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New Atlanticist February 20, 2023

Experts react: One year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US releases new sanctions and China steps in with a ‘peace’ plan

By Atlantic Council experts

This post was updated on Friday, February 24.

At the one-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States slapped new sanctions on Russia’s banks, metals, microchips, and more. Meanwhile China’s foreign ministry released a “peace plan” shortly after its top diplomat visited Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin.

The announcements cap a busy week including dueling speeches by Putin and US President Joe Biden, and a surprise Biden visit to Kyiv. Below, Atlantic Council experts share their insights on all of it as the war enters its second year. This post will be updated as news around the war continues to unfold.

Expert reactions on the new US sanctions:

Brian O’Toole and Daniel Fried: New sanctions will damage Moscow’s financial networks and military tech—and send a message to other capitals

Expert reactions on China’s peace proposal:

Ahmed Aboudouh: The Global South will cheer China’s peace plan

Niva Yau: China’s continued support for Russia means losing Eurasia

Expert reactions on Tuesday’s dueling speeches:

Matthew Kroenig: The beginning of the end of legally binding US-Russia arms control

Robert Soofer: Expect Russia to comply with New START after all—but arms control doesn’t mean security

Brian Whitmore: Like a washed-up rock band, Putin plays the old hits

Daniel Fried: Biden correctly casts Putin as a twentieth-century dictator

Expert reactions on Biden’s trip to Kyiv:

John Herbst: A visit that reflects Biden’s policies—useful and sound but not strong or visionary

Oleh Shamshur: An emotional welcome for Biden from Ukrainians—and hysteria in Russia

Daniel Fried: An echo of Kennedy and Reagan

Melinda Haring: A message of continued American support, with political battles ahead

Peter Dickinson: A bitter reaction in Russia

New sanctions will damage Moscow’s financial networks and military tech—and send a message to other capitals

The US sanctions package released on the anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is a strong set of actions that will have real impact on Russia’s economy, and it signals more to come. The package covers many of the areas we assessed were likely to be hit: banking, the military, microchips, evasion networks, and the metals and mining sector. These sanctions will further impair Russia’s financial networks and military and technology procurement networks, and although the metals and mining sanctions do not yet target the largest Russian firms, they are a clear message of who is next in line to be cut off from the West. 

Notably, the United States sanctioned Russia’s MTS Bank, which was given a banking license in the United Arab Emirates shortly after a visit from the Treasury Department’s top sanctions official, Brian Nelson. The timing of the banking license announcement was a clear diplomatic slight after a visit where Russian sanctions evasion was a central topic, and Friday’s sanctions on MTS send a signal to other capitals—including Ankara, Beijing, and Delhi—that have come under scrutiny for potentially assisting Russian sanctions-busting. The United States has not gone after any new oligarchs in this round, instead opting to sanctions a wealth management firm and its key managers, which is a route of attacking those who benefit from the Kremlin’s rampant corruption without causing economic spillover to the West. 

Looking forward, this action signals where the United States and its partners are looking for additional economic pressure, and future rounds of sanctions will likely follow this blueprint. Sanctions and other forms of economic pressure such as export controls will not be airtight. They don’t have to be. The pressure they exert on Russia’s kleptocratic economy will grow over time, leading, as happened with the Soviet economy, to systemic stagnation and systemic crisis.

Brian OToole is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Councils GeoEconomics Center and a former senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the US Department of the Treasury. Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and served as the coordinator for sanctions policy during the Obama administration.

The Global South will cheer China’s peace plan

The Ukraine war officially ended China’s “peaceful rising” holiday from world politics and geostrategic competition with the West. This new reality is best demonstrated in China’s “peace plan,” a mere reiteration of China’s position on the war throughout the past year, but a meaningful diplomatic intervention that would turn China into a necessary peace actor in any future settlement.    

