Publisher’s note: Jeffrey D. Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this comment belong exclusively to the author. You can read more opinion articles at CNNe.como/opinion.
(CNN) — There is only one answer to the war in Ukraine: a peace agreement.
The US’s two-pronged strategy to help Ukraine overcome the Russian invasion by imposing harsh sanctions and supplying the Ukrainian military with sophisticated weaponry is likely to fall short. What is needed is a peace agreement, which may be within reach. However, to reach an agreement, the United States will have to engage with NATO, something that Washington has so far rejected.
Putin started the war in Ukraine and has said that the negotiations have reached an impasse, without closing the door on them. But before the war began, Putin presented the West with a list of demands that included, above all, a halt to NATO enlargement.
The United States was deliberately unwilling to compromise on that point. Now would be a good time to review that policy. Putin would also have to show his willingness to make concessions for the negotiations to succeed.
America’s weapons-and-sanctions-focused strategy may sound convincing in the echo chamber of American public opinion, but it doesn’t really work on the global stage. It enjoys little support outside the United States and Europe.and may also eventually face political backlash within the United States and Europe.
To anyone familiar with the Russian war effort and the horror it has unleashed on civilians, it may seem obvious that Russia would be relegated to global pariah status. But that is not the case: developing countries, especially, have refused to join the West’s campaign of isolation, as seen most recently in a US-led vote to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council. UN. It is true that 93 countries supported the measure, but another 100 countries did not (24 opposed, 58 abstained and 18 did not vote).
Even more surprising, those 100 countries are home to 76% of the world’s population.
The countries may well have had non-ideological reasons for opposing the US initiative, including trade links with Russia. But the fact is that much of the world has refused to isolate Moscow, especially to the extent that Washington would like.
Sanctions are a big part of the US strategy. They are not likely to defeat Russia, but they are likely to impose heavy costs around the world. At best, they can push Russia toward a peace deal, and thus need to be deployed alongside an intensive push for a negotiated peace.
There are myriad problems with economic sanctions.
The first is that even if the sanctions cause economic problems in Russia, they are unlikely to change Russian politics or policies decisively.
Think of the harsh sanctions that the United States has imposed on Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. Yes, they have weakened these economies, but they have not changed the politics or policies of these countries in the way that the US government is seeking.
The second problem is that sanctions are easy to evade, at least in part, and more evasions are likely to emerge over time. US sanctions are most effectively applied to dollar transactions involving the US banking system. Countries seeking to evade sanctions find ways to conduct transactions through non-banking or non-monetary means. We can expect an increasing number of transactions with Russia in rubles, rupees, renminbi and other non-dollar currencies.
The third related problem is that most of the world does not believe in sanctions and does not take sides in the war between Russia and Ukraine. Add up all the countries and regions that impose sanctions on Russia (US, UK, European Union, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and a handful of others) and their combined population comes to just 14% of The world population.
The fourth problem is the boomerang effect. Sanctions on Russia harm not only Russia but the entire world economy, fueling supply chain disruptions, inflation, and food shortages. This is why many European countries are likely to continue to import oil and gas from Russia, and why Hungary and perhaps other European countries will agree to pay Russia in rubles. The boomerang effect is likely to hurt Democrats in the November midterms as well, as inflation eats into voters’ real incomes.
The fifth problem is the inelastic (price insensitive) demand for Russian energy and grain exports. As the amount of Russian exports declines, world prices for those products rise. Russia may end up with lower export volumes but about the same or even higher export earnings.
The sixth problem is geopolitical. Other countries, notably China, see the war between Russia and Ukraine, at least in part, as a war in which Russia is resisting NATO’s expansion into Ukraine. This is why China repeatedly argues that Russia’s legitimate security interests are at stake in the war.
The United States likes to say that NATO is a purely defensive alliance, but Russia, China and others think otherwise. They look askance at NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, NATO forces in Afghanistan for 20 years after 9/11, and NATO’s bombing of Libya in 2011, which toppled Muammar Gaddafi. Russian leaders have opposed NATO’s eastward enlargement since it began in the mid-1990s with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. It is notable that when Putin asked NATO to stop its expansion into Ukraine, Biden pointedly refused to negotiate with Russia on the issue.
In short, many countries, certainly including China, will not support global pressures on Russia that could lead to NATO expansion. The rest of the world wants peace, not a US or NATO victory in a proxy war with Russia.
The United States would love to see Putin defeated militarily, and NATO’s armaments have dealt a heavy blow to Russian forces. But it is also true that the Ukraine is being destroyed in the process. Russia is unlikely to declare defeat and withdraw. Russia is much more likely to escalate, potentially even through the use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, NATO weapons can inflict huge costs on Russia, but cannot save Ukraine.
All this is to say that the US strategy in Ukraine can bleed Russia dry but cannot save Ukraine. Only a peace agreement can do that. In fact, the current approach will undermine economic and political stability around the world and could divide the world into pro- and anti-NATO camps, to the long-term detriment of the United States.
Thus, US diplomacy is punishing Russia, but without much chance of real success for Ukraine or US interests. The real success is that the Russian troops return home and the security of Ukraine is achieved. Those results can be achieved at the negotiating table.
The key step is for the US, NATO allies and Ukraine to make it clear that NATO will not expand into Ukraine as long as Russia stops the war and leaves Ukraine. Countries aligned with Putin, and those that did not choose sides, would then tell Putin that since he has stopped NATO enlargement, now is the time for Russia to leave the battlefield and return home. Of course, the negotiations could fail if Russia’s demands remain unacceptable. But we should at least try, and indeed try very hard, to see if peace can be achieved through Ukraine’s neutrality backed by international guarantees.
All the tough talk from Biden, about Putin’s departure from power, genocide and war crimes, will not save Ukraine. The best chance to save Ukraine is through negotiations that bring the world to its side. By prioritizing peace over NATO enlargement, the US would garner the support of a larger part of the world and thereby help bring peace to Ukraine and security and stability to the entire world.