The Beginning of a Response to the Beginning of an Invasion
The first shoe has dropped.
WSJ (“U.S. Adds Sanctions on Moscow After Saying Russia Invaded Ukraine“):
President Biden imposed new sanctions on Russia, but held back on steeper economic penalties in a bid to maintain leverage over Moscow as the West tries to pressure President Vladimir Putin against launching the broad attack on Ukraine that the U.S. says is likely.
Mr. Biden characterized Mr. Putin’s decision to move troops into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region as “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” establishing the U.S. position after the administration initially declined to describe the move using that term. He had previously said he would impose sanctions on Russia if it invaded Ukraine, and some in Congress had been pressuring him to take more severe action against Mr. Putin.
The U.S. president, speaking at the White House on Tuesday, said Mr. Putin’s moves so far are a “flagrant violation of international law” and the international community should respond firmly.
The sanctions announced Tuesday will target two Russian financial institutions and their subsidiaries: VEB, Russia’s state development corporation; and state-backed Promsvyazbank, which focuses on the country’s defense sector. In addition, the U.S. is imposing sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt, which Mr. Biden said would cut Moscow’s government off from Western financing. The U.S. will also sanction five Russian elites with connections to the Kremlin and their family members.
The current sanctions specifically avoid anything that could curtail oil and gas exports out of Russia, a senior Biden administration official said. “Doing anything that affects … or halts energy transactions would have a great impact on the United States, American citizens and our allies,” the official said. “So our intention here is to impose the hardest sanctions we can while trying to safeguard the American public and the rest of the world from those measures.”
Mr. Biden said he had authorized additional movements of U.S. forces and equipment already stationed in Europe to help protect Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, describing them as defensive moves. He said the U.S. is prepared to engage in diplomacy with Russia if the country is serious about talks to resolve the crisis. “Russia will pay an even steeper price if it continues its aggression,” he said.
In recent days, the White House grappled with how to balance maintaining an aggressive posture toward Mr. Putin while leaving room for diplomacy. Officials also said they wanted to deploy sanctions in a way that would retain leverage against Russia to keep it from escalating further.
“Sanctions are not an end to themselves, they serve a higher purpose,” said Daleep Singh, the White House’s deputy national security adviser for international economics. “And that purpose is to deter and prevent…a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could involve the seizure of major cities including Kyiv.”
NPR (“Allies join U.S. in imposing sanctions pressure on Russia over Ukraine“):
Russia’s decision to order troops into parts of eastern Ukraine is “the beginning of a Russian invasion,” President Biden said on Tuesday as he announced a new set of sweeping sanctions targeting Russia’s ability to do business with the West.
The U.S. sanctions join those announced earlier by the U.K. and the European Union as a joint response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree on Monday that recognizes two regions in Ukraine as independent. Later on Tuesday and into Wednesday, American allies Australia, Canada and Japan also announced their own set of sanctions against Russian individuals and institutions.
WaPo (“Kremlin warns Americans will face financial ‘consequences’ of U.S. sanctions“):
Russia warned that Americans will fully feel the “consequences” of U.S. sanctions on the Kremlin after it deployed troops into two pro-Moscow separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.
The West is bracing for Russia to retaliate against the measures, which Moscow said would hurt global financial and energy markets. President Biden acknowledged that the crisis could lead to higher gasoline prices, while U.S. businesses have been warned to prepare for possible cyberattacks.
European and Japanese officials have also expressed concerns about Moscow restricting energy and chipmaking supplies. A senior Russian official warned Tuesday that Germany, which has halted a major pipeline project with Moscow, would “very soon” be paying more than double for natural gas.
WaPo Editorial Board (“Biden delivers a calibrated response to a threatened cataclysm in Ukraine“):
These are not yet the severe and crippling sanctions Mr. Biden has promised. But no one should be under any illusions that such stiff punishments can be avoided in the coming days and weeks if Russia’s assembled armor and troops move beyond the line of contact in the Donbas region and further into Ukraine. The United States and its allies must be ready to impose strict economic isolation on Russia.