China has maintained its support for Russia—refusing to condemn the invasion or call it “war”—which makes it far from neutral. But, regardless of the moral position on the war, the Global South will find China’s call for a ceasefire and respect for all countries’ sovereignty appealing. Sovereignty in the United Nations Charter framework has always been a contentious and sensitive issue in the Western hegemonic behavior toward the South. China’s call for “stopping unilateral sanctions” and opposing “using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes” is another manifestation of the South’s historical grievance toward coercion to pick sides and deprive its nations of choices except for two: With us or against us. To be clear, no other Chinese diplomatic undertaking could better reflect China’s desire to lead the Global South in promoting the third option: Neutrality without consequences. 

Another long-standing dilemma involves double standards. When it comes to Ukraine, officials in the South criticize Washington for the centrality of liberal ideology in its calculations over understanding Russia’s security concerns and the regional balance of power. China’s “position paper” stated: “The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs,” a veiled swipe at NATO. It also said: “The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly.” For many Southern countries, this position precisely reflects their view on the conflict. Food security and maintaining the stability of supply chains are two other powerfully attractive points that will further polish China’s image as a responsible and peace-loving power in the South.  

The potential embrace of China’s peace statement by the South may accelerate the emergence of a new coalition of non-aligned countries led by major powers such as China and India. In Beijing’s view, pushing this trend forward is beneficial because it creates a future front-line defense as the West moves on from calling on the world to pick sides against Russia to, very soon, pressuring it to isolate China.   

Ahmed Aboudouh is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs

China’s continued support for Russia means losing Eurasia

In the former Soviet space, many countries have favored China with the goal of balancing Russia. The points that China made on Ukraine on Friday, however, are going to be perceived by the region as tone-deaf, cold, and detached. Reality for populations in Eurasia in the past year has been weekly, if not daily consumption of the horrific humanitarian crisis created by Russia. Stopping the war, as the Chinese press release lays out in detail, means for Ukraine to stop receiving military aid from others and for Ukraine to get rid of those reasons that triggered Russia’s invasion. “The international community should stay committed to the right approach of promoting talks for peace,” as the Chinese side sees it, is an approach that takes into consideration Russia’s demands. However, much of the proposal deviates from established norms and practices: It asks, for example, for countries to stop sanctioning Russia.     

Let’s be extremely clear: China is not asking Russia to stop its aggression. China recognizes that Russia had reasons for war, the same narrative that Russian propaganda tries to spread across Eurasia, without much success. At this point, Сhina’s failure to recognize Russian aggression toward Ukraine is a full wake-up call for Eurasia. Unlike China, many countries in Eurasia have helped Ukraine directly and indirectly. Iven Kazakhstan, which now genuinely worries what Russia’s aggression might mean for its own sovereignty, has indirectly sent humanitarian support to Ukraine. For Eurasia, the war is not simply some grand geopolitical rivalry, but its consequences dictate the capacity and ambition of Russia in the future.     

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan early next week to meet with all Central Asian heads of state. Already, with the war, Central Asian elites who once favored China with the hope of balancing Russia are no longer so sure. On top of this, they have been trapped for years to ignore (sometimes even facilitate) the human rights violations China commits across the border toward its Turkic populations in Xinjiang, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz. It appears that Beijing continues to bank on this war’s ability to shake up the international order to its favor.,But it is already losing Eurasia.  

—Niva Yau is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

The beginning of the end of legally binding US-Russia arms control

On Tuesday, Putin announced that Moscow was suspending its participation in New START—its last remaining arms-control treaty with the United States. This means that, for the first time since the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) of 1972, there are no negotiated limits on Russia’s nuclear forces.  

In an accompanying statement, Russian officials explained that they would consider resuming compliance and did not intend to exceed the numerical thresholds on nuclear weapons imposed by New START. (Inspections of nuclear sites under the treaty have ceased since March 2020 due to COVID-19. Russia’s refusal to resume inspections, despite improving public health conditions, led the US Department of State to recently declare Russia in “noncompliance” with the treaty.) While it is possible that Russia will return to compliance, a return to the treaty is not a likely outcome, given the state of US-Russian relations.

