or (2) replacement of one or both governments who will be willing to compromise their positions.

I’ll bet on a combination of the two ─ new governments installed specifically to arrange a cease fire agreement.

Dan Lieberman is a political commentator


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News