Conflict Europe & Eurasia Politics & Diplomacy Russia Security & Defense Ukraine
Experts react February 21, 2022

Russia just ordered troops into Ukraine again. What happens next?

By Atlantic Council experts

Weeks of dire Western warnings began to bear out on Monday when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into the two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine after recognizing their independence. Europe’s post-Cold War security order now hangs in the balance as many wonder whether those troops will stop at the contact line separating the breakaway republics from Ukrainian government-controlled territory.

With Ukraine facing a formidable enemy further encroaching on its soil, Western policymakers must scramble to respond to a geopolitical nightmare coming to life. In response, the United States and the European Union rolled out a substantial package of sanctions, while Germany canceled the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline.

As the fast-moving situation on the ground develops, our experts are weighing in on what this perilous moment means for Ukraine, Europe, and the wider world. This post will be continuously updated as they track this hugely consequential story and send us their insights, analysis, and reporting.

Jump to an expert reaction

Brian O’Toole: Biden’s reasonable start on sanctions falls short on promises

Daniel Fried: A solid sanctions responsein the interim

John Herbst: Time for strong sanctions now

Michael Bociurkiw: Don’t be fooled by ‘peacekeepers’

Emma Ashford: For the Kremlin, this is only the first step

Thomas S. Warrick: This is hybrid warfare against the West

Robert Geisler: How to counter Russian information warfare

Arun Iyer: How to hit the right Russian pain points

Daniel Fried: Putin shows tactical skill, but strategic miscalculation

Christopher Preble: Biden should hold firm on keeping US troops out

Tyson Wetzel: Let’s not mince words: This is an invasion

Barry Pavel: For the US and NATO, it’s time to seize the initiative

Dan Peleschuk: I covered Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. I’m much more frightened today.

Jörn Fleck: Uncharted territory for Germany’s new government

Biden’s reasonable start on sanctions falls short on promises

This is a reasonable first tranche from the Biden administration, moving in step with what the European Union (EU) is reportedly considering, assuming that there are more incremental aggressions anticipated by Moscow that will need room to escalate by the United States and its partners. Unfortunately, these sanctions do fall short of the major banking sanctions promised on both sides of the Atlantic, as no significant commercial banks were included. The newest sanctions will have impact, undoubtedly, but I fear that Putin may assess the West does not have the stomach to impose truly significant measures given the incremental nature of today’s announcement. I hope that time proves him wrong, as it is clear he has no intention of stopping with just taking the breakaway territories. 

Brian O’Toole is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center and a former senior US Treasury Department official.

A solid sanctions responsein the interim

The Biden administration’s imposition of full blocking sanctions (and not lesser sanctions) against two financial institutions is critical: It sets a standard for strong future action against most of all big Russian banks. Also good was the imposition of sanctions on secondary market trading of Russian sovereign debt (bonds).

These actions seem to meet what the administration was going for: sanctions sharp enough to get Kremlin attention while leaving most in reserve. Between the US sanctions, the German decision on Nord Stream 2, and what I hope is in the EU sanctions package (e.g., sovereign debt restrictions), it’s a solid interim response to Putin’s aggression. But that means more of a warning shot. And worse aggression may be coming. 

Daniel Fried is the Weiser family distinguished fellow at the Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.

Time for strong sanctions now

Vladimir Putin surprised no one today when he recognized the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk peoples republics, the areas of Ukraine’s Donbas where Moscow engineered a “revolt” against Ukraine’s central authorities. His statement also made clear that he has designs on other independent states that emerged when the Soviet Union collapsed. And as we saw in the draft treaties that Russia sent to the United States and NATO, his designs also touch on states of the Warsaw Pact. This is confirmation that accommodating Moscow in Ukraine will not satiate Putin’s appetite for territory and provocation.

What the United States, NATO, and the European Union do next is extremely important.  Putin has committed a substantial provocation. If the West’s response is simply rhetorical, Putin will smell weakness and escalation is likely. The West must respond now. That means impose some sanctions immediately—strong sanctions. It appears that the Biden administration will sanction economic activity in the areas Putin just recognized as independent. If that is the extent of the response, the United States will be inviting Moscow’s further escalation. The administration is now saying that there will be additional sanctions for this latest provocation after consultations with allies and partners.  

