As Russia's troop build-up near its border with Ukraine raises alarm bells in Washington and across Europe, the Biden administration is consulting with allies and considering an unprecedented sanctions package.
The Center for a New American Security has a range of experts with deep knowledge of Russian-Ukraine relations and their respective militaries, U.S. sanctions and foreign policy, and transatlantic relations and NATO. The experts below are available for interviews and have provided short pieces of analysis that may be quoted directly with attribution.
The Biden Administration's Approach
Richard Fontaine (CEO, CNAS)
With its troops massed on Ukraine’s border, Russia is poised to unleash bloody conflict on Kiev’s sovereign territory. In so doing, Moscow may attempt once again to illegally change national boundaries by force – and shake the foundations of European security in the process.
The administration is right to spell out specific, serious costs for such a course of action, and it must be prepared to carry them out if Moscow proceeds with aggression. But it’s unlikely that threats alone will be enough to deter Russia. President Putin appears genuinely to fear Ukraine’s possible Western orientation and the presence of NATO forces on its soil. He clearly craves the status that attends direct talks with the American president.
Engaging Moscow in talks over European security, including on Ukraine and the future of the Minsk Protocol, is an unpleasant but necessary component of resolving the impending crisis. Such diplomacy risks rewarding Russian provocations and will rattle allies worried about a separate peace. The administration can mitigate but not eliminate those downsides. Coupled with serious, clearly-articulated costs, however, talks with Moscow might help avert a Russian invasion.
Even then, it might not work. But given the dire consequences a Russian conquest would engender, the administration should make the effort.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor (Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security)
The virtual call between President Biden and President Putin did not deliver any breakthroughs, not that anyone really expected that it would.
The most notable—and controversial—outcome of the call was an agreement that Biden and Putin’s team would meet for broader discussions on European security and Ukraine’s place in it. The administration’s emphasis on diplomacy is the correct approach, although it would be better if the United States required Russia to withdraw some of its forces as a condition for the talks to move forward.
Nonetheless, the U.S. and its allies should explore all possible principled options to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine. This can only be done with careful coordination with Kyiv, NATO, and its member states. In addition to finding an acceptable format, the Biden administration will also have to work with allies on defining the substance of those broader security talks with Russia—clearly some issues are not up for discussion and finding an appropriate “trade space” will be difficult work. The sheer distance between Russia’s objectives and the interests of Ukraine, the U.S., and its allies means that the talks may not produce the outcomes Russia is looking for.
And when the Kremlin doesn’t get what it wants diplomatically, it has shown it will use military force to advance its objectives. We are by no means out of the woods.
A Closer Look at Sanctions
With roughly 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s border, the United States has a narrow window of opportunity to influence Moscow’s decision calculus. President Biden is seeking to use the threat of sanctions to deter Putin from launching a military offensive against Ukraine. For such a threat to have a shot at achieving deterrence, it must be serious. And early signals are that it is indeed serious: After his meeting with Putin, Biden did not mince words: “I made it very clear: If, in fact, he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences — severe consequences — and economic consequences like none he’s ever seen...”
Since they were first enacted in 2014, U.S. and European sanctions against Russia have been modest. Penalties against large Russian banks and companies have been limited to debt restrictions, and not a single major state-owned enterprise has faced a full cut-off from the global financial system. Biden’s remarks, coupled with his and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s intensive diplomacy with European allies, suggest that these more aggressive measures are now on the table. Full-blocking sanctions against major Russian financial institutions and companies would represent actions that are orders of magnitude stronger than any sanctions hitherto imposed on the Kremlin, and they would almost certainly send the Russian economy into a tailspin. The ball is now in Putin’s court; the Biden administration is doing everything one would hope to wield sanctions as a deterrent.
Upon entering office, the Biden administration sought a “stable and predictable” relationship with the Kremlin. What has become apparent is that “stable and predictable” is not possible without first establishing red lines — and making crystal clear the consequences that Moscow will face if it crosses them. That’s the task the Biden administration is now pursuing at full force.
