By David J. Kramer, John Herbst, and William Taylor
This article appeared in Foreign Affairs on February 26, 2022
By ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin bears total and personal responsibility for the worst crisis in Europe since World War II. Against the wishes of virtually every other country in the world and, quite possibly, a large part of his own population, the Russian president is attempting to vanquish a sovereign democratic state and subject its 43 million people to autocratic rule. U.S. President Joe Biden put it well: “Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”
Washington and its allies have taken some valuable steps to punish Moscow. Berlin stopped Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from Germany to Russia, and U.S. and European states blocked major Russian banks from accessing Western financing. But the free world has not responded forcefully enough, and democracies are at risk of repeating their unsuccessful response to Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. When Putin annexed Crimea and sent forces into the country’s east, in 2014, the West countered with a raft of sanctions. Today’s are much more severe. It is still not enough.
To truly contain Moscow and prevent it from attacking other European countries, Washington and NATO must take nearly every available measure short of putting boots on the ground. That means aggressively sanctioning Russia’s energy sector and the rest of its financial industry. It also means targeting everyone around Putin, including all senior Russian government officials as well members of Russia’s parliament. And the West needs to impose measures that extend beyond sanctions—for example, cutting off Moscow’s propaganda and staging cyberattacks against the Russian military.
These consequences are valuable in and of themselves; Putin and his regime must pay for the damage they have inflicted on Ukraine. But punitive measures can also change the regime’s behavior, if not the regime itself. If the consequences extend beyond just sanctions, they could slow down Russia’s invasion and help Ukrainians fight back. Even if they don’t accomplish that, however, punishments could still deter the Kremlin from carrying out its many other, future threats.
HARDER, BETTER, FASTER, STRONGER
Putin is one of the world’s most corrupt and dangerous dictators. He has stolen billions of dollars from the Russian people and subjected tens of thousands of Chechens, Georgians, Syrians, and Ukrainians to horrible violence. It is well past time that the West turned him into a pariah and punished him for his actions.
The United States and Europe should start by freezing and seizing every account belonging to Putin, a process that they began by sanctioning the Russian president. But none of Putin’s overseas assets bear his name, and to make this move work, Western officials will have to close out accounts owned by the people who are safeguarding his billions in ill-gotten gains. (Thankfully, the United States and Europe have developed a good sense of who these people are.) Western governments must take similar steps against Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was also just sanctioned, and who constantly lies to the world about his country’s actions. More broadly, the United States and Europe can act against Russia’s oligarchs by expelling Russia from the SWIFT banking system, blocking Russia’s central bank from accessing Western financial markets, and sanctioning Russia’s energy sector—including Gazprom and Rosneft.
The West should also individually sanction every Russian oligarch. Russia’s elite has long had the privilege of enjoying life in the West while simultaneously denigrating it, portraying it as a threat, and financing the invasion of its neighbors. This hypocrisy must come to an end. The United States and Europe need to prohibit Russian oligarchs from stashing their ill-gotten gains in Western financial institutions, real estate, sports teams, and other assets. Italy cannot, as it is has attempted, exempt luxury goods from sanctions so their companies can sell to corrupt Russian businessmen. Russian oligarchs and their families should no longer be able to live or vacation in the West or send their children to Western schools. It is time that they share in the pain and dislocation that their patron—Putin—has inflicted so many people.
BEYOND THE MONEY
Even the strongest sanctions will not be enough. The United States and its allies should expel Russian ambassadors from their capitals, close any remaining Russian consulates, and shut down the noxious, Moscow-controlled propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik. These outlets are dangerous purveyors of hate, and they are complicit in the Kremlin’s outrageous acts. They cannot hide behind free speech claims.
The United States should reassure its overseas allies by increasing its troop presence in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, and elsewhere in eastern Europe. It should ramp up energy exports to the continent, too. After Germany halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tweeted that Europeans would soon face a “brave new world” of exorbitant gas prices, and Russia has already proved willing to weaponize energy deliveries by reducing gas flows to Europe while negotiating a new energy deal with Moldova. Washington must help the continent prepare for more coercion.
The West should also assist Ukrainians themselves by ramping up military aid designed to help residents wage an insurgency against Russian occupiers, including by providing protective helmets and bullet-proof vests. (Russia has not successfully blocked all access to the country, and NATO states can still make deliveries.) The United States must try and forestall such an occupation by ensuring the Ukrainian government has a steady or—better yet—increasing supply of weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles. The United States and Europe should also use their cyber capabilities to disable Russian military communications and hinder Russian operations. Finally, the Biden administration should reverse its decision not to extract Americans caught in Ukraine who want help. The U.S. military knows how to do this without risking that its soldiers face off against Russian soldiers, and an evacuation operation would disrupt Russia’s military operations: Russia will avoid operating in areas where U.S. soldiers are conducting a mission. U.S. citizens in Ukraine deserve nothing less.
Some analysts and officials claim these measures would risk the “major consequences” that Putin threatened when he announced the invasion on February 23. But this underestimates Russian respect for NATO’s conventional military power, which is far greater than its own. The only language Putin understands is force, and Moscow did not retaliate after Turkey shot down a Russian military plane in 2015 or when the United States struck and killed Russian mercenaries in 2018. And doing nothing with Western power has major risks, as well, including a more emboldened Putin.
Finally, the West must launch a full-scale, fact-based information campaign aimed at the Russian people to counter the Kremlin’s distortions and disinformation. Thousands of Russians already see through Putin’s lies, and they are bravely risking arrest by taking to the streets to protest the invasion. The United States should encourage more demonstrators—and stand in solidarity with those already on the streets—by promoting the truth: Putin alone bears responsibility for this crisis.
Such a campaign could also help Westerners who have bought into the Kremlin’s propaganda understand that the war is not the fault of NATO enlargement, Ukraine’s Western dreams, or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s refusal to blink. It is about Putin’s imperial ambitions and wanton aggression, and he must pay dearly for it. If Putin isn’t seriously punished, he won’t stop at Kyiv.
Photo: Putin at a summit of NATO and Russia in Rome, May 2002
Antonio Scattolon / Redux