“We’ll see in a month.”
Thus said President Biden in answering a reporter’s question about the efficacy of the sanctions he announced in response to Russia’s multi-pronged attacks in Ukraine. This is cold comfort to those in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and on the frontlines who are counting their lives in days, hours, and even minutes. But having taken any immediately useful military intervention off the table from the start, Biden and America’s European allies have few good options at the moment.
Biden’s message was not a happy one for Ukrainians. “History has shown time and again how swift gains in territory eventually give way to grinding operations,” he declared. A “grinding” counterinsurgency, of the sort practiced in Afghanistan or Vietnam, is not easy to sustain. The story of post-Soviet Ukraine is one of striving to become Western, safe, prosperous, and free. Their religious faith is deep and longstanding, and their sense of their own nationalism is perhaps stronger now than it has ever been, but Biden’s strategy is, essentially, to ask Ukrainians to die while he prepares NATO to defend its formal boundaries.
The administration has made it clear that its sanctions efforts are meant to buy time— not to stop, let alone roll back—Putin’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. The Russian strongman has already discounted the economic dangers; even ejecting Russia from the SWIFT banking network would simply require the Germans and other Europeans to find a workaround to pay for Russian gas. Biden needs to get his own houses in order, and that may at least partly explain why he’s doling measures out in teacup-size portions. NATO solidarity is not very solid, Biden’s rhetoric to the contrary, and neither is American domestic solidarity. Xi Jinping cannot be very impressed.