The ideal sanctions target should be Nord Stream 2, which the Biden administration should never have permitted to proceed last year. If not that, the United States must sanction at least one major Russian bank, as well as some of the high-profile figures around the Russian president. The United States must also make clear that far more punishing sanctions are to come if Moscow launches a major new offensive. They must include sanctions on the Russian secondary debt market and not exclude expulsion from the SWIFT financial system. What’s more, it is time to send even more NATO forces and hardware to the Alliance’s eastern flank. Finally, the administration should reverse its decision not to help evacuate American civilians from Ukraine. Thousands of Americans will be trapped there if Putin invades again and the US military has a long history of rescuing its citizens in dangerous circumstances. Such an operation would also complicate Russian plans. 

John Herbst is the senior director of the Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Don’t be fooled by ‘peacekeepers’

Putin’s actions Monday evening effectively formalize control over a large area of eastern Ukraine which he has been controlling since 2014, when Russian thugs entered its former industrial heartland.

The declaration to recognize the “independence” of Donetsk and Luhansk comes as little surprise. Putin knew he could make the land grab without the West unleashing the biting sanctions of which it has been speaking about for weeks. US President Joe Biden’s announcement Monday to impose new sanctions on trade and financing in the two occupied areas are too little, too late. The sanctions would hit anyone doing business there, which are mainly Russian-linked companies and individuals. Many, including myself, argue that Russia has, to some extent, inoculated itself against such sanctions. In Moscow, Biden’s sanctions will be interpreted as weak and could invite further aggression. When Putin smells weakness, he prods further for soft tissue.

The declaration also calls for Russian “peacekeepers” to enter the two areas. This is a move straight out of the Russian playbook to make a formal military takeover appear as a benign operation. No one will be fooled.

In order to deter further Russian aggression and to inflict palpable pain on Putin’s inner circle, the United Kingdom needs to immediately target some of the 2,500 Russians who purchased so-called golden visas. The West could go further by lifting the landing rights of Aeroflot and other Russian commercial airlines. And the “nuclear option” needs to start rolling out—the cancellation of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Though it remains to be seen whether the political will exists in European capitals, mainly Berlin, to inflict such pain.

On a final note, the move by Russia on the Donbas puts into question the future of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine—the largest of its kind in the organization’s history. The SMM’s ability to continue to implement its mandate had already been constrained by the hasty decision of the United States and United Kingdom to withdraw their nationals. Can the mission safely and legitimately continue to monitor the situation in the occupied territories now that they are “independent” and not part of the OSCE landscape?

Michael Bociurkiw is a nonresident senior fellow at the Eurasia Center, a global affairs analyst, and humanitarian aid veteran who worked in the Donbas for the OSCE.

For the Kremlin, this is only the first step

Putin’s move to recognize the separatist territories presages the stationing of Russian troops there. The scope of Russia’s military build-up—coupled with its choice to effectively kill the Minsk peace process—means it is highly likely that this is only the first step in a further Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

At this point, the Biden administration should do three key things:

  1. Hold fire on top-tier sanctions. The already-issued sanctions against the separatist entities in eastern Ukraine, plus the German decision to kill the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, are good responses to Russia’s first move. By holding off on sanctioning major Russian banks or on issuing other top-level sanctions (such as export controls), the administration achieves two things: It retains some potential deterrent capability against further Russian moves and maintains control of the narrative in the event of further Russian military actions. In turn, those high-level sanctions must be carefully calibrated and targeted to effectively punish Russia for further invading Ukraine—but without being so wide-ranging that they risk causing collateral damage to the global economy.
  2. Prepare for disruption. Any large-scale conflict in Ukraine will bring significant economic disruption, particularly in Europe, as well as the risk of a destabilizing flow of refugees from Ukraine. European states will be the primary responders to this disruption, but the Biden administration should help as best it can by preparing to use the immigration tools at its disposal to help with that flow, as well as by continuing its efforts to help European states backstop energy supplies in the event of a crisis.
  3. Think about the day after. If Russia does stage a large-scale offensive against Ukraine, it will mark a notable shift for European security out of the post-Cold War era and into a new, more volatile period. US policymakers should approach this period with the primary goal of maintaining US security and keeping American troops out of any conflict in Ukraine. They will also need to consider how changes in Russian force posture—in Ukraine and Belarus, in particular—will impact the security of NATO members. Some build-up inside NATO member states is inevitable as a result of this crisis; it should come primarily from the alliance’s European member states, with Washington facilitating as needed.

