U.S. and Allied Sanctions Are the First Pushback Against Putin
Vladimir Putin has escalated his invasion of Ukraine—the latest in a series of uninterrupted aggressive acts against the free, democratic world and the United States in particular. For years, Putin has been crossing red lines. He crossed a red line when he invaded Georgia in 2008. He crossed a red line when he invaded Ukraine in 2014. He crossed a red line with election interference in the United States in 2016. He has crossed multiple red lines from the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom to the use of strategic corruption to multiple cyberattacks to the abuse of INTERPOL to pursue political opponents and dissidents. The Western response to these crimes and provocations has often amounted to little more than verbal condemnation and concern.
This time, the West is trying something different. Putin’s actions, which have long been clearly hostile, now also risk the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II—exactly the thing the international system has been so carefully constructed and maintained to prevent. The raft of sanctions announced in Western capitals Tuesday indicate that, at least for now, the United States and its allies are willing to meet force with force—at least, of an economic variety.
After a staged meeting of Russia’s National Security Council worthy of Armando Iannucci, Putin treated the world to a long-winded tirade in which he denied Ukraine’s sovereignty and swore to wipe it off the map—among other colorful opinions. He then proceeded immediately to recognize the breakaway regions of Ukraine, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), and deployed troops across the border. The Biden administration has called that deployment what it is: an invasion. And the administration, along with majorities in both houses of Congress and America’s democratic allies around the world, appear united in the conviction that this red line ought to mean something.
By his own account, Putin’s goal is to destroy Ukraine. He has delivered Ukraine, the United States, and NATO ultimatums that he knows they cannot fulfill. He has recognized not just the territory occupied by the DNR and LNR, but their territorial claims, which extend to the totality of the Donbas region, an area three times what they currently control. His current tactic appears to be to goad Ukraine into an act of self-defense, which he can use it as an excuse for a yet larger offensive, including possibly against Kyiv. Reports also suggest Russian intentions to assassinate Ukrainian elites or put them in camps.
The West, for its part, seems surprised. After pursuing a diplomatic path in good faith, Putin threw it all back in the West’s face, including tearing up the Minsk Accords negotiated by the Normandy Format (Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia) by recognizing the breakaway regions. Some in the West still believe they can find a diplomatic outcome to Putin’s crisis.
Most, however, have adjusted to the new situation. The greatest change has come from Germany. Only a few weeks ago, Germany was viewed as a laggard, refusing to provide military aid to Ukraine and even blocking a transfer of East German-made weapons from Estonia to Ukraine. The skepticism and criticism of Germany reached a peak when Germany, already blocked by domestic law from sending lethal weapons into a conflict zone, responded to a Ukrainian request for 100,000 helmets by pledging 5000. The mayor of Kyiv remarked that next they should send pillows.
Compared with pre-invasion Germany, post-invasion Germany has been almost unrecognizable. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, still in just his third month in office, appeared sad and stricken as he announced that “the situation now is fundamentally different” and ordered a halt of Nord Stream 2, the Russian gas pipeline to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is the largest and most visible strategic corruption project in the world, driven by Germany’s former chancellor, now Putin crony Gerhard Schröder, who championed the original Nord Stream pipeline while still in office. In his retirement, Schröder promptly joined the dictator-run company to which he had just given a massive contract. He maintains great influence in Germany and is of the same party as Scholz, which only accentuates Scholz’s resolve in halting Nord Stream 2.
Just like that, one of the greatest cleavages in the American-German relationship vanished. It is a huge blow against Moscow. Former Russian president and prime minister, now Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Dmitri Medvedev even declared a new era of expensive gas for Europe. After so many years of Putinversteheren in power, it clearly came as something of a surprise for Putin that Germany would move with such alacrity on such an important decision.
The British response was less impressive. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced sanctions against three oligarchs and five banks, but three of the oligarchs were already on the U.S. sanctions list. This was a missed opportunity: Britain has a unique power to target Putin’s oligarchs, who all live in “Londongrad,” hold their money in British real estate, send their children to British schools, and abuse British courts to intimidate or silence dissidents, political opponents, and even British journalists.
The United States and the EU made up for the U.K.’s shortcomings. Both announced new sanctions on Russian sovereign debt—nothing to scoff at. If Russia cannot sell its debt, it cannot raise money. Russian primary debt was already sanctioned, meaning Russia could not sell its debt directly to Western entities. The new sanctions target secondary sales as well, meaning Western entities can no longer buy Russian debt secondhand. Both Washington and Brussels also hit government-controlled banks and took less damaging but highly symbolic actions blocking all transactions with the DNR and LNR.
The close coordination between the United States and the EU is a welcome surprise. Indeed, it is hard to believe that sanctions were not as closely coordinated with the UK. The United States and the U.K. both emphasized that sanctions will come in “waves” and “this is the first tranche,” respectively. President Biden even said that his administration would start targeting Kremlin elites tomorrow, which could very well mean targeting oligarchs. In that case, the rather limited sanctions by the U.K. Tuesday may be built upon as more and more oligarchs are hit by all partners.
The EU can often only move as fast as its slowest member. Its foreign policy mechanisms are particularly dependent on the lowest common denominator. That being the case, the coordination and multilateralism on display has been truly impressive. Reports also indicate that the Biden administration is working to get Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore to support a ban on selling high-tech to Russia. America’s allies and partners have arguably not been this united since 9/11.
Will it be enough? Putin an opportunist, always seeing what he can get away with and measuring the response before taking more. He has never faced serious resistance from the West before and is almost certainly doubtful that he will this time. This powerful start will give him pause, but probably not much more than that. The United States and its allies will have to get themselves ready to do what they should have done long ago: completely freeze Putin, his cronies, and the kleptocratic Russian state out of the global economy.
Putin has ended the post-Cold War paradigm. We now enter the age of democracy against autocracy. The first steps by the democratic camp have been late and somewhat tentative, but nonetheless reassuring.