Western powers are tightening the screws on Russian President Vladimir Putin: The next move appears to be a phased-in European ban on purchases of Russian oil.
It is the right policy, given that oil money is financing Putin’s war in Ukraine and keeping the Russian economy alive.
However, the risks could be substantial: Revisionist powers have sometimes become most violent when campaigns of economic strangulation against them are about to succeed.
The classic example is Japan before World War II. For a decade, Tokyo had been seeking a vast empire in Asia. It had embarked on a military rampage, seizing Manchuria, invading China and expanding into Southeast Asia.
The US was initially slow to respond, but eventually, Japan’s bid for regional dominance, the brutality of its tactics in China — the bombing of cities to incite terror, the systematic killing of civilians and the use of biological weapons — made an enemy of Washington.
By 1940, then-US president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration was supporting the Chinese government financially. The next spring, US warplanes and volunteer pilots began arriving in China.
Most important, Washington took the fight to Japan economically. Roosevelt first constricted exports of aviation materials, high-octane gas, scrap metal and other goods to Tokyo. After Japanese forces moved into southern Indochina in mid-1941, Roosevelt delivered the hammer blow: a full oil embargo.
Japan was vulnerable to economic coercion.
Before World War II, Japan “imported 80 percent of its oil products, 90 percent of its gasoline, 74 percent of its scrap iron and 60 percent of its machine tools” from the US, wrote Waldo Heinrichs, a diplomatic and military historian.
The oil embargo was particularly devastating. It threatened to leave Japan’s ships and planes running on fumes and bring the war in China to a humiliating end. Japanese military officials, having promised glorious conquests, feared that the country was facing strategic ruin at the US’ hands.
Japan was “like a fish in a pond from which the water was gradually being drained away,” as one Japanese Ministry of War official said later.
Rather than concede, Japan’s leaders risked everything by seizing oil-rich colonies in Southeast Asia, attacking US and Western possessions across much of the Asia-Pacific and trying to wipe out the US fleet at Pearl Harbor.
At the time, few Japanese leaders believed that they could defeat the US in a long war.
Yet sometimes, “one must conjure up enough courage, close one’s eyes and jump,” then-Japanese prime minister and minister of war Hideki Tojo said.
As with any historical analogy, it is important not to overdraw the contemporary parallels. The oil embargo and other sanctions imposed on Japan were more crippling than the punishments inflicted on Putin today. One crucial reason Japan opted for war in 1941 was that it had a tempting window of military opportunity because the US had been so slow to rearm after its post-World War I military drawdown.
As Japan’s rapid gains in the months after Pearl Harbor showed, Tokyo possessed — if only fleetingly — a degree of military superiority over Washington that Putin does not enjoy today.
Yet the Russian leader does have options for making things worse.
He could, as CIA Director Bill Burns has said, use tactical nuclear weapons inside Ukraine, or he could launch cyberattacks, physical sabotage campaigns or even conventional military strikes against the countries that are supplying Ukraine with weapons and choking Russia with sanctions.
The rhetoric out of Russia has certainly become more ominous as awareness of the country’s terrible predicament sets in.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov described the contest in Ukraine as a proxy war in which the US and NATO are trying to destroy Russia. The Russian Orthodox church has deemed the conflict a holy war.
The Russian government is increasingly invoking the memory of World War II, a zero-sum contest for national survival. Taking their cues from Putin, who has regularly hinted at the prospect of nuclear escalation, Russian propagandists are talking in apocalyptic tones.
Putin himself does not seem suicidal, but if he worries that he might not survive, politically or physically, a military defeat in Ukraine or the slow death of the Russian economy, his incentive to close his eyes and jump could be strong indeed.
As the war drags on, the US and its friends are likely to ratchet up their coercion of Russia, to increase the price Putin pays and gradually deprive him of the wherewithal to keep fighting.
Yet the closer they get to succeeding, the more they will sharpen the choice Putin faces between accepting a humiliating defeat and intensifying his aggression in hopes of salvaging a victory.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and an academic at the American Enterprise Institute.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion
of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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