The day Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden told Americans from the White House, “This aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”
The president was, perhaps intentionally, echoing his predecessor George H.W. Bush, who addressed the nation after another dictator invaded his neighbor more than 30 years ago: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” But the echo only served to underscore the difference between the two responses. In 1991, the U.S. built a multinational coalition that sent nearly 700,000 soldiers to the Persian Gulf. That aggression did not stand; Iraqi forces were driven from Kuwait. Today, the U.S. has said repeatedly it will not be sending in troops or building a military coalition to fight Russia directly. Doing so would risk a nuclear war.
So far, the U.S. and allied response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine has mostly taken the form of economic punishment. The U.S. sanctioned two major Russian state-owned banks and imposed sweeping controls on technology exports to Russia. The U.K. says it will sanction more than 100 individuals and entities, freeze the assets of Russian banks in U.K. and ban Russian airline Aeroflot from the country. The European Union also announced sanctions that will sever 70 percent of Russia’s banking system from international financial markets, as well as an export ban targeting the Russian oil industry.
All these measures will hurt. The Russian stock market crashed 33 percent after temporarily suspending trading on Thursday, the ruble hit a record low against the U.S. dollar, and Bloomberg estimated that Russian billionaires lost $39 billion in one day. Other institutions, from the Council of Europe to soccer’s Champion’s League have also taken steps to isolate Russia.
Still, none of these steps has deterred Putin so far, and if the conflict drags on, there will be pressure on world leaders to back up their righteous language about “standing with Ukraine.”
What leverage do the U.S. and its allies have? What measures are they willing to use? Is there anything Western countries can still do to back Ukraine and punish Russia, short of starting World War III?
Use the energy weapon
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said Thursday that Russian “sabotage forces” were hunting for him, has called on European countries to go beyond the existing sanctions and embargo all Russian oil and gas imports. Doing so would strike a huge blow against an industry that accounts for a third of the Russian state’s annual budget. Given what we’ve seen to date, that seems extremely unlikely.
In his statement on Thursday, Biden was trying to send a message to Putin while also assuring Americans that he would “protect American families and businesses from rising prices at the gas pump.” As Grid’s Matthew Zeitlin has written, it’s going to be hard to do both. The U.S. measures notably did not include tough sanctions against Russia’s energy sector, such as state oil company Rosneft, and the banking sanctions include carve-outs for energy payments. This news steadied oil prices but undercut the notion that the U.S. was using all the tools at its disposal to punish Russia, considering the importance of energy to Kremlin’s geopolitical project. The U.S. isn’t the only government nervous about this. Europeans were feeling the pinch of soaring energy prices even before the war began. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, whose country imports much of its gas from Russia, likely spoke for a number of his counterparts last week when he urged that sanctions should be “targeted on narrow sectors without including energy.”
In the longer term, perhaps this crisis will be Europe’s wake-up call to finally wean itself off Russian gas entirely. But for now, “stand with Ukraine” does not include a willingness to pay more at the pump.
Hit Putin’s enablers
Edward Lucas, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and author of several books on Russian politics, has a different idea. This week, he called on Western countries to impose “visa bans on all government ministers, on all members of the Duma and Federation Council, all governors and officeholders in Russia’s regions, on all officials in the ‘power ministries’ and security agencies, and on the 35 individuals named in Alexei Navalny’s list.” The last point refers to 35 Russian oligarchs and officials identified by the imprisoned opposition leader and his organization, people seen as key to Putin’s hold on power and complicit in human rights abuses — including Navalny’s own poisoning. A bill introduced this week in Congress would urge the Biden administration to sanction all 35 of them.
Of course, after eight years of sanctions, many of Russia’s richest oligarchs are very good at finding ways to hide their money. This hidden wealth accounts for as much as 85 percent of Russia’s GDP, according to some estimates. British journalist Oliver Bullough suggests that if the U.K. were serious about cracking down on the oligarchs who have used London as a friendly place to live and stash money, it needs to crack down on offshore property and on laws that make it easy to register shell companies.
Lucas told Grid that in some ways, the focus on oligarchs misses the mark. “There’s a Western misapprehension that the oligarchs run Russia. They did in the ’90s, but the oligarchs now are sort of franchise holders for Putin.” He said that new sanctions should instead “shift the focus away from oligarchs to the top 1,000, or top 5,000, people in Russia who are making the actual decisions. Then you go after their spouses and their children and their parents and their siblings and their significant others. And so if you have any relationship with anyone like that, you can’t come to the West anymore. That would create a bit of a headache.” New EU sanctions targeting members of Russia’s State Duma and Putin’s cabinet could be the beginning.
Much of the debate around sanctions has focused on whether Russia should be kicked off SWIFT, the global financial messaging system that banks use to communicate and conduct transactions. The U.S. and United Kingdom reportedly favor taking this step, which was previously used against Iran, but a number of European countries oppose it, fearing the disruption to financial markets. Biden noted, somewhat tersely, in his remarks on Thursday that SWIFT sanctions were “not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take.”
