Beyond sanctions, we must be smart, cautious and creative with Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked a near-global response with severe sanctions being imposed on Russia, President Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs that support and benefit from the country’s kleptocracy. There is a risk, however, that the course on which the United States and the West are presently embarking could risk dramatic escalation and potentially undermine its long-term strategic end goals.   

From the outset, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine cannot stand and the West must respond. Failing to staunch Putin in Ukraine could well see the Russian president emboldened further. We must endeavor to help the Ukrainian people with humanitarian aid both in the country and in the countries to which refugees are fleeing. This must be our first and paramount priority while ensuring the security and deterrence capabilities of NATO. We must also continue to provide arms and munitions to Ukrainian forces. This is a critical action and one that should raise the costs of war for the Russian military, and, hopefully, alter the Kremlin’s calculus.  

We must, however, not forget that the risk of escalation is very real. With his invasion of Ukraine, something that seems supremely strategically counterproductive, Putin has demonstrated that he is willing to confound expectations and act, perhaps impulsively. Twice now, Russia has raised the specter of nuclear weapons, a threat that should not be taken lightly. Russia expert Fiona Hill suggests that we take these warnings seriously, and she is absolutely right. Calls by the punditry for a no-fly-zone over Ukraine are precisely the type of action that could see NATO forces in direct conflict with Russian forces, which would be an alarming step towards expanded war. An increasingly desperate Russia is, potentially, a much more dangerous country than it is presently.   

A smart strategy means identifying the outcome or effects we want to achieve — the end of the war in the immediate term — and using or creating tools to achieve that outcome. We must identify ways to convince Putin that de-escalation and off-ramps are a far more attractive option than prosecuting this war to whatever ends he may have in mind. Calling for regime change (directly or indirectly), forcing Putin into a corner, or leaving the Kremlin with no attractive options will likely only lead to more violence, continued war and possibly, escalation.    

Now is the time to begin discussing what the desired end-state is when it comes to Ukraine. Do we want a purely status quo ante? Or something more? What is the art of the possible between Kyiv and Moscow, and the international community? The application of punitive measures without a clear plan for de-escalation and resolution is just inviting greater resistance from Russia.   

Policymakers would do well to consider the long-term when responding to this war. Squeezing Russia’s economy, crashing the ruble and imposing punitive costs may seem effective in the near term, but are likely to have considerable second and third-order effects which we will not appreciate for some time.  

Removing Russia from the global economy will almost certainly drive it toward increasing autarky, something many within Russia argued was a necessary end goal even prior to the start of this war. An isolated and economically hobbled Russia does not immediately mean peace, and a Putin that sees the West as working to overthrow him could be even more dangerous still.   

At the same time, instead of isolating the Russian people, we should be embracing them and opening channels for communication and engagement at a person-to-person level, something about which Russia analyst and writer Mark Galeotti has written. We should be using Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its digital counterparts to target the Russian people as much as possible.  

Canceling student visas, closing airspace, throttling opportunities for educations conferences and other measures hurt precisely the wrong type of people — including those wishing to leave Russia. If we are to look for long-term change within Russia, isolating the people will not have the effect desired. In all likelihood, it will backfire and filter into Putin’s narrative that the West is at war with Russia.   

Legal and financial measures that target oligarchs — not average Russians — and which limit their freedom of movement and pursue their money where ever it is found are smarter and more targeted strategies. This also means going after the kleptocratic enablers, something we’re finally seeing in the United Kingdom. London’s financial and property markets were long seen as a “Russian laundromat” for dirty money, something written about by Oliver Bullough and Catherine Belton.   

Beyond this immediate war, we need to start thinking laterally when it comes to confronting Russia. Where can we stymie Moscow’s interests and aims globally? Where can we leverage their weaknesses to the West’s advantage? What can we do to exploit their weaknesses? Where can we work with NATO and European partners to contain Russian ambitions? We need to weaponize our creativity and imagination and stop looking at strategy in such a linear fashion.   

We must also recognize the limits of our ability to influence the outcome of this crisis. We are, effectively, dealing with an audience of one in Vladimir Putin and it is unclear whether it is possible to influence his behavior, especially if he feels cornered. It is equally unclear whether we can shape the thinking of those in his inner circle, people who are beholden to him and the system, people like Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the security council, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the foreign intelligence service, or Sergey Shoigu, the minister of defense.  

The outcome of this crisis remains and will remain unclear for some time. We should be thinking of the outcome we want and be wary of potential “own goals,” acting in ways that will undermine the effects we want to achieve.   

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute visiting fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski. 

Tags Government of Russia International reactions to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine International relations Mike Rogers Post-Soviet conflicts Russian irredentism Russia–United States relations Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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