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By now it’s clear: Sanctions are not stopping Putin

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Firefighters work to extinguish multiple fires after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 16, 2022.

The massive, ever-expanding sanctions imposed on Russia in an attempt to halt the war in Ukraine have had some effect on the Russian economy, and perhaps on the internal politics in Moscow, but they have had little impact on the battlefield. What has had battlefield impact is Ukrainian resistance, with U.S., NATO and allied support. 

Ukrainian resistance stopped the opening round of the Russian invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew his forces from the Kyiv region, not because he wanted to but because he had to. Some of his forces will require months before they are fit again for combat.  This has caused Putin to abandon his original goal of seizing Kyiv and replacing the Zelensky government — at least for now.  

As Russia withdrew its forces from Kyiv, Ukraine has conducted aggressive, local counterattacks. But they were unable to go to a general counter-offense and eject Russian forces to their pre-invasion positions, mostly because they did not have the arms, ammunition and equipment to do so. 

So, Putin has begun to execute Plan B: fight to permanently partition Ukraine. To do this, he is sending some forces to the East to join those already there and trying to finish his brutal assault on Mariupol. Ukrainian forces could not interdict this move — again, largely because they didn’t have the weaponry to do so. The Russian intent appears to be to conduct three attacks: one south from the general area of Kharkiv/Izyum, a second west from the Donbas area the Russians seized in 2014, and a third north from the area Putin took above Crimea. If these three attacks converge, Russia may be able to encircle a large number of Ukraine’s forces — a catastrophe for Ukraine. Putin has set the conditions for his Plan B despite the sanctions imposed on him.

Whether the Russian attacks are successful with this plan is an open question. Russian troop proficiency remains in doubt; morale is low in units returning to the fight; replacement soldiers are of poor quality; logistics snarls continue; and conducting integrated, combined arms attacks remains difficult for Russian commanders. Regardless, the sanctions will not be the primary mechanism that forces Putin back to his pre-February positions. That will depend on allied willingness and ability to provide the right equipment, arms and ammunition fast enough to the Ukrainians to be used in the fight.

Putin was clear in his latest speech that he has no intention of leaving Ukraine except by accomplishing the objectives he set from the start. We should believe him. If he’s successful at Plan B, he’ll likely revert to Plan A: conquer and subjugate Ukraine. That means continuing indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, using starvation as a tactic of war, preventing civilians from leaving the war zone, and other atrocities violating the Law of Armed Conflict as well as International Humanitarian Law.

Some may argue that the allies should give sanctions more time to work. But time in war comes at a cost and that cost is blood — the blood of innocent Ukrainians suffering Russian brutality and the blood of those who are actively fighting. Further, the potential and ultimate cost could be Ukraine’s sovereignty. After all, Putin’s aim is subjugation. Ukrainians are willing to fight and defend themselves against Moscow’s aggression. And international law, as well as the sense of the international community, permits the allies to assist Kyiv in their rightful defense. Such support is not a provocation or an escalation; it’s a strategic and moral necessity and a legal permission. 

This war likely will end with some form of negotiation, but when that time comes, the Zelensky government should not have to negotiate away its territorial integrity and political sovereignty.  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky should be in the position of strength, not Putin. 

As long as Ukraine is willing to fight for its right of self-determination, the allies should provide them with all they need — first to prevent success of the potential three-pronged Russian attacks, and then to allow the Zelensky government to transition to the offense and forcibly eject Russian units to their pre-February invasion positions. The allies should do this both to defend Ukraine’s right to succeed against illegal aggression and to reinforce a global norm. 

Anyone who thinks Putin will stop in Ukraine, if he succeeds there, must open their ears: He is already talking about the “Nazi regime” in Moldova. Any who doubt Putin’s desire to conduct other “special military operations” in central Europe should talk to the Poles, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians — all countries in Putin’s crosshairs. And any who think Putin isn’t a future threat should listen to the prime ministers of Finland and Sweden. Those closest to Putin seem to see things more clearly, and more urgently. 

The U.S., NATO and other allies must pull out all stops to ensure Ukraine’s success in the next two phases of the war. Doing so is not only the right thing to do; it’s also in the short- and long-term interest of every nation. No one should be fooled. The key lever of success in this war that, according to President Biden, “we must win,” is military force. Sanctions are ancillary.

James M. Dubik, Ph.D., a retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. He served in military command and operational roles in Bosnia, Haiti and Iraq, and helped train forces in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Honduras, and many NATO countries.

Tags Allies NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukrainian crisis Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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