The U.S. has ways of unilaterally forcing SWIFT, a Belgium-based company, to remove Russia without the EU’s consent. It did this with Iran in 2012. Ultimately though, knocking Russia off SWIFT may be less consequential than the banking sanctions already being applied. Anders Aslund, an economist and former adviser to the Russian government, told Grid, “SWIFT is an information messaging system. If you’re off SWIFT, you’re still allowed to have dealings with financial institutions. With [these sanctions], everyone is prevented from dealing with you.”
Rightly or wrongly, SWIFT has become a kind of litmus test for countries’ will to respond to Russian aggression. And for the moment, it looks like there are limits on that will.
The U.S. expelled the second-highest-ranking diplomat from the Russian Embassy in D.C. this week, though at least according to the State Department, this was not related to the invasion, but a response to the expulsion of the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Moscow earlier this year. Lucas suggests all EU, NATO and OECD countries should withdraw their ambassadors from Moscow and send their Russian counterparts home. There’s precedent for such a move; in 2018, the U.S. and several European countries expelled dozens of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Also on the diplomatic front, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations has launched a long-shot bid to challenge Russia’s seat on the Security Council. The Russian Federation took over the Soviet Union’s seat in 1991, but that change was never voted on, and the U.N.’s charter still refers to the USSR, which became 15 different countries after the Soviet collapse. Ukraine is one of them.
A number of Ukrainian leaders are calling for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over the country, to neutralize or at least weaken Russia’s air power. This tactic has been used by the U.S. and allies in the past in Libya, Iraq and Yugoslavia.
This is extremely unlikely to happen. As U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace put it on Friday, “To do a no-fly zone, I would have to put British fighter jets directly against Russian fighter jets.” This would essentially “declare war on Russia,” he added.
More troops are being moved into the countries surrounding Ukraine. Biden has ordered a total of 14,000 additional U.S. troops to Europe since the Ukraine crisis began to escalate, including 7,000 after the invasion began. Eight hundred U.S. infantry troops have been relocated to the Baltic countries, and eight F-35 fighter jets deployed along the eastern border of NATO.
But the White House has said at every turn — including in Biden’s Thursday remarks: No U.S. soldiers are going to enter Ukraine. They may assist with the relief effort for refugees fleeing the conflict, but their main purpose is to reassure NATO member states in Eastern Europe that they won’t be next in Putin’s sights.
Aiding and equipping
Ukraine’s defense minister has called on the nation’s supporters to supply the country with more Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank weapons. Early reports suggest the Javelins, which the U.S. began supplying in 2018, are one reason why the Ukrainian military has been holding up better than it did in the Crimea conflict in 2014. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that the U.S. will continue to provide Ukraine with these weapons systems, though the logistics of those deliveries will be tricky with the country’s airspace closed.
But it’s a little late for conventional military aid. “At this point, the table is set, and the guests are not just arriving for dinner, they’re sitting down. I don’t think that there’s much that the U.S. can do in terms of training and equipping,” Sean McFate, a retired U.S. Army paratrooper who now teaches at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, told Grid. “At this point, what they can try to think about is planning some sort of insurgency.”
The Pentagon is reportedly considering options for supporting such an insurgency, in the event Russia defeats Ukraine’s conventional military in the coming days. The Central Intelligence Agency and Green Berets had already been training Ukrainian special forces in unconventional warfare before the invasion began.
Given Biden’s no-U.S.-troops-on-the-ground restriction, support for such a fight would have to take place outside Ukraine, perhaps from a forward operating base in a neighboring country. McFate notes that this would be something of a return to the original role of U.S. Special Forces in the early days of the Cold War, when Americans organized anti-communist guerrilla movements around the world.
But, McFate notes, this plan “assumes that Ukrainians have a will to have a bloody and protracted insurgency. You have to remember, Russia’s counterinsurgency is not the Petraeus doctrine, it’s not winning hearts and minds. It looks like Grozny in 1999.” Grozny, the Chechen capital, was obliterated by the Russians; more than 100,000 people were killed in the two Chechen wars.
Foreign Policy also reports that there are ongoing debates within the U.S. administration as to whether the president has the legal authority to support an insurgency in Ukraine, and whether doing so would raise the risk of direct conflict with Russia.
The unfortunate reality is that Ukraine’s supporters don’t have much leverage, at least not with the tools policymakers are realistically willing to use. It’s almost certainly too late to change Putin’s mind on Ukraine, if that was ever possible. Whatever costs the West imposes on Moscow now were likely priced into his calculations months ago. And the risks of military escalation and catastrophic superpower conflict are real and should not be dismissed.
Lucas said that in the wake of the new sanctions and righteous denunciations of Putin and his brazen attack, Western countries are essentially “toasting ourselves over the corpse of Ukraine.” But, he added, “it’s very important that we try and draw a line that doesn’t go any further.”
Ultimately, the U.S. and its European allies must confront an uncomfortable truth: Unless they are willing to absorb significant economic pain, or risk the lives of their own people, Putin may well have his way. And the aggression — for all the rhetoric to the contrary — will stand.