Instead, this moment likely marks the beginning of the end of legally binding numerical arms control between the United States and Russia. New START was already scheduled to expire in 2026, and, given China’s strategic nuclear breakout, US strategists were already concerned about being locked into numerical parity in strategic forces with Russia, the core tenet of New START.

Washington needs to prepare for a new, long-term strategic arms competition, a first since the end of the Cold War. In doing so, the United States must ensure that it has the forces capable of deterring and, if necessary, defending against an attack on itself and its more than thirty formal treaty allies, a task complicated by its multiple nuclear-armed rivals.

Matthew Kroenig is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former nuclear-weapons expert in the US Department of Defense and intelligence community.

Expect Russia to comply with New START after all—but arms control doesn’t mean security

Putin’s announcement to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START Treaty is most likely intended to shore up his domestic political support and distract public attention against a failing war effort. It is also meant to weaken the will of the West by holding an arms-control treaty hostage to Putin’s demands. While Russia has suspended inspections and consultations, it is not clear whether Russia has or intends to violate any of the treaty’s central limitations by deploying additional nuclear weapons. This seems unlikely, however, because Russia already enjoys a ten-to-one advantage in regional, shorter-range nuclear weapons that are not limited by the treaty. 

It is in Russia’s interest to limit US strategic nuclear forces via New START while it enjoys superiority in regional nuclear weapons—an imbalance the Biden administration hopes to rectify in any follow-on agreement. For this reason, I believe that Russia will eventually return into compliance with the treaty, which is scheduled to expire in just over two years. The whole episode is a reminder that arms control cannot be separated from the broader geopolitical landscape, and that the United States cannot rely on arms-control treaties for its security. It also illustrates clearly why a survivable, modern nuclear arsenal is needed more than ever to hedge against an expansion of Russian (and Chinese) nuclear capabilities.

Robert Soofer is a senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and a former deputy assistant US secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy.

Like a washed-up rock band, Putin plays the old hits

Putin hit most of his usual notes in his widely anticipated state-of-the-nation speech just days before the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He falsely characterized his war of aggression and war of choice as a struggle to defend Russia and what he inaccurately called “its historical lands which are now called Ukraine.” He blamed the war on the West, claiming, absurdly, that “the Ukrainian people have become hostages of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, which have effectively occupied the country.” He revived his nuclear saber-rattling by suspending Russia’s participation in the New START Treaty, announcing that he is putting Russia’s ground-based strategic nuclear systems “on combat standby duty” and threatening to resume nuclear tests.

But like a washed-up rock band past its prime trying to play its greatest hits, Putin’s performance was predictable, flat, and unconvincing. This was a speech by a leader who is losing a war—and is trying to convince himself and his nation otherwise. It is worth recalling that Putin was originally scheduled to give this speech in December, but it was canceled following a series of military setbacks in Ukraine. The postponement was reportedly because Putin wanted a major battlefield victory to boast about in the speech. But one wasn’t forthcoming. Russia recently suffered catastrophic losses in its unsuccessful attempt to take the city of Vuhledar, and its offensive appears to have stalled near Bakhmut. 

So instead, Putin prepared the Russian people for a long and protracted conflict, promising soldiers two weeks of home leave every six months and pledging that Moscow would continue the war “step by step, carefully and consistently.” As many commentators have noted, Putin is trying to normalize the war. But as he does so, he also clearly appears to be losing his mojo.

Brian Whitmore is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas-Arlington.

Biden correctly casts Putin as a twentieth-century dictator

In a strong speech in Warsaw, Biden made the case for supporting Ukraine in terms of a broad struggle between freedom and autocracy. In doing so, he was right to reach back to US strategic thinking from the twentieth century: Putin in his actions and rhetoric resembles his twentieth century tyrannical predecessors, and Biden was speaking as the leader of the Free World who will defy this latest dictator and his aggressive designs. Comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s iconic Berlin speeches are apt; it was another moment of US leadership coming just after Biden’s stirring Kyiv visit.

Good speeches set the stage. They do not win wars on their own. With Biden having put the case in strong terms, the administration will have to show that its assistance to Ukraine—economic and especially military, as the battle hangs in the balance—is commensurate with the stakes as Biden has described them. There has been a tension between the urgency of helping Ukraine defend itself and concern about avoiding direct confrontation with Moscow. This has sometimes led to a cautious and deliberate process of deciding which weapons to send Ukraine. Biden’s speech may, and hopefully will, move the administration to send the Ukrainians what they need to liberate their land and win this war of national survival.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a former US ambassador to Poland and US assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.

A visit that reflects Biden’s policies—useful and sound but not strong or visionary

Biden’s trip to Kyiv was useful, positive, and even necessary. It is of a piece with his overall policy since the threat of a massive Russian invasion emerged in 2021. That policy is adequate to the greatest challenge to US security and prosperity since the implosion of the Soviet Union over thirty years ago. Biden’s three-part strategy is a sound one: rally allies and partners to provide weapons and other aid to Ukraine, impose major sanctions on Moscow, and bolster NATO defenses in the east. Given the great weight of the danger, even an adequate policy requires skill, great effort, and large resources. For sure, this policy has prevented Vladimir Putin from subduing Ukraine for a year.

But the policy is neither strong nor visionary, and this trip is a reflection of that. A statesman would rise to the challenge of Putin’s aggression by laying out in clear terms the threats to vital US interests: Kremlin statements and actions indicate that a victory in Ukraine could be followed by a direct threat to US NATO allies—a danger to US security and prosperity. And while the bookkeeper is comfortable with a policy that vows to “stay with Ukraine as long as it takes,” a statesman (or woman) would state clearly that the United States’ goal is a Ukrainian victory or a Kremlin defeat. Such a clear description—constantly repeated—would be followed by resolute action to make it happen. That means giving Ukraine the weapons systems—in this case, tanks in abundance, advanced fighter planes, and long-range fires (out to three hundred kilometers)—that would immediately stop Moscow’s bloody offensive near Bakhmut and enable a decisive Ukrainian counteroffensive to cut Moscow’s land bridge to Crimea. But we heard nothing along these lines from Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior administration officials at the Munich Security Conference or from Biden in Kyiv. Biden’s trip to Kyiv will be noted by historians but not cited as a shining moment of US clarity and leadership. Biden can do better. Let’s hope he does.

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

An emotional welcome for Biden from Ukrainians—and hysteria in Russia

As soon as the visit to Poland had been announced, the rumors concerning the possibility of the Biden-Zelenskyy meeting (most likely in western Ukraine), started to circulate in Kyiv. Even before the first photos appeared, many citizens of Kyiv guessed that the US president was in town because of extraordinary security measures and the blocking of several streets. Biden’s visit was one of those events when the emotional reaction of the Ukrainian governing class and the population was equally positive and even enthusiastic. It should be mentioned that the morning started for Kievites with an air-raid alert, which has become almost a part of their daily routine during the war.

Biden’s visit was definitely significant as proof of staunch US support of Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression, especially to counter the doubts generated by positions taken by some Republican congressmen. The message of continuation of military, economic, and humanitarian assistance on the part of the US-led anti-Putin coalition was extremely important for the Ukrainians to hear. Announcement of a new weapons package was meant to reinforce this message, and it did. However, given that the weapons in the package are largely what the United States has already agreed to send, one might conclude that discussion in Washington about the fighting range and power of weapons provided to Ukraine is still far from being over.

Russian reaction to the visit was predictably hysterical. While on the quasi-official level it was branded as a “demonstrative humiliation of Russia,” social media users went even further, calling for new missile and bomb attacks against Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. There is no doubt that Biden’s visit will be used by the Russian propaganda machine to fan even stronger the feelings of chauvinism and anti-American animosity already well-embedded with the majority of Russians.

