Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 23 February 2022

 Ukraine conflict

The west must show greater resolve over Russia’s aggression

US and European allies should impose tougher sanctions over new invasion of Ukraine

In his TV address, Vladimir Putin seemed twisted with anger, intent on dragging his inner circle, and Russia’s people, down his perilous chosen path

In his TV address, Vladimir Putin seemed twisted with anger, intent on dragging his inner circle, and Russia’s people, down his perilous chosen path © Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock


February 22, 2022 7:12 pm by The editorial board

Europe has been thrust into its most dangerous security crisis since the second world war. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognise Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions and order in Russian troops as “peacekeepers” is more than just an unprovoked invasion. Along with his televised comments on Monday night, it signals a denial of Ukraine’s right to exist. It strikes at the heart of the post-Cold war settlement that allows all European states to choose their own destinies. It steps up Moscow’s efforts to redraw the continent’s security architecture in its favour, so marking an assault on the rules-based international system. The US and European allies have resolved not to use force to defend Ukraine against a nuclear-armed Russia. But they should not hesitate now in rolling out the punitive economic sanctions they have threatened.

Despite all the denials from Putin downwards of any intention to invade, events have unfolded since last week according to an obviously pre-planned script: from the intensification of shelling along the contact line between the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk and the rest of Ukraine, to a comically choreographed Russian security council meeting urging Putin to recognise their independence.

Putin’s TV announcement that he would do so repudiates the Minsk agreement that has been the basis of efforts to resolve the conflict around the two entities since 2014. It violates international law, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Moscow’s latest steps stop short, so far, of the all-out assault that western capitals have feared. Yet the rest of the world should be under no illusion: while Russia fomented the conflict around the separatist regions and has had a presence there for eight years, moving troops across the Russian-Ukrainian border now constitutes a new invasion.

It is unclear how much further the Kremlin may go. While Putin said late on Tuesday Russian troops would not necessarily go in “right now”, he said Moscow recognised the breakaway entities’ claim to the entire broader Ukrainian regions in which they are located. That could presage Russian troops crossing into Ukrainian-held territory — including the Azov Sea coast and port of Mariupol — prompting a direct confrontation with Kyiv’s forces.

Putin might conceivably stop here. He would have taken a further bite out of Ukraine’s territory, after annexing Crimea in 2014, and made Ukraine more indigestible to Nato. He could use his strengthened position to demand that Kyiv drops its ambitions to join the North Atlantic alliance, or pledges neutrality, as he is now openly suggesting. He might go further along the coast to establish a land bridge from Russia to Crimea — or as far as Odesa in the west. Moscow would then have severely compromised Ukrainian statehood.

Western intelligence agencies suggest that with up to 190,000 troops around Ukraine, Russia could seize the capital, Kyiv. That number still looks wholly inadequate to hold even Ukraine’s eastern portion beyond the Dnieper river in the face of determined local resistance — making this an extraordinarily risky venture. The Russian leader has so far been shrewd and calculating. Yet it is possible that, as some western officials say, Putin no longer weighs risks as he once did. In the security council meeting, where he humiliated key advisers, and his rambling TV address, he seemed a different figure: twisted with anger, intent on dragging his inner circle, and Russia’s people, down his perilous chosen path.

The west should respond with tough measures, within the constraints it has set by ruling out direct military confrontation over Ukraine. The US, UK and EU are right to have responded with some immediate sanctions. It is encouraging that a previously wavering Germany has suspended certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Steps from the UK remain disappointingly limited. Western allies should now proceed with the full package of measures they have discussed — on Russian debt, on banks and energy companies raising western financing, on exports of sensitive technologies, and on Putin’s inner circle and oligarchs close to him.

Holding back now, in the hope of deterring more severe aggression by a Russian leader who seems intent on his course, is misguided. The west risks making its response look weak, sending Putin the wrong message.

Imposing the kind of sanctions that have been discussed entails undoubted dangers. Kremlin officials and mouthpieces have threatened retaliation — from cyber attacks and energy disruptions to undisclosed measures. The shortage of natural gas in storage leaves Europe especially vulnerable. To convince the Kremlin that they are prepared to stand up for the values they espouse, however, western allies need to be prepared to demonstrate that they will suffer economic pain. By targeting companies and individuals not directly involved in Russia’s military effort they will face accusations that they are harming their own reputation for rule of law. But they are confronting a revisionist foe which has shown itself ready to trample on international rules and treaties.

The Nato alliance should also take steps to reassure and strengthen its eastern flanks — from the Baltic states and Poland through to Romania and the Black Sea. Its members are right, for example, to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the Baltic Sea — but must take care not to engage in anything Russia might seize on as an alleged provocation. An emboldened Putin should be left in no doubt that any encroachment into Nato territory will trigger alliance members’ mutual security guarantees.

The experience of Moscow’s aggression towards Ukraine in 2014 suggested Russia’s president will push as far as he can until he meets resistance, including opposition at home. In confronting a Putin whose goals appear even more reckless and threatening than eight years ago, the west will have to go much further to convince him of its collective resolve.

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