Want to put the squeeze on the outlaw Putin by dialing back the offshore shenanigans of his pals among the Russian super-rich? Wait just a minute, Mr. President: What might that do to the London real estate market? Let's see which side Prime Minister David Cameron ultimately takes on the question of whether to punish Vlad the Invader or protect the City of London's offshore ATM machine.
Want to double-down on sanctions that would dial back the Russian gas and oil supply contracts for most of Europe? Hold on. Who wants to bite the hand that heats us in the midst of this cold winter, which, after all, is America's fault? Let's see just how forcefully Chancellor Merkel uses her recent re-election and de facto queenship of the Eurozone to leverage her "good cop" chit-chats with the Russian President into a threat he might take seriously to undermine the 50 percent of his economy that comes from energy exports.
President Obama's problem isn't whether President Putin will listen to him, as so many U.S. commentators harp on. The question is whether our NATO allies in the Western end of Europe will put their money where their mouths are when it comes to drawing a red line in favor Ukraine sovereignty. These countries are not in the vulnerable position of our NATO allies in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, or even Slovakia, the Czech Republic, etc., on the Russian border. These countries have plenty of ethnic Russians on their side of those borders. And they are rightfully concerned about Putin's version of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney "pre-emptive war" doctrine -- namely, that he can march troops (with or without identification) across the borders to preemptively prevent alleged abuse of such Rethnicsussian.
Of course, if the British, French and Germans continue to waffle and wobble on whether to become more dependent on potential U.S. energy resources rather than their Putin pipelines, the U.S. idea of sanctions will have to be replaced by putting some anti-missle defenses back on the table, on the Russian border of those former Soviet states. But this resort to a militarized rather than economic action against Putin would only serve to escalate the threat of unintended warlike consequences further. We would not need to do so if the leading European states would be willing to share the pain of tough sanctions on the Russian economy. Not bloody likely!
The same goes for American big business with major investments in the Russian economy. Are the mining equipment companies, oil and gas drillers, pipeline suppliers, investment banks and other U.S.-based exporters of goods and services to Russian countries joining the Republican hawks in calling for tough sanctions on Russia's economy? Conspicuous silence -- except for their lobbyists, of course, who are fiercely lobbying the Administration against such sanctions.
And what about the supposedly easy solution to Europe's energy dilemma of simply lifting American prohibition on exporting American oil and natural gas (which, by the way are not Obama decisions but acts of a previous Congress which can only be changed by Congress)? Let's see how soon -- if ever -- Congress gets around to taking action to lift those bans in the face of the opposition from U.S.-based chemical and utility companies. (How many Congressional districts don't have a power plant?)
It turns out our own devotion to liberty and international law only goes so far when somebody's profits and dividends and executive compensation are put at risk. Talk is cheap, but patriotism is expensive, as it turns out. Too expensive for American and European industries with close economic ties and dependencies on Putin and his own somewhat Soviet version of "crony capitalism." Right now, for many of our "Western" business people, it's a matter of protecting their Russian partners, at all costs -- particularly to Ukraine.
China may hold our debt, but it's Putin who has England's equity, Germany's furnaces and France's keys to Iranian contracts. And while sanctions against Iran have precluded only potential business for law-abiding U.S. businesses, sanctions that really bite the Russian bear would hurt existing U.S. business interests. Let's see if the Congress -- so vocal about "doing something" to stop Putin -- will actually vote to hurt the U.S. chemical and utility industries by allowing oil or gas exports to Europe. Maybe if Putin threatens to "liberate" the ethic Russian population of Brooklyn from New York's "stop and frisk" practices. But more likely by then we're back to missile crisis time anyway.
The fact is that it is not the American President, but rather American, English, German and French businesses that won't lift a thumb off their profit scales to save Crimea or even the whole of Ukraine. And why should we be surprised? U.S. businesses refuse to hire until it gets more tax breaks and lobbies ferociously against any increase in the minimum wage to protect their bottom lines and "shareholder values." Just watch and see over the next week or so how many business commentators start to talk about how sanctions against Russia will hurt "American jobs."
Their apologists in the business media, particularly the so-called "reporters" on CNBC (apart from Steve Leisman) spread blatant untruths about the demographic makeup of the minimum wage workforce to protect the de facto wage freeze on low income Americans. One CNBC anchor confidently observed that those on minimum wage were just teenagers who don't deserve a raise -- while the facts any true reporter would find are that only 16 percent of minimum-wage workers are under 20. The average age of all such workers is actually 35 and most of them are women of child-rearing age.
When CNBC's "free market advocates" have to stoop to economic fraud, that couldn't survive in an SEC prospectus review, to protect their patrons' profits, we should pay attention to how far some business leaders will now go to stop the President and Congress from imposing truly effective sanctions against Russian invasions of a sovereign state, which ironically would prefer to adopt some form of capitalism.
Just watch and see over the next couple of weeks how many of CNBC's business "experts" start talking about how imposing sanctions on Russian interests will hurt the U.S. economic recovery and of course, "American jobs." Russian contracts are as sacred it seems, as private equity's "carried interests" -- which are truly carried by all other U.S. taxpayers.
In short, some of America's most influential capitalists can live without a free Ukraine, but can't seem to survive without their friends in the Kremlin. Profits, like politics, make for strange bedfellows.
Terry Connelly is an economic expert and dean emeritus of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Terry holds a law degree from NYU School of Law and his professional history includes positions with Ernst & Young Australia, the Queensland University of Technology Graduate School of Business, New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, global chief of staff at Salomon Brothers investment banking firm and global head of investment banking at Cowen & Company. In conjunction with Golden Gate University President Dan Angel, Terry co-authored Riptide: The New Normal In Higher Education.