Mr. Biden’s actions Tuesday were justifiably a first step only: sanctions aimed at two state banks and at Russia’s sales of sovereign debt, and a promise of sanctions on Russian elites. Britain and the European Union imposed limited sanctions; Germany announced that it would suspend certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Europe. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion of a summit is deservedly being shelved in light of Russia’s aggression.
Judging by Mr. Putin’s delusional, sneering remarks this week, he may not be deterred by these or any economic sanctions and has already factored the costs into his coercion against Ukraine. But he may have gambled that the United States and its allies would splinter. Instead, fortunately, they have acted in unison on the threshold of war. In the next step, when and if warranted by Russian aggression, sanctions must hit the large Russian banks, and the West should cast a wide net to punish Mr. Putin’s friendly oligarchs and clans.
WSJ Editorial Board (“With Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, a New Cold War Arrives“):
‘Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries?” President Biden asked Tuesday in announcing new sanctions against Russia. The answer is a complacent West, which has failed to impose serious costs despite more than a decade of Russian aggression.
At least the Administration overcame its initial reluctance to call Vladimir Putin’s deployment of troops in Eastern Ukraine an “invasion.” Mr. Biden on Tuesday called it “the beginning of a Russian invasion,” and he responded with what he said was the beginning of greater sanctions.
The White House bet seems to be that sanctions restraint will cause Mr. Putin to settle for holding the regions his forces now occupy and forgoing an assault on Kyiv. But the Russian has never been deterred before by Western restraint, and he may see this as more weakness. Mr. Putin responds only to strength, and the West still isn’t showing enough.
Mr. Biden said the U.S. will impose full blocking sanctions on a Russian military bank and VEB, the state development corporation. It is also cutting off Moscow from Western financing through sanctions on Russian sovereign debt. But the fine print in the Treasury announcement Tuesday said the ban applies only to debt issued by Russia after March 1. It appears previously issued debt can still trade in secondary markets.
All Russian financial institutions deserve to be cut off from the outside world, and their dollar transactions restricted, until Russia withdraws from Ukrainian territory. The new sanctions on Russian elites look weak in targeting Putin cronies already on the sanctions list, though their sons are newly designated.
The Europeans also settled for tougher talk but weak sanctions. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced sanctions on five Russian banks and three wealthy Russians, but the oligarchs and four of the five institutions were previously targeted by the U.S. Treasury.
Mr. Johnson says these are only “the first tranche, the first barrage.” Every name on the Navalny 35—a list of Russian elites compiled by dissident Alexei Navalny’s anticorruption organization—ought to face sanctions. “Londongrad” has outsize importance as the preferred destination for Russian oligarchs stashing wealth abroad.
Madeleine Albright, NYT (“Putin Is Making a Historic Mistake“):
. . . Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for Stalin’s playbook. He has collected political and economic power for himself — co-opting or crushing potential competition — while pushing to re-establish a sphere of Russian dominance through parts of the former Soviet Union. Like other authoritarians, he equates his own well-being with that of the nation and opposition with treason. He is sure that Americans mirror both his cynicism and his lust for power and that in a world where everyone lies, he is under no obligation to tell the truth. Because he believes that the United States dominates its own region by force, he thinks Russia has the same right.
Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance.
Mr. Putin’s actions have triggered massive sanctions, with more to come if he launches a full-scale assault and attempts to seize the entire country. These would devastate not just his country’s economy but also his tight circle of corrupt cronies — who in turn could challenge his leadership. What is sure to be a bloody and catastrophic war will drain Russian resources and cost Russian lives — while creating an urgent incentive for Europe to slash its dangerous reliance on Russian energy. (That has already begun with Germany’s move to halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.)
Such an act of aggression would almost certainly drive NATO to significantly reinforce its eastern flank and to consider permanently stationing forces in the Baltic States, Poland and Romania. (President Biden said Tuesday he was moving more troops to the Baltics.) And it would generate fierce Ukrainian armed resistance, with strong support from the West. A bipartisan effort is already underway to craft a legislative response that would include intensifying lethal aid to Ukraine. It would be far from a repeat of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; it would be a scenario reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Walter Russell Mead, WSJ (“Why Putin Is Outfoxing the West“):
As Western leaders struggle to respond to Vladimir Putin’s unexpectedly dramatic challenge to the post-Cold War order in Europe, the record so far is mixed. The West has assembled something approaching a united stance on the limits of the concessions it is prepared to make and on the nature of the sanctions it is willing to impose should Mr. Putin choose war. Neither hyperactive grandstanding in Paris nor phlegmatic passivity from Berlin has prevented the emergence of a common Western position. This is an accomplishment for which the Biden administration deserves credit.
