How the U.S. Should Counter Russian Aggression in Ukraine
Foreign Policy Brief #142 | By: Ibrahim Sultan | February 9, 2022
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The crisis and possible looming war in Ukraine have historical implications that include more than just Russia and Ukraine. Though the ties between Russia and Ukraine run far back into history, the conflict also involves the historical involvement of the United States and its NATO allies in Europe. The main issue and the main demand of Russia is the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Ukraine has in the past and continues to seek NATO membership. The U.S. promised during negotiations with the Soviet Union on the reunification of Germany that NATO would not move further Eastward into the Russian sphere of influence.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, multiple Eastern European states and former Soviet satellite countries joined the alliance. In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined amid much Russian opposition. In 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia entered into the treaty. Followed by Albania, and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020. As NATO looked further Eastward towards Ukraine and Georgia, Russian anxieties grew. At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO offered Ukraine eventual membership into the Alliance, drawing strong condemnation from Putin. The current crisis began in 2014 when then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich rejected closer ties to the EU and embraced Russia, angering the Ukrainian public. In the same year, Russia moved to annex Crimea and as of late 2021, has more than 100,000 troops stationed along the Ukrainian border.
Both leaders of Russia and China met on February 4th, the day of the Opening Ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Xi Jinping’s first meeting with a foreign leader since the beginning of the pandemic. The two issued joint statements opposing the enlargement of NATO and their commitment to their “strategic coordination” internationally. At the same time President Biden met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to present a united front against Russian aggression. The two reaffirmed commitments to combat Russian threats to Ukraine and Europe and the German Chancellor stated he could shut down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which would supply Russian natural gas to Germany and provide a large source of revenue for Russia, something Germany had been unwilling to do.
Last month Biden approved $200 million of “lethal aid” to Ukraine and more recently ordered 3,000 troops additional to be stationed in Poland and Romania. In a news conference last month Biden stated “I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades. And it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do,” Biden said.
So then what should the U.S. and NATO do to counter Russia? The situation has continued to devolve. Peace talks so far have not proved substantive, and each side is attempting to solidify unity with their respective allies. Although the actions taken by Russia in Crimea and along the rest of the Ukrainian border violate international law and are clear acts of aggression, Russian anxiety is not inconceivable. Were Russia or China to establish military bases or place weapons in the United States’ sphere of influence, we certainly would not accept this, and rightfully so. NATO itself was created in order to contain the Soviet Union. After its fall, the alliance continued to expand and included former Soviet Republics. This context matters and must be considered when dealing with and analyzing the Ukrainian situation. Still, Russia should not be able to engage in incursions into Ukraine or Georgia as it has in the past, without consequences. So what can be done? The U.S. has already sent military aid to Ukraine and troops to the region. These actions have not at all changed the Russian stance but may have provided reassurances to Eastern European states. Sending more troops to the region will likely only escalate the situation, a build-up for build-up along borders will not ease tensions as we had seen from East-West standoffs throughout the Cold War.
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As military intervention has already been ruled out, even if Russia were to invade Ukraine, the economic domain should be the primary arena for countering Russia. Economic isolation would put pressure on Russia that may not influence its behavior immediately but down the line could become helpful to stopping further incursions. Russian oligarchs who are a pillar of support for Putin should have assets in the West frozen and held. Pressing Germany to go ahead with its cancelation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would also be an effective tactic. The EU investing further in green technology and away from Russian gas would help achieve goals of decarbonization as well as diminishing Russian leverage over Europe.
The U.S. could also attempt to impose an export control ban to stop high-tech U.S. technology such as semiconductors, which are necessary for military weaponry, from reaching Russia. Lastly the U.S. and NATO should take into consideration Russia’s demands and try to find some sort of middle ground even if it means making concessions. Similar to when President Kennedy removed Jupiter missiles from Turkey in order to avoid Soviet weapons in Cuba, today’s leaders should take a lesson from the past and remember that diplomacy cannot be a zero-sum game, and sometimes it’s worth giving up a little in order for gain a lot, and what there is to gain is peace.
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