Earlier this month, media outlets using commercial satellite data confirmed that Russia was once again amassing troops and heavy equipment along its borders with Ukraine—both along the eastern Donbas region and inside the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.
This isn’t the first time that Moscow has tested the West’s commitment to Ukraine. But now, something was different.
In the West, political officials became vocally alarmed by what NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg called the “large and unusual” buildup of Russian troops. Rep. Mike Turner, a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said the buildup is “very different” from previous Russian efforts to strike a provocative posture along the border, which suggests that Russia has “different intentions this time.” Indeed, “the information we gathered so far is rather worrying,” European Union spokesman Peter Stano admitted. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson dispatched his minister of defense to Kyiv and pledged the U.K.’s “unwavering” support to Ukraine “in the face of Russian hostility.” French President Emmanuel Macron promised to support Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” in the event of another invasion.
The American government, too, is engaged in the crisis. At least, diplomatically. But what if diplomacy fails? According to Bloomberg News, the Biden administration is prepared to leverage a suite of “fresh sanctions” against Moscow if it attacks Ukraine. Washington might even provide “further security assistance” to a newly dismembered former Soviet republic.
To call this a laughably unserious response to the crisis in Europe doesn’t quite capture just how facile it is.
First off, the administration’s suggestion that it would respond to another invasion of Ukraine only after the fact and in the meekest fashion imaginable all but concedes that Ukraine’s days as an independent, Westward-oriented republic are numbered. That is an unacceptable slip-up, but it’s hardly the only way that Russian saber-rattling has exposed the White House’s fecklessness.
Bloomberg further observes that the White House had considered imposing new sanctions on Russia the last time Moscow engaged in this kind of brinkmanship back in late March. The Biden administration didn’t have to pull that trigger, in part, because the crisis was defused when the president rewarded Russian President Vladimir Putin for sending 100,000 troops, tanks, and artillery to Ukraine’s doorstep by granting him a bilateral summit. That event produced little more than a variety of watery statements of principle. It did, however, prove that Russian threats against European sovereignty get results.
Moreover, the Western sanctions regime against Russia is already substantial. Every indication suggests that the Kremlin can absorb the costs imposed on it by NATO.
Atop the sanctions regime that this president inherited from Donald Trump and Barack Obama, Joe Biden imposed new sanctions on Russia’s central bank, finance industry, and sovereign wealth fund in April in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, its interference in U.S. elections, and the SolarWinds cyberattack that targeted public- and private-sector entities. The administration further sanctioned Russia in June—this time in a way that “would impose real costs on Moscow,” per the New York Times—presumably, unlike all those other sanctions.
The Biden administration has additionally imposed economic costs on Putin’s catspaw in Minsk, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. Belarus was hit with sanctions in August amid widespread domestic protests against what foreign observers deemed a fraudulent election preserving the grip on power Lukashenko has maintained since 1994. As recently as last week, the Biden administration expanded those sanctions against Putin’s proxy.
The primary effect of all these economic sanctions has been to demonstrate the inefficacy of economic sanctions. None of these punishments prevented the Lukashenko regime from brazenly forcing a commercial aircraft to land on Belarusian soil to extract and imprison a dissident living abroad in Europe. They did not stop Moscow from provoking a military crisis in Europe not once but twice in the same year. They did not impede Belarus and Russia from engineering a refugee crisis in Poland designed to destabilize the country and the European Union (an episode U.S. officials believe Putin orchestrated).
That is, in part, because economic sanctions reliably fail to change a rogue regime’s behavior. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has kept abreast of the literature on economic sanctions over the last 30 years or so. The suggestion that more sanctions would be a sufficient response to an act of naked aggression as egregious as a second invasion of Ukraine is even more offensive given the fact that Biden is simultaneously trying to bribe Putin into complacency.
The single most effective cudgel the president could have wielded (short of force) to change the Kremlin’s calculus would have been to prevent the completion of the Nordstream II pipeline. That project will provide an avenue for Russia to transport gas directly into Germany, circumventing Ukraine, denying the nation transit revenues, and rendering it helpless if Moscow tries to squeeze Kyiv by denying its citizens access to energy. At one point, Joe Biden called Nordstream II a “bad deal” for Europe, and he was right. But in January, Russia restarted construction on that project after a two-year pause—operating, perhaps, under the assumption that the new president would be more pliant than the last. Russia was right. Joe Biden caved to Moscow—waiving sanctions against companies that participated in that project, effectively greenlighting a pipeline that will allow Russia to throttle Ukraine into submission and preserve German complacency.
Joe Biden has not been wholly docile in the face of Russian threats, but nor has he spoken with a clear and resolute voice on the matter. Instead, he’s sent a series of mixed signals to Moscow—signals that the Kremlin could easily mistake for permissiveness. Sanctions are no substitute for deterrence—genuine deterrence backed by the credible threat of military force. Anything else is just talk. We in the West have that luxury. But for the still young Ukrainian nation, the time for talking may be coming to an end.