Rather than preemptively issuing sanctions, the U.S. government has been focused on developing a deterrence package with European allies, hoping to signal the economic risks of an invasion to Russia with more aggressive tools it hopes not to have to use. A more aggressive package would include expansion of sovereign debt measures, restrictions on oligarchs and state-linked finance and possible energy sectors. The administration has invested significant efforts to coordinate with European allies, who will bear more economic costs from any meaningful sanctions on the energy or financial sectors. The ongoing energy crisis in Europe and Asia, exacerbated by Russian choices, is likely to discourage major energy sanctions in the short-term. Russia has clung to a defensive policy approach of domestic fiscal restraint and orthodox monetary policy (hikes), which prepare it to forgo growth but survive sanctions. The past sanctions are hurting Russia’s economy and reinforcing the role of key state-linked companies. Overall, the timing of this escalation and the NS2 certification suggests the pipeline will bear an outsized role in any deterrence package, potentially deferring other energy sanctions.
Russian actors taking solace from the stripping of mandated sanctions on NS2, sovereign debt and other sectors from the NDAA are likely overly optimistic, however.
The present confrontation over Ukraine is textbook Putin: conjure a crisis, throw your opponents off balance, keep the world guessing about your next move, and see what concessions or advantages can be shaken loose in the process.
The situation underscores the impossibility of a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia — as the Biden Administration implausibly proposed earlier this year — since the essence of Russian strategy is to be destabilizing and unpredictable. Contrary to his carefully cultivated reputation for recklessness, however, Putin tends to roll the dice only when he is very confident they are weighted overwhelmingly in his favor. In this contest of nerves, the key for the West is not to panic or go wobbly, but rather meet Putin’s maneuvers with strength and unity. There ultimately should be a path to strategic dialogue over Ukraine, and Eurasia more broadly, but not as a reward for blackmail or coercion.
Russian and Ukrainian Military Landscape
Should a conflict actually break out, it will be a rematch between two militaries that have gone through extensive modernization and upgrades since 2014. The Ukrainian military has been preparing for this type of combat via retraining, reorganization and re-equipping, and benefiting from close contacts with US and NATO militaries. From 2015 onwards, both Russian and Ukrainian MOD placed an emphasis on better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, precision-fires, long-range artillery, and on growing tactical capabilities like Electronic Warfare. And in line with the overall global trends, both militaries have invested and fielded new technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles, which today form an integral part of Kiev's and Moscow's approach to combat.
At the same time, this would be an uneven fight, with Russia bringing a larger and, in many ways, a better prepared force. Both sides are motivated, but an actual resumption of hostilities across the entire eastern Ukrainian front would result in significant casualties that will have major long-term consequences for both countries for years to come. This is why high-level political dialogue is so important at this juncture, since warfare on this scale may permanently re-arrange Eastern European and former Soviet geopolitics.
The View from Europe and NATO
Perceptions are everything.
After a great start consulting with allies about their plan to lower the temperature on the Ukraine/Russia border, the Biden Administration could lose buy-in by appearing to exclude the nations most vulnerable from discussions with Russia over a potential new security architecture. President Biden disclosed on Wednesday that the US and “at least four of our major NATO Allies” will begin discussions about possible “accommodations” with Russia; the news set off a flurry of paranoia and cynicism in Eastern Europe as nations worried that once again the larger powers were negotiating over the heads of the smaller, weaker ones. The great fear among those countries bordering Russia is that the conferees will emerge from their caucus with Russia waving a piece of paper and pronouncing peace in our time while selling Ukraine and the rest of Europe down the river.
For Poland, it's Yalta all over again. Of course that will not be the case, but history dies hard in Europe, and nations, especially those with recent experience under the Russian heel, wear their paranoia on their sleeve. Just the perception of some condominium between the US, Russia and the major European powers will dilute the positive work done to date and forever feed conspiracy theories in the East. Working with Allies by keeping them informed of the state of play is great (and should be such standard practice for most administrations that it’s not worthy of singling out for praise). But it’s two steps forward and one step back if the Biden administration spooks Europe by amateur missteps in how these talks are conducted.
The United States' call with European allies in advance of the Putin-Biden call was a good first step to work with allies to address the escalating tensions on the Ukrainian border. Unlike the recent AUKUS deal, the Administration did not just provide a readout to allies after the fact, but spoke with them in advance. This is especially crucial given that some of the sanctions packages the Biden administration might pursue would have knock-on effects in Europe, given Europe's greater exposure to the Russian economy.
The question that remains is: what was the nature of Biden's call with allies? Was this truly consultation, or merely a briefing of the United States' plans? Why weren't central and eastern European allies part of the initial call, since they are arguably most concerned about this crisis? As this crisis erupts on Europe's borders, the United States must ensure that the terms of European security are not dictated from Washington.