Emma Ashford is a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Putin’s four-part hybrid warfare plan

Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops into the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk is neither the first move nor the last of Putin’s hybrid-warfare campaign. Keep in mind this is hybrid warfare: Putin’s goal is strategic victory over both Ukraine and the West, not the tactical action of moving troops into Donetsk and Luhansk.

Claims by some outside observers that diplomacy is over fail to recognize Putin’s four-part gambit for what it is. 

  1. Putin has used disinformation and false-flag operations to justify military action to the Russian people, even if the Biden administration has successfully discredited Putin’s moves in most Western eyes. 
  2. Putin has made an overt military move, but against territory that Kyiv does not control.
  3. Putin has not yet launched an all-out campaign to capture Kyiv that would allow him to install a puppet government and forestall further relations between Ukraine and the West—but that would trigger devastating sanctions. 
  4. Therefore, Putin’s likely next round in hybrid warfare will be diplomacy, to try to get real concessions from Ukraine and the West without a real invasion. 

Whether Putin will wait for Thursday’s Antony Blinken-Sergei Lavrov meeting or for a Biden-Putin summit—in-person or virtual—only Putin himself knows. Putin, and no one else, is responsible for his decision on whether to wait for diplomacy or to attack.

Thomas S. Warrick is a senior advisor with the Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and a former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security.

How to counter Russian information warfare

Russian information operations have become formulaic and, as a result, predictable. They are now considered as important to Russian military operations as logistics, special operations, and maneuver forces. They are intended for a wide range of audiences, but propaganda targeting domestic Russian audiences may be the most important to the regime—as the Russian people are often the best counter to Russian adventurism. Once the domestic information environment is controlled, however, Russian propagandists can inject a narrative that blames the West for using Ukraine as a surrogate against Russia or falsely cites the West’s intent to destabilize Ukraine as a casus belli for war against Russia. While this narrative is absurd on its face, it has sufficiently influenced the Russian population to the point that a near-majority has expressed support for intervention. 

A second target audience for this narrative is countries such as India which are seeking a pretext to remain muted in opposition to the Russian moves in Ukraine. It assuages leaders who have too many equities at risk by offering a fig leaf of explanation to justify standing on the sideline.

The third target audience is Ukrainians. Constant demonstrations of military systems and exercises, the flooding of broadcast and internet media with bellicose pronouncements, feints, cyber intrusions of essential services, and a slow but steady build-up of political tensions are designed to wear down the will of military and civilian populations. 

The West can and must move decisively and proactively to counter these operations. That requires speed and scale in defense against propaganda and disinformation as well as offensively targeting an adversary’s population. Simply saying something from the White House or 10 Downing Street in isolation will not have the same effect in countering Russian propaganda as would a concerted and synchronized interagency and international response. Consequently, an aggressive US communications strategy must become one of the largest and earliest employed components in countering aggression. To date, the United States and Western allies have pursued a largely reactive information strategy with some notable exceptions. The early US exposure of a false-flag operation to function as a trigger for invasion may not have forestalled Russian decisions, but it did alert both the media and targeted populations that it was coming—which significantly diluted its effectiveness.

Robert J. Geisler is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice and a former senior official in the US Department of Defense.

How to hit the right Russian pain points

The unsurprising formal move by Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk and subsequent order to deploy troops to these Russian-backed “people’s republics” appears notable on its face and will serve to further escalate the international crisis of Russia’s making. But more troubling is the rhetoric that Putin has used, including Monday’s reported description of Ukraine as a historical part of Russia that was illegitimately taken from Moscow and run by a US- and Western-controlled puppet regime. The fiery rhetoric indicates that Donetsk and Luhansk will ultimately not be enough for Putin.

Action must be taken to fundamentally change Putin’s decision calculus on this matter, and it must be done quickly inside the gray zone of hybrid conflict, in parallel with planned conventional responses. While the United States has numerous options on the table below the threshold of active armed conflict, it should move quickly and decisively to send a tacit message to Putin and his supporters. One of the many options could be action against a notable Russian oligarch inside Putin’s circle of influence, and it could include a coordinated regime of individual sanctions, asset seizures, travel restrictions, frozen funds, and a broader denial of access to any of the trappings the oligarchs and their families enjoy or require in the West. The intensity should make enough of an example that it gets serious attention from Putin’s elite enablers. Ultimately, such actions send a message to the Russian elite (whose support Putin needs) that the United States and its allies can and will make being a Russian oligarch essentially worthless anyplace other than Russia—unless they convince Putin to act within international norms. There are many options on the table, but the United States needs to effectively hit the right pain points to have any chance at stabilizing this situation.

Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other US government agency.

Putin shows tactical skill but strategic miscalculation

Putin’s rant against Ukraine was vintage Putin grievance narrative nonsense. And his recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk puppet regimes was a predictable (and predicted) move. His bluster aside, Putin is a skilled tactician and appears to gauge his aggression to be just below the US threshold for action. The sanctions the United States announced on Monday against the separatist puppet regimes are symbolic only. The Biden team is saving its sanctions punch for a full-on Russian invasion of Ukraine. This could come, and the Biden administration expects it. But Putin could continue to attack Ukraine, whose nationhood he seems to hate and whose sovereignty he seems determined to destroy, via means intended to avoid strong consequences. Responding to a slice-at-a-time Kremlin tactic is a challenge the Biden team needs to meet.

Putin is less of a strategist. He has alienated Ukrainians, undermined residual German support for endless understanding of Russia, and, if he does launch a full-on invasion, risks triggering opposition in Russia itself. Forty years ago, the Kremlin had regained control over Poland when its communist leaders declared martial law. Now, Putin is struggling to regain power over Ukraine. The future may not belong to Putin as much as he supposes. But the United States needs to contend with Putin’s current attack on Ukraine and Europe. 

Daniel Fried is the Weiser family distinguished fellow at the Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.

Biden should hold firm on keeping US troops out

The Russian military build-up along the border with Ukraine, and the prospect of a Russian invasion, reveal the limits of US and European leverage over Vladimir Putin. The United States provided military aid to Ukraine, and the Biden administration threatened to impose crippling economic sanctions, but a Russian invasion would suggest that that deterrent threat had failed. And not for the first time; US and European punitive measures since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 have not compelled a Russian retreat. 

It is possible that no amount of outside pressure could have convinced Putin to back down. He created this crisis, and he bears the blame for it. And there are still many unknowns, including the nature of Russian military operations. But the implications already extend well beyond Ukraine, with effects on the global economy from rising oil prices and general uncertainty. Looking ahead, many Americans sympathize with Ukraine’s plight but strongly oppose deeper US involvement there. US President Joe Biden has wisely rejected any suggestion that US troops be sent to fight in Ukraine. He should remain firm in his determination to avoid military escalation, even as he and his team, together with US partners and allies, explore every feasible option for defusing the crisis.

Christopher Preble is the co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Let’s not mince words: This is an invasion

Early and yet unconfirmed reports indicate the Russian military began rapidly moving military forces and equipment into Donetsk and Luhansk overnight Monday. The apparent moves, combined with Putin’s recognition of the breakaway republics as independent, has led to the de facto Russian “annexation” of these territories. It will be easy for many to say the situation on the ground is essentially unchanged, with Russia simply increasing the number of forces in regions they have occupied for eight years. This line of reasoning minimizes Putin’s actions and can be used to justify inaction by the United States and its allies and partners. Though it lacks the “shock and awe” that many have come to expect from a military invasion, an invasion is exactly what happened on Monday. This is a major test of the rules-based international order: Will Russia be allowed to redraw its borders as it sees fit? The United States and its international partners should use various instruments of national power immediately to impose costs on the Russian regime.

—Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel is the senior US Air Force fellow for 2021-22 at the Atlantic Council. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other US government agency.

For the US and NATO, it’s time to seize the initiative

The United States and its NATO allies and partners should not remain in reactive mode.  It’s time to seize the initiative to deter additional Russian military aggression as well as reset Alliance policy and posture for this new era of insecurity in Europe. Putin’s speech, which questioned Ukraine’s very statehood, signaled exactly where he will be headed next; the Western world should take him at his word and drop its lawyerly approach to the current actions on the ground, which are highly likely to expand geographically.

