Putin’s Ukraine War: Can the West prevent a new Russian offensive?

In recent weeks, a major Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border has sparked fears of a possible major escalation in the simmering seven-year conflict between the two countries. Speaking in Brussels on April 19, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that Russia has now deployed more than 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine, and warned that “a spark” could set off an escalation.

Russia’s troop deployments have been conducted in a highly public and demonstrative manner, leading many to conclude that the current build-up is an act of intimidation that aims to increase the pressure on Ukraine during ongoing peace negotiations while also testing the reactions of the new Biden administration. However, with Russia’s lightning seizure of Crimea in 2014 still fresh in the mind, few are prepared to rule out the possibility of a fresh Kremlin offensive.

Russian rhetoric has added to the sense of alarm. Senior Kremlin officials have warned that any escalation in hostilities would mark “the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” while leading Putin regime propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov used his flagship current affairs TV show on April 11 to brand Ukraine a “Nazi state” and claim that Russia may be forced to intervene militarily in order to “De-Nazify” the country.

The international community has responded to the threat of a new Russian escalation in Ukraine by voicing strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. US President Joe Biden has called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to reaffirm his support, while there have been a series of official statements from Western capitals calling on Russia to deescalate. Since the start of the crisis in early April, Zelenskyy has also met with a number of international leaders including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron.

However, the Western world has yet to adopt the kind of concrete counter-measures that might decisively deter Putin. Direct military intervention in defense of Ukraine is not under consideration and any non-military steps have so far proved underwhelming. EU officials announced this week that there were no plans to increase sanctions on Russia, while recent calls from Kyiv for progress in Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership bids have failed to produce any response. Many in Ukraine are now growing increasingly concerned that this lack of tangible action risks encouraging further Russian aggression.

The Atlantic Council invited a range of experts to share their opinion on the West’s initial response to Putin’s saber-rattling and asked what more could be done to help prevent a new Russian offensive in Ukraine.

John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: The US response to Moscow’s military build-up, overall, has been uneven. The initial response was excellent. Two weeks ago, NSC Adviser Sullivan, Secretaries of State Blinken and Defense Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley, and President Biden all called their Ukrainian colleagues to express support for Ukraine if Moscow escalated its aggression against Ukraine. And to make sure that Moscow got the message, Milley also called his Russian counterpart.

This past week, the Biden administration slipped up. Yes, it correctly sanctioned Moscow for a number of provocations in recent years, but it also had the Justice Department reverse previous approvals for sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Given the impact that thwarting Nord Stream 2 would have on Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions, this signal of continuing administration waffling on the project detracted from the deterrent value of sanctions. More problematic was the dubious decision to reroute, after intemperate words from Russian Defense Minister Shoygu, two US destroyers heading to the Black Sea.

Washington now needs to re-establish the deterrent value of its initial diplomacy. Perhaps the best thing would be to announce conditional sanctions that would be imposed if Moscow escalates its war on Ukraine. A good target would be a large Russian bank such as Vnesheconombank. More military equipment for Ukraine would be of value, including additional counter-battery radar for missiles and Javelins, along with shore radar and anti-ship missiles. The US should also be sharing intelligence on Russian military operations in a timely manner.

Alexander Vershbow, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council: Washington and its allies have gotten the diplomacy right in conveying high-level warnings to Moscow of the “costs and consequences” of further aggression, including Biden’s phone call to Putin. But those warnings have been undercut by other mixed signals: the canceled deployment of US warships to the Black Sea following Russian complaints; Biden’s reluctance to sanction companies involved in completing Nord Stream 2; and his offer of a US-Russian summit meeting this summer. Indeed, the new US sanctions announced April 15, while an overdue response to Russian malign behavior versus the US that Trump had ignored, had the effect of taking the spotlight off Russia’s war against Ukraine.

More needs to be done to change Putin’s calculus and deter further escalation. The US and Europe need to lay out the harsher sanctions that will be imposed on Moscow if it launches a new land grab or moves toward annexing Donbas under the cover of installing Russian “peacekeepers.” The US and other allies should speed new military aid to Ukraine, including air defense missiles, armed drones, and real-time intelligence that would inflict heavy losses on Russian-led forces trying to seize more territory. While allies remain divided on NATO membership for Ukraine, they should take other steps to raise NATO’s profile, such as stationing an army battalion at a Ukrainian training facility or creating a joint Black Sea naval base at Odesa.

For its part, Ukraine should invite international observers to see that Ukrainian forces are exercising restraint in Donbas and that it is Russia and its proxies who are escalating tensions. This could be reinforced by the US release of unclassified satellite photos that document Russia’s responsibility and refute Russian propaganda.

Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies, Center for European Policy Analysis: I believe the Kremlin is intent on war with Ukraine because Russia is increasingly confident that the West will not actually do anything about it. We didn’t really do anything about their invasion of Georgia in 2008. They saw our failure to act in Syria and our failure to punish them in any meaningful way after their invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Our reaction so far [to the current crisis] has been ineffective and confused and is a manifestation of the absence of a comprehensive strategy for the greater Black Sea region.

Germany, France, and the UK have been utterly disappointing in their total lack of effort or pressure on the Kremlin. But the US is responsible for leadership and we’ve been soft or absent on the Kremlin since 2008. Only a reversal of this trend of minimizing Russia as a threat and the renewed cohesion of the US and its allies in holding the Kremlin accountable will prevent a conflict from happening.

President Biden’s assessment of Putin as a “killer” is accurate and his unequivocal declaration that Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity are a priority for the United States was strong. But it remains to be seen what that actually means.

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Steven Pifer, Fellow, Robert Bosch Academy: As the Russian military has dramatically built up its forces near Ukraine, Western leaders including President Biden, Chancellor Merkel, and President Macron have called on Moscow to withdraw those troops and deescalate the situation. They should encourage others to reiterate those calls.

It remains unclear whether Russia’s saber-rattling aims just to unnerve Kyiv (and test the West’s reaction) or foreshadows new Russian military action against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin may not yet have decided. The West should do all it can now to signal to the Kremlin that a military incursion would result in substantial costs that should not be underestimated.

Western leaders should message the Russian leadership about specific sanctions and penalties that would result from an attack. The US sanctions announced on April 15 left open the prospect of far harsher measures. One possible way to affect Kremlin cost-benefit calculations would be to communicate a list of agreed US-EU sanctions that would kick in if Russia made a new military incursion into Ukraine.

In addition, the United States and others should provide military assistance, such as additional Javelin anti-armor missiles, to Kyiv. NATO will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine, but it can show its readiness to help the Ukrainians defend themselves.

Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council: Unlike in 2008, when the US and Europe were slow to recognize the danger of Putin’s build-up against Georgia, the West has this time warned the Kremlin that renewed aggression against Ukraine would be met with action. The Biden administration’s sanctions announced on April 15 were imposed in response to Kremlin actions unrelated to Ukraine, but they indicated seriousness of purpose and make more credible the threat of further measures should Putin launch a new offensive or other aggressive steps.

Nor is Biden alone is cautioning Putin. On April 8, German Chancellor Merkel told Putin to back off. And speaking with US journalists on April 18, French President Macron warned Putin not to escalate against Ukraine and suggested that additional sanctions would be appropriate if Putin did.

Putin appears to be, like Soviet leaders before him, a calculator of his adversaries’ determination. He may be testing whether the West is asleep or too distracted to act. It isn’t. Moreover, Putin keeps alienating European governments (the Czechs being the latest example) with reckless aggression. The West’s solidarity with Ukraine, with Czechia, and with others under Kremlin pressure, can be effective. We should keep it up.

Diane Francis, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: President Biden delivered a reasoned speech declaring America’s “unwavering” support for Ukraine. He underlined the US desire to build a “stable, predictable relationship” with Russia and highlighted America’s use of sanctions “in a measured and proportionate way”. Biden ended with a blunt request to “deescalate.”

Meanwhile, European leaders have scrambled to react to Russia’s build-up but have so far merely held meetings. Putin’s response to this has been to immediately escalate further by blocking the Kerch Strait and sending in warships from the Caspian Sea to patrol the waters off Ukraine.

The West simply cannot comprehend that Putin doesn’t want a peaceful and stable relationship with America, Europe, or any of his neighbors. He has no intention of deescalating in the face of the West’s mix of weak deterrents and paralysis.

Only far tougher measures will have any impact. The West must beef up sanctions against Russian oligarchs and major Russian corporations while blocking the Kremlin’s geopolitically important energy pipeline projects such as Nord Stream 2. Proportional military steps should also be taken including the deployment of warships to the Black Sea and several thousand troops from NATO countries inside Ukraine until Russia stands down.

Alyona Getmanchuk, Director, New Europe Center: From a diplomatic point of view, the Western response has been quite positive. We can only speculate over where Russia’s tanks would be now if there had been no signals from G7 countries, and especially the US, in recent weeks. It is good to see that unlike in 2014, the threat of a major Russian escalation is being taken seriously. Western calls for Ukraine to do nothing in 2014 resulted in today’s situation, with 7% of the country under Russian occupation.

However, questions remain. To what extent can we talk about a unified Western response? In recent weeks, the tone of the messaging coming from the US and EU has diverged noticeably. European leaders have also prioritized speaking with Putin over contacting Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy. The second key question is whether political statements will be followed by concrete actions. This remains to be seen.

