Sanctions Are Not Enough
Putin has already discounted the economic dangers of his invasion of Ukraine.
“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.
Nor has the White House been very effective in readying the American or other advanced economies for a long war. Russia’s still, to paraphrase Sen. John McCain, mostly a gas station masquerading as a great power. Though the outbreak of hostilities drove the ruble and Moscow markets, high energy prices are hardly a recipe for growth, even if U.S. stocks rose slightly by the end of the day. Climate “czar”—for once, the title is apt—John Kerry hasn’t been helping: “A war,” he recently lamented, “is the last thing you need with respect to a united effort to try to deal with the climate challenge.” We must “compartmentalize,” according to Kerry. The Green New Deal is stone dead, with no move to return to the days, just now past, of American energy independence. Biden’s swipe at oil companies—they “should not exploit this moment to hike their prices to raise profits!”—was gratuitous and is hardly a message to the populists in his party that it’s time to lay aside other grievances in the face of a larger challenge.
In other words, there’s got to be something beyond sanctions than just more sanctions. Or summitry that negotiates the terms of Ukraine’s surrender. NATO is being used as an excuse to shirk an unpleasant truth, not confront it.
There are a number of “military” options short of jumping the 82nd Airborne into Moscow. While there have been reports that the White House is reviewing options for offensive cyber operations against the Russians, the administration has been quick to pooh-pooh the idea in public. Biden’s team was pretty crafty with the release of intelligence prior to the invasion, but the moment for subtlety has passed. Time is of the essence to have the needed effect. There is an inevitable if-you-use-it-you’ll lose-it element to cyber capabilities which, with the Chinese to think about, no doubt weighs heavily.
There is also the matter of the Russian navy’s blockade of Black Sea ports. This, as Ukrainian President Zelensky has been stressing for some time, is crippling for Kyiv’s economy and thus its ability to sustain a longer campaign. But it is also a real vulnerability for Putin. Russia’s vaunted Black Sea fleet vastly overpowers the Ukrainian navy, to be sure. But maritime power has its limits—after striking “Snake Island,” a tiny outcropping just off the coast of Odessa—a Russian warship approached and demanded that the Odessa border patrol garrison surrender; the reply, loosely translated, was “Nuts.” Further, the Russians are walking a tightrope with Turkey, gatekeeper to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. In the Odessa strikes, a stray Russian bomb hit a Turkish-owned ship near Odessa, provoking a warning from Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Were there U.S. Navy forces in the Black Sea—protecting international “freedom of navigation operations” as in the Taiwan Strait and surrounding waters—the Russian position would be at potential risk. Finally, the Russians may well be operating within Romanian territorial waters; Romania is not only a NATO ally, but generally staunch in its support of Ukrainian independence as well as U.S. operations in the Middle East for several decades.
Biden does deserve credit for improving U.S. military posture in Eastern Europe. He has deployed the kinds of forces—notably command and mobile, heavy mechanized forces, that have been absent across the continent for far too long. While these deployments have been under the rubric of bolstering NATO allies, they at least begin to pose a counteroffensive possibility that the Russians must take into account, not only in the context of Ukraine but of its new postings in Belarus. It should be remembered that a central tenet of the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s was to present the Soviets with a similar threat of a counterattack into Warsaw Pact states. As Putin works to recreate a buffer zone for Moscow, so NATO needs to dust off its winning playbook.
But perhaps most important of all, if Biden is relying on the willingness of Ukrainians to suffer a brutal invasion, the quashing of their dreams of independence and, if not occupation, the installation of a puppet regime and to respond by becoming a resistance underground, he needs to start building the infrastructure for that now. Insurgencies deprived of outside great-power support do not, in history’s accounts, tend to be successful. And the administration will not only be asking the Ukrainians to sacrifice themselves, but its very nervous allies in Berlin to keep their cool. As such, some in Europe—the Balts, Poles and others in frontline states—will have to do more than look the other way.
Biden’s covert call for a post-invasion insurgency would inevitably take on the character of a civil war. Assuming, as seems not unreasonable, that Putin sees not annexation but regime change to a pliable, Vichy-style government, it would mean that a Ukrainian resistance would be targeting not just Russians but Ukrainian collaborators. That could turn ugly, with divisive and long-term consequences.
In sum, while it may appear that Biden’s strategy might be the least bad option, the costs of postponing a military showdown with Putin are more likely to grow than to diminish. Another lesson of history—to the degree that there are such lessons—is that coalitions that treat lesser members as auxiliaries rather than allies with their own legitimate interests tend to crumble. Abandoning Ukraine to its imminent fate does not encourager les autres.