Yet this is a defensive accomplishment, not a decisive one. As Mr. Putin demonstrated in his speech Monday, the Russian president is still in the driver’s seat, and it is his decisions, not ours, that will shape the next stage of the confrontation. Russia, a power that Western leaders mocked and derided for decades (“a gas station masquerading as a country,” as Sen. John McCain once put it), has seized the diplomatic and military initiative in Europe, and the West is, so far, powerless to do anything about it. We wring our hands, offer Mr. Putin off-ramps, and hope that our carefully hedged descriptions of the sanctions we are prepared to impose will change his mind.
At best, we’ve improvised a quick and dirty response to a strategic surprise, but we are very far from having a serious Russia policy and it is all too likely at this point that Mr. Putin will continue to outmaneuver his Western rivals and produce new surprises from his magician’s hat.
The West has two problems in countering Mr. Putin. The first is a problem of will. The West does not want a confrontation with Russia and in any crisis the goal remains to calm things down. That basic approach not only makes appeasement an attractive option whenever difficulties appear; it prevents us from thinking proactively. When Russia stops bothering us, we stop thinking about Russia.
The second is a problem of imagination. Western leaders still do not understand Mr. Putin. Most of them see that he is not just another colorless timeserver who thinks that appointing a record number of female economists to the board of his central bank constitutes a historic accomplishment. They are beginning to see that he is in quest of bigger game and that he means what he says about reassembling the Soviet Union and reviving Russian power. But they have not yet really fathomed the gulf between Mr. Putin’s world and their own—and until they do, he will continue to confound their expectations and disrupt their agendas.
Chris Cillizza, CNN (“It’s time to admit it: Mitt Romney was right about Russia“):
A decade ago, Mitt Romney went on CNN and made a statement that was widely perceived as a major mistake.
“Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe,” Romney, who would be the Republican presidential nominee in the 2012 race against President Barack Obama, told Wolf Blitzer in March of that year.
“They — they fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.”
Obama and his team pounced on the comment, insisting that it showed Romney was hopelessly out of touch when it came to the threats facing the US.
In the third presidential debate between the two candidates in October 2012, Obama went directly after Romney for that remark. “When you were asked, ‘What’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America,’ you said ‘Russia.’ Not al Qaeda; you said Russia,” Obama said. “And, the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
At the time, the attack worked. Obama cast himself as the candidate who understood the current threats — led by al Qaeda. Romney was the candidate still stuck in the Cold War age, a black-and-white figure in a colorful — and complex — world.But today, after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, Romney’s comments look very, very different. And by “different,” I mean “right,” as even some Democrats are now acknowledging.
“This action by Putin further confirms that Mitt Romney was right when he called Russia the number one geopolitical foe,” California Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu said on CNN Monday night.
Given that, it’s worth revisiting the context around what Romney said and why.
He was reacting to a hot-mic moment between Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier in 2012. In that exchange, Obama told Medvedev: “This is my last election. And after my election, I have more flexibility.”Republicans were up in arms, insisting that Obama was taking a hard line with Russia publicly while, apparently, making clear to the country’s leader that he was open to compromise.In his original interview, Blitzer was asking Romney about Russia in the context of that Obama hot-mic moment. And while his comment about Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe” is what drew the most attention and derision, it was far from the only comment Romney made about that subject in his interview with Blitzer.”Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage,” Romney said at one point. “And for this President to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia, is very, very troubling, very alarming.”
Pressed by Blitzer on his assertion about the threat posed by Russia, Romney added this:
“Well, I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran. A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.”But when these — these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when — when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go — we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors?
“It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.”