The current crisis highlights the need for bold new strategies towards both Russia and Ukraine. Here in Kyiv, we would like to see Washington and not only Moscow demonstrate a readiness to raise the stakes on Ukraine if necessary. Putin should be provided with an unambiguous menu of sanctions and other steps that he will face in the event of a new offensive. Construction of Nord Stream 2 should be decisively blocked.

One crucial dimension of deterrence is greater Western backing for Ukraine. This should include diplomatic, military, and reform support. There needs to be more direct engagement with Ukraine and solidarity visits to the country, including to the regions of southern and eastern Ukraine which are currently facing a direct threat of Russian aggression.

In terms of security measures, a greater Western military presence in the Black Sea region is clearly needed. There should also be a significant increase in direct military assistance to Ukraine, with a particular focus on air defense.

Lingering uncertainty over Ukraine's geopolitical direction fuels Russian aggression. With this in mind, it is vital to strengthen Ukraine’s ties to the Western world. This could mean either progress towards NATO membership or some form of enhanced bilateral security agreement with the US. Any deepening of ties would would send a strong message to Putin that his efforts to prevent Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration through the use of military force are counter-productive.

Oleksiy Goncharenko, Ukrainian MP, European Solidarity party: Firstly, it is important to thank all of Ukraine’s international friends for the support that has already been shown. Putin has received a very clear signal that the international community is on Ukraine’s side.

At the same time, this support currently remains limited to political statements. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been defending its independence and its right to pursue a path of Euro-Atlantic integration in a war against Russia that has now lasted for more than seven years.

In the current climate of heightened tensions, the most effective measures in support of Ukraine would include continued Western political and economic pressure on the Kremlin. It is also vital to strengthen military cooperation with Ukraine. This means providing Ukrainians with the weapons, technologies, and intelligence data they need in order to defend themselves against Russian aggression.

Now would be a good time for the United States to consider granting Ukraine the status of Major non-NATO ally (MNNA). I consider this to be particularly important. Bilateral ties between Ukraine and the US should be put on a more official footing. It is also no secret that America is the only country Putin is afraid of.

Brian Whitmore, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: The Russian military build-up near Ukraine's border needs to be viewed in a broader context that includes Moscow surging troops into the annexed Crimean peninsula, expanding and modernizing its force structure in Kaliningrad, and establishing what appears to be a de facto permanent troop presence in Belarus. Additionally, in an apparent attempt to prove his loyalty to Vladimir Putin, Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka has also recently sent troops to that country's borders with Ukraine and Poland.

Taken together, this all represents a serious security threat not just to Ukraine, but to NATO members Poland and Lithuania as well. Russia's military buildup on its Western frontier also illustrates that Ukraine's security cannot be separated from the security of the United States and its allies.

The Western response to this threat needs to be holistic and designed to deter and contain Russian aggression against both NATO allies and non-NATO partners. This should include, but not be restricted to, increasing the NATO troop presence in Poland and the Baltic states, augmenting and enhancing existing defense assistance to Ukraine, and clear messaging to Moscow that any additional aggression against Ukraine would be met with crippling costs for Russia.

Taras Kuzio, Professor, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy: There are a wide range of measures the West can take to prevent a new Russian offensive in Ukraine. Now would be a good time to consider adding Russia to the list of countries designated as “state sponsors of terrorism” in response to the many state-backed assassinations in Europe, cyber warfare against Western democracies, and ongoing hybrid warfare against Ukraine.

Moscow should face severe penalties for its repeated infringements of the May 2019 ruling of the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, including blocking the Azov Sea to Ukrainian shipping and cutting off Ukraine’s Azov Sea coastline. Further sanctions and asset freezes should also be on the table, as should the issue of a UN peacekeeping mission. At the very least, the US and UK should consider demanding their inclusion alongside Germany and France in the Normandy Format of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.

Brian Bonner, Chief Editor, Kyiv Post: Too many in the West still don't seem to understand that Vladimir Putin's twin foreign policy objectives are to destroy democracies and restore the Soviet Union. The sanctions that the Biden administration outlined this month would have been an acceptable starting point seven years ago when Russia first invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but not now.

Much more is needed. Additional steps should include a SWIFT ban, together with sanctions on all forms of sovereign debt and measures targeting Putin's personal wealth abroad, if it can be traced. Putin needs to be held accountable for his war crimes in Syria and Ukraine along with Russia’s multiple violations of international law. Russia doesn't live up to its international commitments, so negotiations are pointless.

Peter Dickinson is the Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin has sparked an international security alert in recent weeks by ordering a major military build-up close to the border with Ukraine. (Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS)