The US and EU's approach to Russia has been a major factor behind the current crisis in eastern Europe writes Saeed Khan, and a major shift in policy making is needed to both defuse current tensions and lessen the possibility of future conflict.

Robert K. Merton, the 20th century American sociologist, was a renowned social scientist but is perhaps best known for being the originator of the 'Law of Unintended Consequences'.

Merton identified five principal causes of actions resulting in unintended consequences: ignorance, errors in analysis, the serving of immediate interests over longer-term considerations, basic values, and self-defeating prophecy – not acting for fear of the outcome.

The past two decades of Western foreign policy are littered with examples of unintended consequences, but an impartial judge would demur from attributing this to a lack of decent values, or self-defeating prophecy.

However, the US and Europe's current approach towards Putin's Russia and its allies – the West's pre-eminent foreign policy headache – is certainly built on weak analysis, short-termism, and perhaps even a hint of ignorance.

Russia, which is fomenting war with Ukraine, has been threatened with an economic winter if it were to invade, while the US has already pushed Belarus, a nation led by the Russophile autocrat Alexander Lukashenko, out into the cold. Both Putin and Lukashenko have to be restrained, of that there is no doubt. Yet at present, Western assertiveness against both men has worsened the current energy crisis and initiated a full-blown agricultural crisis in the US, while failing to pull eastern Europe back from the brink of war.

These are grave unintended consequences indeed.

Starting with the Mertonian principle of errors of analysis, President Biden and the EU Commission fundamentally overestimate the efficacy of sanctions in controlling Putin. For one, Russia has been under sanctions since its 2014 invasion of the Crimea, and its economy remains stable if stagnant, propped up by massive foreign exchange reserves from oil and gas.

If one were to wargame a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pattern of events is fairly predictable. The West would react with sanctions, Putin would cut off Europe's gas supply, and the continent would plunge into an inflationary spiral as a result.

Russians would undoubtedly suffer under sanctions, but Putin has the funds to hold out on Europe's energy supplies, as reported by The Economist.

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Now consider the approach of the US and EU to Lukashenko's Belarus, another unfortunate case study in short-termist, reflexive policymaking. Belarus has been sanctioned since last summer, but Lukashenko is still in power, with his economy propped up by Russian loans and a reorientation of trade. The eastern European minnow has also become a staging ground for Russian military operations, providing Putin with the perfect launch point to attack Kiev from the North.

As such, it is clear that the West took their shot at Lukashenko, missed, and have instead emboldened Putin, the far greater threat. Unwilling to change tack, the EU has even doubled down on sanctions, with Belarusian potash, the country's main source of revenue, now banned from being transported across Lithuania to the port of Klaipeda for export.

If not ignorant, then this decision was certainly naïve. The New York Times has reported that the move has not only hamstrung the Lithuanian transit industry, but will serve as an unintended boon for a certain someone: President Putin.

Belarusian fertiliser will now be transported on Russian trains and vehicles to the port of Ust-Luga, 68 kilometres from St. Petersburg. With one swoop of a Eurocrat's pen, Russia has been handed control of the supply of a key agricultural commodity.

But 'it's just fertiliser', you might say, what leverage can that really afford to the opportunistic Putin? The answer is, unfortunately, quite a lot.

Fertiliser prices have doubled in the past year, largely as a result of Western sanctions on Belarus, and Putin now has a stranglehold on global supply. The effects are already being felt, with farmers in the US having written to the US Treasury warning of bad harvests and the consequent price inflation of basic foodstuffs. They identify sanctions on Belarus as the cause and have demanded their immediate repeal.

An energy crisis, an agricultural crisis, an emboldened Lukashenko, and Putin parading himself in front of the Western media, just where he wants to be. These are the unintended consequences of the US and EU's approach to the Russia/Belarus axis, fostered by short-sightedness, a seeming misunderstanding of the region's trade and economy, and a related whiff of foolhardiness.

While the current situation is grim, the West may fear that a change of approach will make things even worse.

It is unclear how that can be the case, however. The repeal of sanctions on Belarus would soothe the woes of US agriculture and weaken Putin by reintegrating the country into Western markets. Facing down Putin over the Ukraine will be more difficult, but when sanctions have previously failed, imposing even more does not seem like the right approach.

A reanalysis by the EU and US of its current policy is required. One which focuses on geopolitical reality, rather than reflexive, short-termist policymaking.

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