What looked like a major flub during the 2012 campaign — and was used as a political cudgel by Obama — now looks very, very different. It should serve as a reminder that history is not written in the moment — and that what something looks like in that moment is not a guarantee of what it will always look like.
Roger Cohen, NYT (“The Limits of a Europe Whole and Free“):
[If Putin’s] speech revived the doublespeak of the Soviet Union, more than 30 years after its demise, did it also rekindle the Soviet threat and the Cold War that went with it?
On many levels, the challenge Mr. Putin’s revanchist Russia presents to the West is different. This Russia has no pretense of a global ideology. The Cold War depended on closed systems; computer technology put an end to that. No Soviet tanks are poised to roll across the Prussian plains and absorb all Europe in a totalitarian empire. Nuclear Armageddon is not on the table.
Mr. Putin, for all his wild imaginings about Ukraine as the “forward springboard” for some American pre-emptive strike against Russia, has been relentlessly building his case against NATO expansion to Russia’s borders and against Western democracies since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The estimated 190,000 Russian and separatist troops on the Ukrainian border and in its breakaway regions are only the latest expression of this obsession.
The open question is whether Mr. Putin has become weaker or stronger as a result of this drive.
In some respects he has achieved the opposite of his intentions. American officials argue that he has galvanized and united a NATO alliance that was casting around for a raison d’être. He shifted Ukrainian public opinion decisively against Russia and toward an embrace of NATO and the West. He damaged an already vulnerable, undiversified economy, with Germany’s blocking on Tuesday of the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline just the latest blow.
At the same time, however, Mr. Putin has proved effective on several fronts. The humiliated Russia of the immediate post-Cold-War years struts the global stage once more, winning the end game in Syria, working effectively through paramilitary surrogates in Africa, cementing a bond with China.
The Russian president has suspended Georgia and Ukraine in strategic limbo through the frozen conflicts he has created there. NATO membership for Georgia is no longer talked about much. Ukraine’s membership seems infinitely distant, almost unimaginable, even to its closest Western allies.
In 2013, President Barack Obama decided not to bomb Syria after Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, had crossed an American “red line” against using chemical weapons. Since then, Russia has moved aggressively in the apparent conviction that no provocation outside NATO countries will bring armed American reprisal.
My Two Cents:
Little that has happened since yesterday morning’s post on the crisis is surprising. The Biden administration’s diplomatic language has escalated a skosh, going from reluctance to call this an “invasion” to calling it “the beginning of . . . an invasion.” The promised sanctions have hit but some of the most aggressive ones have been kept in reserve.
Of the analyses, mine most closely matches Cohen’s. It’s simply silly to think of the current standoff as a return to the Cold War because a nuclear confrontation with Russia is so unthinkable as to be laughable. Indeed, in classic “gray zone” fashion, Putin has rightly calculated that he will not face Western military response for his aggressions so long as they are not into NATO states. Nor should he.
Does this make him some kind of strategic mastermind or the West weak? Not at all. It’s just a reality that powerful countries have a lot of latitude so long as they avoid impinging on the vital interests of other powerful countries. Putin knows that economic sanctions and further diplomatic isolation are the only price he’s likely to pay for this move and he is apparently willing to pay it.
Would I prefer that we had established any incursion into Ukraine as a red line that triggered all of the sanctions? Maybe. But that ship sailed when we allowed him to get away with annexing Crimea in 2014 and, arguably, Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2008. We’ve set a precedent that, despite international law saying otherwise, there are “core” and “peripheral” parts of some countries.
From my vantage point, Putin has lost much more than he’s gained. Defying the West and recapturing some of the glory of the Soviet days may give him a short-term boost in domestic popularity but one would think further sanctions piled atop those that have been in place since 2014 will quickly overcome that. Russia is a pariah state now, having lost its seat in the G-8 and still retaining its Security Council membership because of a sclerotic system, not because it’s regarded as an equal player.
Was Mitt Romney basically right a decade ago when he labeled Russia America’s top geostrategic threat? Yes, as I noted at the time. A decade later, China claims that spot. But Russia is more reckless. While I think Putin is smart enough not to invade a NATO ally and force a military response, I do worry that he’ll escalate the cyberattacks to a dangerous level.