Can the US and its allies accept a Putin-led Russia?

The United States has pursued a two-track approach in Ukraine. While NATO refrains from active intervention, it has escalated rhetorically, most notably with President Biden’s supposed gaffe that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” In turn, the White House has branded Putin a war criminal — and now génocidaire — with Biden also calling for a “war crimes trial,” by implication before the International Criminal Court, a body of which the United States is not a member. 

However, the American and allied sanctions package, while damaging to the Russian economy, is ridden with loopholes that preserve Russian cash flows and at best will take years to undermine Putin’s regime.

The rhetorical and temporal disjunctions that characterize American policy have placed the U.S. and the Atlantic Alliance in a parlous situation, leaning on hesitant armed assistance to face down a hostile dictator.

American rhetoric has progressively escalated throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine, likely because of an historical intelligence failure that mirrors the erroneous intelligence that Putin received. The U.S. and its Western European allies — that is, NATO’s Euro-Atlantic core of France, Germany, and the UK — assumed that Ukraine would collapse within hours or days. The U.S. and UK sent weapons shipments to the country — but anti-tank missiles and MANPADs are cheap, as is ammunition. 

Still, the public sanguinity with which the U.S. and UK defense departments predicted the Russian invasion indicates essential agreement between Washington, London, Paris, and Brussels; indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron’s last-minute dashes to Moscow to avert disaster appear reflect Biden’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the American president reportedly warned his Ukrainian counterpart that Kyiv would be “sacked,” and Germany’s apparent refusal to believe the Ukrainian state would exist beyond the waning hours of Feb. 25.

As Ukraine held out, Western policymakers slowly realized that supporting it was not a fool’s errand; rather, the Ukrainian Armed Forces, hardened by eight years of war with Russia in the Donbas, reinforced by their Western training, and confident in their independently developed campaign plans, have proven more than a match for the vaunted Russian military that has so effectively menaced NATO’s eastern flank since 2008. Hence the slow but increasing pace of weapons transfers, initially of the same portable systems Ukraine received before Feb. 24, but now heavier equipment like helicopters, heavy artillery, and Switchblade drones.

However, Biden’s rhetoric is far beyond NATO policy actions. Once again, Biden has branded Putin a war criminal and demanded that Putin be removed from power.

American and allied actions are insufficient if “regime change” is their goal.

The U.S.-devised sanctions regime has some strengths. It denies Russia access to high-technology goods. Taiwan’s participation in secondary sanctions restricts Russian access to semiconductors. Russian airlines rely on European and American designed aircraft, and the sanctions will make repair increasingly difficult over time. Russia cannot access the bulk of its hard currency reserves. Its major banks are cut off from global financial markets. Western financial institutions have either pulled out of Russia or are compartmentalizing their Russian presence. 

In turn, Putin’s authoritarian pivot — more accurately, the unveiling of his regime’s true character — has driven hundreds of thousands of skilled young professionals from the country. All this, combined with Russia’s currency fluctuations, is likely to lacerate Russian GDP, sparking a contraction of 10 to 15 percent, and returning Russia to pre-2008 economic conditions.

But the sanctions have yet to impact Russian oil and exports in the long-term. After a drop from 3.75 million barrels per day (mmbd) of crude on Feb. 25 to 2.6 mmbd on March 25, exports rebounded to 3.95 mmbd on April 8. According to Bloomberg, export receipts will reach their highest weekly level this year approaching $250 million dollars. Russian tankers must take longer routes to sell oil, and northwestern European buyers are self-sanctioning. But Asian purchasers are filling the gap — again according to Bloomberg, Asian-bound crude flows nearly doubled between Feb. 25 and April 8, as India and China increased their purchases. Moreover, Europe will still import Russian gas for the next eight months.

In the UK, for example, the supertanker Seatribute docked in Southampton last month. The UK’s sanctions ban Russian-flagged ships, or ships chartered by Russian companies, from docking in the country. Such sanctions are limited. The Seatribute is registered in Malta, and therefore not subject to these regulations. The UK will phase out Russian energy imports by the year’s end, and Europe is unveiling a plan to do so by 2030. This is too far in the future to have an effect on the war in Ukraine. With oil prices hovering over $100 dollars per barrel, the market’s continued anxieties over the war, and the Gulf Arabs’ refusal to increase supply, Russia is likely making more money daily than it did before invading Ukraine.

The Russian state prepared for years for Western sanctions. Although Russian economic technocrats did not anticipate the scale of the West’s response, they nevertheless slashed budgets, stockpiled funds, and ensured the Russian state could function despite severe external economic pressure. Russia can eliminate civilian air travel and, if necessary, nationalize all transportation. It is a world-leading food exporter and can therefore feed its people despite a punishing sanctions regime. Moreover, the Russian “brain drain” may aid state stability. Those who have left are, once again, young and educated — the primary demographic from which Russia’s limited liberal opposition stems. Limited reporting from inside Russia indicates that the population is aware of the war and believes it will end by the middle of summer and if not, that the country’s nuclear arsenal will break the West’s will.

The Russian state is therefore hurtling towards an existential conflict with the West. Indeed, according to Putin’s inner circle, this conflict has already arrived. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stressed the claim that the West wants to destroy the Russian state. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev has identified the West’s goal as “the collapse of the Russian Federation.” Putin himself has accused the West of waging a “comprehensive and blatant” war against Russia. Since his 2007 Munich Security Council Speech, Putin’s public statements have consistently emphasized the West’s incorrigible hostility. And given the political capital Putin expended on Ukraine even before Feb. 24, the “Ukraine Question” was clearly existential for him. Biden’s accusations and the general tenor of Western policy only reinforces Russia’s perception that this conflict is an existential confrontation with the West.

This is not to say that the U.S. must or should intervene militarily on Ukraine’s behalf. Indeed, to a degree, the Biden administration’s military policy has worked. It should continue its weapons transfers to Ukraine and expand them, providing the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the high-end combat equipment they need to counter Russia’s impending Donbas offensive and to stage a counteroffensive of its own.

A failure of the United States and its European allies to prepare for Russian escalation would wrest defeat from the grasp of an achievable victory. The stakes for the Kremlin — and for Putin personally — are clearly existential. Sanctions pressure will not destroy his regime. But a military reversal will.

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags Biden countering Putin Emmanuel Macron Joe Biden military aid to Ukraine Military strategy NATO regime change Russian disinformation Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military Russian oil Russian oil and gas Russian sanctions Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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