The West must decide how far is too far with Russia

Associated Press

Russia’s ultimate aims in Ukraine remain unclear. Now two weeks into the invasion, Moscow’s initial attempts at a lightning assault appear stymied, and as a consequence, the Kremlin is increasing the intensity and brutality of its campaign. Thus far, however, Russia’s so-called “special military operation” has remained limited to Ukraine. There is, however, a risk that this does not remain the case, and should the conflict expand the consequences could be dire for Europe and indeed the world.   

The unanimity of response to Russia’s war undoubtedly took the Kremlin by surprise, as it did some analysts. To borrow a phrase from retired Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.), democracies are often slow to act, but when they get moving nearly everything is on the table. It is that latter part that is of particular concern, as an over-correction could well lead to a significant escalation and an expanded war.   

Prior to Russia’s invasion, there was an almost institutional unwillingness to discuss what consequences there might have been if President Vladimir Putin decided to invade. To be sure there were hints such as halting Nord Stream 2, additional personal sanctions and possibly disconnecting Russian banks from the SWIFT network, but nothing concrete was publicly presented to Moscow.  

Now that Russia has indeed invaded democracies are moving to act with great alacrity—the speed with which the sanctions were applied, and both their size and the size of the targets are unprecedented. This week the United States announced a ban on Russian oil imports and the United Kingdom and European Union are looking to phase out Russian energy as well. The West has frozen the assets of Russia’s central bank, worth some $630 billion. Certain banks have been cut off from SWIFT. The export of certain technologies and dual-use goods to Russia is now prohibited. Travel is sharply reduced with airspace closed to Russian-flagged aircraft.   

These measures are already having a demonstrable effect on Russia’s economy. The key interest rate in Russia has doubled, the stock market remains closed, the ruble has plummeted and the Kremlin is working to stop Russians from leaving with more than $10,000 in hard currency.  Yet, the full effects of this economic warfare will remain unclear for some time. 

There is a real danger here that as the West continues to pile on sanctions and measures, it will only make the economic rubble bounce. This is all happening while there is very little clarity on what a cessation of hostilities or a political settlement to the war might look like, let alone how Russia might reconnect with the global economy. In less than two weeks, three decades of global economic integration were severed and there is no pathway to reestablishing those connections.   

At the same time, the West is expanding its lethal aid to Ukraine. The United Kingdom is considering sending the Starstreak advanced anti-aircraft missile system to Kyiv. This joins next-generation anti-tank weapons such as the NLAW and Javelin, as well as the Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Amongst the commentariat, there are calls for increased aid and expanded measures that risk significant escalation. Some are calling for American aircraft to be transferred to Ukraine. Others are suggesting that NATO MiG-29 fighter jets be reflagged and sent forward to Kyiv — a measure described as untenable at the moment.   

There are also increasingly assertive calls for the establishment of a no-fly-zone over Ukraine, the imposition of which would almost certainly see American or NATO pilots engaging Russian pilots over Ukraine, and possibly require strikes inside of Russia to suppress air defenses. Even more alarmingly, there are also some openly calling for the removal of Putin. Backing Russia’s president into a corner, leaving no option for de-escalation, or making it an existential conflict for the regime is a sure way to widen the war. 

Russia has, thus far, remained unexpectedly restrained in responding — at least publicly — to the West’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. We have not seen significant retaliatory measures for the incoming aid, we have not yet seen the expected widespread cyberattacks against NATO or the United States and we have not seen the conflict expanded beyond Ukraine’s borders. To be sure, Russia has rattled the nuclear sabre, is threatening to nationalize foreign companies and is continuing its campaign of disinformation, all of which is unsurprising (and represents the limited tools Moscow still possesses). That restraint is unlikely to last, and there is a chance that the West in its over-correcting zeal risks crossing an unseen red line. It may already be encroaching on that red line: Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Rybakov, said Moscow “warned the U.S. that pumping weapons from a number of countries it orchestrates isn’t just a dangerous move, it’s an action that makes those convoys legitimate targets.” 

This is not to say that the West should suspend its aid to Ukraine, but it must be very cautious and very calculated in how it proceeds. Author Herman Kahn defined escalation as a ladder, the climbing of which presents policymakers with new decisions and new calculus at each rung. But there is also the risk of an escalation slide, the acceleration of which becomes increasingly hard to slow or stop. To avoid this, the West and Russia must be abundantly clear with one another and communicate at the highest levels. The West must be very cautious in how it proceeds in its aid Kyiv.   

Most importantly, the West must articulate a desired end-state and begin to think about creating conditions for that possible outcome. What is a satisfactory outcome for the West? For Ukraine? For Russia? Is Crimea on the table? Is it off-limits? What does Moscow need to do to reconnect with the global economy? What are acceptable terms for the Kremlin? Not the spurious arguments of demilitarization or de-Nazification put forward by the propagandists, but practical and viable terms.  War and diplomacy happen simultaneously — they are not binary states, yet that is an assumption that appears present in policy discussions. 

Until we articulate those end goals and begin working towards defining the conditions on the ground to facilitate that outcome, we risk blindly walking into an escalation from a limited war to a regional conflict, or something worse. The West needs better statecraft now, more than ever, not performative overcorrection.   

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 In Russia Mike Rogers Post-Soviet conflicts Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russian irredentism Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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