War drums are beating in Europe. For the second time this year, Moscow is assembling up to 100,000 troops and military hardware on its border with Ukraine. The Biden administration judges that there is a real possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin may decide to launch a new invasion of Ukraine in the next 2-3 months despite the high costs Moscow would incur.
Alarmed at the prospect of a potential Russian escalation, Washington dispatched CIA Director Bill Burns to warn of the severe consequences of such a step. When that mission produced no notable results, Washington made its concerns public. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took advantage of a press conference with visiting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba to scold Moscow for its military build-up, raise the possibility of a major new Russian offensive, and express strong support for Ukraine.
With Blinken in the lead, Washington has been consulting closely with allies. The results have been notable as NATO and then France and Germany jointly issued statements of support for Ukraine in the face of new aggression. Equally important, the United States has been asking its European allies and partners what they might do in terms of sanctions on Russia and military assistance to Ukraine if Moscow strikes again.
We are not predicting that Moscow will strike as this may be an elaborate bluff, but the Kremlin is putting itself in a position to strike and Putin’s rhetorical attacks on Ukraine and NATO have provided the justification the Kremlin would use for military action.
Putin may hope to scare the West, without the use of force, into scaling back its support for Ukraine, and to convince Ukrainian leaders that they must give up their dreams of Euro-Atlantic integration and accept Russian diktat. Indeed, he may hope Western leaders will persuade Kyiv to accept Russia’s terms in future negotiations, just as they persuaded Ukraine not to use its then weak military to fight Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.
Putin has upped the ante by drawing a new red line, in addition to his longstanding opposition to Ukrainian NATO membership. In recent weeks, Putin has declared that NATO’s military presence in Ukraine and allies’ arming and training of Ukrainian armed forces are tantamount to de facto military integration of Ukraine into the Alliance and therefore an unacceptable threat to Russia as well.
Moreover, beyond Putin’s purported security concerns, Ukraine is a highly emotional issue for him. His statements and pseudo-historical writings make clear that he resents Ukraine’s independence, questions its legitimacy as a sovereign state, disputes Ukrainians’ existence as a separate people, and is outraged by Kyiv’s refusal to accept Russian hegemony. He has made new territorial claims against Ukraine, arguing that Soviet leaders “robbed” Russia of its historic lands.
Putin may feel that, despite the high costs of an invasion, he has no choice but to go for broke, since further delay could guarantee that Russia loses Ukraine forever. This is not just a question of military security; Putin may fear that Ukrainian democracy, the rule of law, and resulting prosperity, if the Ukrainians can get there, would threaten Putinism in Russia through the power of example.
The best way to deter Moscow is to clearly lay out the cost of such a strike, while offering Putin a diplomatic way out. The Biden administration is off to a good start in communications to Moscow and cooperation with Europe. We offer here our thoughts on what concretely the United States, NATO, and the EU should do to dissuade Moscow from escalating and, ultimately, convince Putin to seek a reasonable political solution.
Options for Tightening Sanctions
To discourage a Russian attack and strengthen a diplomatic offer, the United States and likeminded allies including the EU, UK, Canada and key European national governments should prepare new sanctions options that are strong enough to hurt but not so strong that they cannot be used.
Happily, the Biden administration appears to be doing just that, consulting with its allies on a fast track to develop options. Sanctions options exist that will hurt the Russian economy with costs that will mount over time and put pressure on and expose Putin’s own circle of corruption. Sanctions options that may appear extreme under current conditions would appear in a different light should Russia launch major new military action against Ukraine.
Sanctions can work in unexpected ways, if sustained and integrated with a consistent policy of resisting aggression and responding to constructive moves if these are made. The sanctions already imposed on Russia since 2014 have done significant damage to its economic growth.
Two general categories of sanctions options are available: economic (so-called sectoral) sanctions and individual sanctions. The most impactful sectoral sanctions have been financial. Escalatory options include full blocking sanctions against big state banks and investment agencies. Sectoral sanctions could be broadened to new areas such as mining, metals, shipping, and insurance. State-owned companies in these sectors could also be targeted for full blocking sanctions.
In addition, the July 21 US-German Joint Statement on energy security (and Nord Stream 2), though sometimes criticized as a concession to the Kremlin, includes agreement on a new, important sanctions option: limits and sanctions on Russian energy exports to Europe should Russia commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine.
The United States and its allies imposed individual sanctions on Russians after 2014: against officials responsible for the attack or aspects of it, and against Putin’s circle of corrupt cronies. The United States and Europe should return to and intensify efforts to target individuals including oligarchs, cut-outs, bag men, and other Putin “wallets” who are instrumental to Putinism. As one Russian democratic dissident put it, Putinism requires Russia to be without the rule of law so Putin and his circle can steal from it, but also requires the West to respect the rule of law so that Putin’s cronies can park their ill-gotten gains there in relative safety. The West need not make that game easier.