To deter further Russian aggression as soon as practicable, the United States and its NATO allies should take the following six measures:

  • Immediately enact the comprehensive, crippling financial sanctions against Russia that have been threatened for weeks;
  • Plan out and execute additional military reinforcements, with a heavy emphasis on ground and air forces, to the borders of NATO’s easternmost allies, including Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary;
  • Engage intensively with Sweden and Finland, and (if those two nations so choose) explore ways to greatly strengthen their current partnership arrangements with the alliance;
  • Seriously ramp up military assistance to Ukrainian forces allowing them to potentially impose severe, sustained costs on occupying Russian forces; and
  • Begin a sustained information campaign to expose Putin’s and his cronies’ massive corruption and theft of billions of dollars from the Russian people. This will target what Putin values most: his own personal, (and undemocratically-held) position of power.

Barry Pavel is senior vice president and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

I covered Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. I’m much more frightened today.

In March 2014, I watched Russia’s annexation of Crimea from a basement café in Simferopol, the regional capital, after weeks of covering the dizzying post-revolutionary tide of events from Moscow, Kyiv, and the Black Sea peninsula itself.

From a Kremlin propagandist’s perspective, it was a ceremonial masterpiece: Inside a gilded hall filled with national dignitaries, and in a performative display of Russian state power that would have pleased the most militant of tsars, President Vladimir Putin assertively (yet unemotionally) laid out why he believed Crimea needed Russian protection. His case, of course, rested almost exclusively on lies; but the choreography was clearly aimed at conveying that his country was behind him. 

Putin’s address on Monday was nothing of the sort. In contrast to the pageantry of 2014, a bitterly angry curmudgeon sat alone in a room, unleashing a torrent of grievances—against Ukraine, the West, and seemingly the forces of history itself—into a camera like a despotic madman. As he rattled on, it became clear that this was an address he’d wanted to make for a very, very long time. And at exactly this moment, with the entire world watching.

Throughout the drama that has unfolded in recent weeks around Moscow’s troop build-up along Ukraine’s border, I’ve doubted that Putin is politically prepared at the moment to stage an all-out offensive that would include an attack on Kyiv. More likely, to my mind, is that he’d continue testing Western (and Ukrainian) resolve by pushing his troops ever closer to the contact line separating the breakaway republics and Ukrainian-controlled territory.

After watching Monday’s address, I’m no longer so sure. In addition to Putin’s chilling threats—one of which seemed to suggest a dismantling of the entire Ukrainian state—the level of sheer invention in state propaganda and other channels has been unprecedented and downright astounding to observe.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a large-scale Russian offensive is an inevitability; nor have I completely changed my mind. Indeed, many analysts argue that Putin’s specialty of coercive diplomacy may still be in play. But it does mean the world must at least prepare for the possibility that this nightmare may yet escalate much further.

Dan Peleschuk is the editor of New Atlanticist.

Uncharted territory for Germany’s new government

Decision-makers in Berlin seem to be facing up to a different kind of reset in relations with Russia. Chancellor Olaf Scholz acted swiftly and decisively on Tuesday when he put the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline on ice. That will serve as a clear signal to Putin—but also proves wrong the occasionally vitriolic accusations in recent months that Berlin was undermining alliance unity. But it will also pose political challenges at home, as energy price hikes, inflationary pressures, and a rougher economic outlook top the new government’s domestic agenda.

Still, a more fundamental shift in Germany’s approach to Russia looks increasingly inevitable after the de-facto Russian annexation of parts of Ukraine. This shift was long coming, but Putin’s latest aggression has pushed even some of the most ardent Russia sympathizers (including in the Chancellor’s own party) to realize that dialogue and diplomatic solutions—long the rhetorical fallback position in Germany’s Russia policy—have failed. Across party lines, calls for a tougher stance toward Russia are mounting, with the notable exception of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).   

It will be up to Scholz and his Green and liberal partners in the ruling coalition to shape a new, more assertive approach to Moscow for what looks like a longer-term challenge from Putin. The highly symbolic suspension of Nord Stream 2 is a first step and important signal. But the new government in Berlin will need to show the same determination that Scholz demonstrated, as well as navigate more complex decisions on EU sanctions, European energy policy, and contributions to reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank if it is to succeed in reshaping its Russia policy.

Jörn Fleck is the deputy director of the Europe Center.

Further reading

Related Experts: John E. Herbst, Michael Bociurkiw, Arun Iyer, Daniel Fried, and Tyson Wetzel

Image: A Ukrainian service member is seen on the front line near the city of Novoluhanske in the Donetsk region, Ukraine February 20, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich