“PUTIN’S AGGRESSION against Ukraine will ultimately cost Russia dearly, economically and strategically. We will be convinced of that. ” With these war words, President Joe Biden announced on February 24 that America would impose broad economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. These measures freeze US assets of Russia’s largest banks, hamper its ability to raise debt, restrict imports of high-tech goods and seize the wealth of its elite and their children. Britain and the EU have announced similar steps.
But those who imagined that sanctions would cripple Russia’s economy overnight are right will probably be disappointed, at least because much of the world still wants to have oil and gas. And the West has signaled that, despite all the horror of Mr Putin’s reluctant aggression, he will not act militarily against a nuclear state. Instead, America and Europe seem to be hoping that humiliation, economic pressure, war, and perhaps domestic discontent will eventually persuade Putin to back down – or at least not move forward.
Mr Biden condemned the brutality of Russia’s “war for no reason” and welcomed the unity of the West in the “competition between democracy and autocracy”. Yet the West is facing a sober failure: its growing appeal to sanctions as a foreign policy instrument has only limited impact. One reason is that they also cause pain to those who own them, often unevenly.
After months of threats “Mass” sanctions, Biden says he never pretended that sanctions could deter Putin from the war. Instead, he says they are now aiming to undermine Russia’s forces in the long run, turning it into a “secondary state.” He predicted: “Some of the most powerful consequences of our actions will emerge over time as we reduce Russia’s access to finance and technology for strategic sectors of its economy … Between our actions and those of our allies and partners, we believe we will reduce more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports. ”
The West’s response, however, remains far from exhaustive. Mr. Biden sought to highlight the fall of the Russian currency and its stock markets. But he was embarrassed by rising energy prices as Brent oil, an international benchmark oil, briefly rose above $ 100 a barrel for the first time since 2014. A notable exception to the sanctions were major Russian energy companies. And America’s financial constraints allow it to continue to “pay for energy.” “My administration is using the tools – every tool we have – to protect American families and businesses from rising gas pump prices,” Mr Biden said, warning oil and gas companies not to “use” the moment to raise prices. . He said that personal sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin were “on the table”, but there were none.
After a day of frantic consultations among Western leaders, several calls by Ukraine for tougher action went unanswered. These include Russia’s separation from the SWIFT system of financial operations, the introduction of a no-fly zone over Ukraine and the closure (of Turkey) of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles for Russian vessels sailing between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. . The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky called on the world to act firmly: “If you are my dear European leaders, my dear world leaders, leaders of the free world, do not help us today, if you do not help Ukraine, then tomorrow the war will knock on your door.”
With all the support given to Ukraine in the form of money and weapons, America has drawn a clear line between NATO members who need to be protected and those who remain outside, like Ukraine, who have to take care of themselves. This could give countries like Sweden and Finland new grounds to consider joining the alliance.
Even within NATO, Allies sought to show military restraint. Now they will be doubly careful if there are planes, ships and ground troops of the enemy in the immediate vicinity of the borders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Mr Biden said the United States was sending more troops to Europe and would help defend “every inch” of NATO territory, but would not be involved in the fighting in Ukraine. “Let me say it again. Our forces are not and will not be involved in the conflict with Russia in Ukraine. Our forces are going to Europe not to fight in Ukraine, but to protect our NATO allies and reassure these allies in the east. “
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that “peace on our continent is broken.” NATO has stepped up its “defense plans”, which give commanders more freedom, but has not yet deployed the NATO Response Force, its 40,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force. As NATO leaders prepared for the February 25 video summit, Mr Stoltenberg acknowledged: “Today we do not have all the answers.” He stressed the importance of “deconflict”, that is, avoiding the risk of unintentional clashes between NATO and Russian forces, and that “what we do is defensive, measured and does not seek confrontation.”
American hawks, such as John Bolton, a national security adviser under Donald Trump, blame the war for Mr. Biden’s “weakness.” According to Mr. Bolton, the weakness dates back to the time of George W. Bush, who did not prevent Putin from going to war in Georgia in 2008. This is especially true of Trump, whom Bolton served and who praised Putin this week as “very smart.” Mr Bolton said: “There are a lot of tough talks in Brussels. And all these tough conversations won’t buy you a cup of coffee. ” In his view, America should have deployed troops to Ukraine a few months ago to act as a deterrent; now “too late”.
At a meeting in Brussels, the national leaders of the 27 EU member states accused Russia of “unprovoked and unjustified hostilities.” They agreed on the need for “massive and severe consequences.” Sanctions will also be imposed on Belarus, which helped Russia in its attack. However, details of the activities have not been disclosed yet. Some EU members, particularly Germany and Italy, in Poland and the Baltics are less inclined than hardliners.
In general, Western sanctions are aimed at hitting Russia in areas where they have a clear balance of economic power, such as finance and technology. Penalties for major Russian banks will complicate Russia’s life, but not impossible. He has amassed large reserves, sought to make himself less dependent on the dollar and can probably count on China to help avoid restrictions. The financial shock will be offset by high incomes that bring high oil and gas prices. Calls to exclude Russia from SWIFT have met with resistance from a number of European countries and could in any case run the risk of infecting already turbulent markets. Details of sanctions against technology exports to Russia remain unclear, but their impact is likely to be felt for years, not days.
Faced with a wall of condemnation – including an initial round of sanctions from Japan, Australia and South Korea – Russia has found some solace in China, to which it is increasingly clinging. Hua Chunin, the chief spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, declined to describe Russia’s actions as an invasion, but instead accused America: “They started a fire and started a fire. How will they put out the fire now? ” And India was sitting uncomfortably on the fence: in recent years it has become closer to America to compensate for China’s power, while remaining a longtime friend of Russia and a major buyer of its weapons. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, called for an “immediate end to the violence”. This is unlikely. And the longer the war drags on, the more uncomfortable India will be. Some in Washington believe that closer ties between Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will force India to strengthen its ties with the West. But it will probably take time. So far, the West has few good options to end Mr Putin’s war.
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