Oleh Shamshur is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former ambassador of Ukraine to the United States. 

An echo of Kennedy and Reagan

President Biden’s visit to Kyiv ranks with other great presidential moments of leadership in defense of freedom, like President John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” and President Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speeches in Berlin during the Cold War. Biden’s visit does not change US policy of support for Ukraine’s freedom, but it shows US commitment and determination to see that policy succeed. It’s not a trip a president would make if the US were planning to push Ukraine into a bad settlement on Putin’s terms; it’s a trip that sends a message to Putin of US staying power in support of Ukraine.

Biden’s Kyiv trip creates a powerful backdrop for his Warsaw visit. In Warsaw, Biden is likely to make the case that Ukraine’s cause is the Free World’s as well; that by supporting Ukraine against a tyrant’s war of conquest and national extermination the United States, Europe, and other countries are advancing their interests as well as values. The Kyiv visit gives that message greater power.

Finally, full props to the administration for pulling together such a trip at all. It’s much harder than presidential trips to, say, Baghdad during the Iraq War, where the US had massive military assets on the ground. In Kyiv, the US has a first-rate but small embassy. And the visit came off. Given the hurdles, Biden must have really wanted to make the trip—a long, complex, and risky undertaking. That suggests he means what he says about supporting Ukraine for the long haul. It’s a powerful and welcome message.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia.

A message of continued American support, with political battles ahead

Biden’s visit to Kyiv was pitch-perfect, as were the visuals. He even donned a blue and yellow tie as he walked enthusiastically outside in the middle of an air raid. Although he was one of the last major world leaders to visit the war-torn capital, Ukrainians feel exhausted by the fight one year in and needed reassurance that they haven’t been forgotten. His visit buoyed their spirits. Ordinary Ukrainians took to social media expressing their gratitude for the symbolism of the visit.

Biden’s words that the United States will stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes”—his consistent talking point—are fully in line with US public opinion. One year after the war, 65 percent of Americans want to continue to support Ukraine reclaiming its territory even if it means a prolonged conflict. That number hasn’t changed from 2022 to 2023, which is remarkable, but there are serious partisan differences between Republicans and Democrats, and we should only expect them to grow. 

But Biden’s visit also raised expectations. Ukrainians want and expect more assistance, but every additional large assistance package Congress authorizes will be hard-fought. Reassuring Kyiv that Washington has its back while keeping the assistance flowing will be Biden’s big task until the US presidential election.

Melinda Haring is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

A bitter reaction in Russia

Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv has been widely hailed as a victory by Ukrainians, who see it as a timely morale boost and a welcome indication of the United States’ long-term commitment to their country’s fight for survival. Meanwhile, news of the trip has sparked a mixture of shock and fury among Russian audiences. On Russian state TV, pundits discussing the visit attempted to spare Putin’s blushes by insisting that Moscow must have given Washington prior “security guarantees” in order for the trip to go ahead.

Others were in a less charitable mood. Prominent pro-Kremlin journalist Sergei Mardan branded the visit a “demonstrative humiliation of Russia” that made a mockery of the Putin regime’s claims to be waging a “holy war” against the West. “It seems there are also lunch breaks during a holy war,” he commented. One popular Telegram account run by Russian servicemen noted bitterly that with the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion now fast approaching, “Russian city” Kyiv was welcoming the US president and not Putin. Elsewhere on Russian social media, the visit sparked an outpouring of calls for the bombing of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. It is not hard to see why Biden’s presence in the Ukrainian capital provoked such a strong Russian reaction. His visit was a painful reminder that Russia has failed to achieve its military objectives despite twelve months of efforts and huge losses.

Peter Dickinson is the editor of UkraineAlert.

Further reading

Related Experts: Oleh Shamshur, Daniel Fried, Melinda Haring, Peter Dickinson, Matthew Kroenig, and Robert Soofer

Image: US President Joe Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral during an unannounced visit, in Kyiv, Ukraine.