Good to his word, after Russia invaded eastern Ukraine this week, President Joe Biden responded by imposing immediate sanctions in response. He took a measured approach, holding back a number of harsher sanctions while making it clear that more would be following if Vladimir Putin didn’t withdraw his forces and return to the negotiating table. Other countries took similar economic actions of their own, attempting to force Putin’s hand. But is it going to have any effect? In the opinion of Daniel R. DePetris of Defense Priorities in an editorial piece he published at NBC News yesterday, this strategy is already failing and it was likely doomed from the beginning. The only path to rapid de-escalation, as DePetris sees it, is to give Putin at least part of what he wants.
If the objective of these measures is to push Russia into withdrawing its military presence near the Ukrainian border, the strategy is obviously failing. Instead, we are now witnessing what could become the first salvos in a war that U.S. intelligence estimates could kill tens of thousands and create millions of refugees. The U.S. needs to take much more drastic action to stop the quickly accelerating military train before it races off the track.
Specifically, the U.S. needs to shut down the prospect of NATO extending membership to Ukraine. For Russia, sitting by as another neighboring state flirts with leaving the Russian orbit to become a permanent member of the West’s security order is inconceivable. Preventing such a scenario from happening in what Russia views as its near-abroad, especially after watching NATO nearly double in size since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is perhaps the most urgent Russian national security priority today. (Just as the U.S. would never countenance Russia trying to form a military alliance with Mexico.)
DePetris points out something that I was saying here multiple times during the runup to the invasion. It’s clear that Putin is very heavily invested in preventing what he considers potentially hostile foreign powers from being permanently camped out on his doorstep and is probably willing to suffer severe economic pain if that’s what it takes to prevent that from happening. When he says that America needs to “shut down” the prospect of Ukraine becoming a NATO member, that doesn’t mean that the UN has to take such an action. (They obviously won’t.) But if we persuade Ukraine to say that they won’t bother trying and we won’t support the effort if they do, that might be enough to allow Putin to save face and withdraw. And besides, as the author goes on to note, Ukraine is simply not a suitable candidate for membership to begin with.
DePetris goes on to remind us that NATO used to feel the same way. In 2008, George W. Bush attempted to convince NATO to put out the welcome mat for both Ukraine and Georgia. The alliance threw cold water over the request, only offering a vague assurance that Ukraine could “someday” be a member. Also, he notes that Putin has known about the harsh economic sanctions that would be on the way for quite a while now because Biden has been telegraphing his punches in the most public ways possible. Putin may have been quietly making preparations against such actions all of this time and he could be in a better position to withstand them than we’ve suspected.
So will DePetris now be vilified in the media as a “Russian stooge” as have so many others who suggested there could be a diplomatic solution available even if it meant making some concessions to Russia? As I wrote this article today, the chyron at CNN was blaring yet another warning that our intelligence agencies believe that a “full-scale Russian invasion is imminent.” That could produce significant financial hardship on the people of Russia, while also inflicting similar economic woes on Europe and the United States. But there’s only one real loser in that scenario and it will be the people of Ukraine.
For what it’s worth, Reuters jumped on the “Russian stooge” bandwagon this morning as well. Their analyst feels that Russia’s banking system is too deeply engrained with those of the west and many in Europe will hesitate to impose the harshest sanctions under discussion. Doing so would do as much damage to western Europe as it would to Moscow. What Reuters fails to offer is an alternate plan.