With President Obama announcing putative normalization with Cuba, Russia watchers are likely to argue that this deprives Moscow of yet another friend, further isolating it internationally and demonstrating its lack of initiative. All of that may be true, though it’s still very early days. But that’s not the real lesson President Putin should be drawing from Obama’s policy shift.
Putin should be looking at the chart above, taken from a 2011 paper on “The History and Potential of Trade Between Cuba and the US“, by Cassandra Copeland and colleagues. As it makes abundantly clear, the US was, by far, Cuba’s largest trading partner in 1957, before the embargo. In fact, with that kind of trading relationship, it was very hard indeed to see how Cuba could survive without the ability to trade extensively with America. And yet it did. For more than 50 years, Cuba found other friends and supporters who – at a cost, to be sure – allowed it to muddle through. The embargo may or may not have been politically necessary, but what it did not do was upturn a regime that Washington found odious. Instead, it probably allowed that regime to survive, since it could blame economic hardship not on its own policy failings, but on the belligerence of the yanquis.
So, memo to Moscow: even your closest neighbors, whose economies are inextricably linked to your own, will find other places to go if you close the door. Ukraine is nowhere near as reliant on Russian trade as Cuba was on the US in the 1950s, enjoying significant trading relationships with Europe and China in particular. The same goes for Georgia, Moldova and (gasp!) Belarus. If the US-Cuban experience is any guide, attempts to economically isolate a regime you don’t like can go on for decades, delivering nothing but enmity, impoverishment and, eventually, a rather embarrassing climbdown.
And before anyone accuses me of double standards, it’s worth asking what this all means for Western leaders pressing sanctions against Russia. It’s worth noting that the sanctions imposed on Russia are not trade sanctions; in fact, they hardly affect trade with Russia at all. They are designed to isolate individuals at the top of the leadership, rather than the country as a whole. As such, they might actually be more likely to bring the results the West wants, because they put some distance between the Russian population and its leaders (unlike the Cuban embargo, which brought rulers and masses together). But I’m not holding my breath.