What will Biden do if Putin invades Ukraine? More sanctions!

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Hang on to your hats, folks. President Joe Biden has scheduled another video conference call with Russian President Vladimir Putin for Tuesday. Given how well most of the White House’s foreign policy initiatives have been going this year, I can’t imagine how this could go horribly wrong. The topic at hand will be Ukraine and whether or not Putin plans on invading the eastern portion of that nation in the near future. Despite Putin’s repeated denials, that region is certainly looking more and more like an impending war zone every day. So what magic diplomatic maneuvers does Uncle Joe have up his sleeve to stop this from turning into a regional bloodbath and yet another expansion of Russian territory? (Associated Press)

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will speak in a video call Tuesday, the Kremlin said, as tensions between the United States and Russia escalate over a Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border that’s seen as a sign of a potential invasion.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed plans on Saturday to Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti and said it will take place in the evening. “The presidents will decide themselves” how long the conversation will last, he said.

The White House did not immediately comment on the announcement.

The excuse that Putin has been using from the beginning of this fiasco is that eastern Ukraine has a lot of people of Russian descent living there and they are being “oppressed” by the western Ukrainians, so he’s really just protecting his own people. But the demands coming out of the Kremlin recently tell a different story. Russia has been demanding that the United States guarantee that Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO. That’s an understandable concern for Russia since NATO basically exists as a bulwark against Russian expansion or aggression in an effort to recreate the Soviet Union. Having another NATO member camping out literally on their doorstep would likely be uncomfortable.

But as NATO leaders have said repeatedly, Russia has no say in who can or can’t be a member. And while the United States would certainly be an influential voice in such decisions, we don’t get to decide unilaterally either. That’s a question that may come up on the call, though. And since Biden already caved to Putin on the pipeline sanctions question, perhaps the Russian strongman thinks he can make Uncle Joe blink first again.

So what happens if this attempt at diplomacy completely flops and Putin decides to invade Ukraine in the spring? It’s not a frivolous question because there are now roughly 70,000 Russian troops staged near the border and supply lines have been established on the Russian side where ammunition, medical equipment, and other resources are ready for quick delivery into the anticipated combat theater. In other words, despite saying he has no plans to invade Ukraine, Putin is doing absolutely everything one would be expected to do if they were preparing to invade eastern Ukraine.

Never fear! Our State Department has already outlined a plan for responding to such an invasion. We’ll just impose more sanctions on Russia. (AP)

The Biden administration has plenty of options to make good on its pledge to hit Russia financially if President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, from sanctions targeting Putin’s associates to cutting Russia off from the financial system that sends money flowing around the world.

The United States and European allies have made no public mention of any plans to respond militarily themselves if Putin sends troops massed along the border into Ukraine, a former Soviet republic with close historical and cultural ties to Russia but now eager to ally with NATO and the West.

Instead, payback could be all about the money.

At first glance, “more sanctions” doesn’t sound like much of a threat in response to a Russian military invasion of a neighboring nation. After all, there are already a number of sanctions imposed on the Russian government and many prominent Russian officials, both military and civilian. But I do have to admit that there is one sanctioning maneuver available that would probably get Putin’s attention. Analysts refer to it as the “nuclear option” when it comes to sanctions. We could cut Russia off from the Belgium-based SWIFT system which is the primary vehicle for moving funds around between thousands of banks around the world. We did that to Iran a while back and the results were financially crippling, though it hasn’t noticeably improved their behavior very much.

Will Joe Biden directly threaten Putin with the prospect of cutting Russia off from SWIFT? And if the invasion happens, will Belgium agree to do it? After all, Putin has already threatened to send hypersonic missiles against any European capitals that take up arms against Russia in Ukraine. Time will tell. If Joe Biden can manage to cool the temperature over there and get some sort of reasonable agreement out of Putin, I’ll tip my hat to him. If not, we may be heading into uncharted waters in the next four to six months.