Eight years after seizing Crimea and throwing its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Russia – one of the United States’ primary adversaries – has done the unthinkable. After months of U.S. warnings, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized two breakaway provinces controlled by Russian-backed separatists and subsequently deployed Russian troops to those regions as so-called peacekeepers.
In what the United States and European nations called the precursor to a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops rolled into Ukraine early Thursday morning. By Friday, Russian airstrikes began targeting Kyiv, the Ukraine capital. The United States and Europe now find itself on the brink of war with Russia.
U.S. Troops Will Not Be Deployed to Ukraine
From the beginning of Russia’s build up of troops along the Ukrainian border, the Biden administration clearly reiterated that the United States would not send troops to Ukraine to fight Russian forces. In a move that further clarified his position, Biden removed the American troops in Ukraine who were there in a training capacity. He even cautioned that the United States would not deploy troops to Ukraine to evacuate Americans remaining in the country.
Interestingly, while refusing to send American troops to Ukraine, the United States sent thousands of troops and military equipment to various North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, countries, including Poland, Germany, Romania, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The purpose of sending troops to Europe? To bolster and reassure NATO allies. “Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict. Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine but to defend our NATO allies and reassure those allies in the east,” Biden stated on Thursday. Before Russia’s invasion commenced, Biden also confirmed that “We want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States, together with our Allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO.” This week, NATO sent reinforcements to its eastern flank, augmenting the American troops already dispatched to the region.
The Ties that Don’t Bind
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several former Soviet bloc countries gained independence. Many of these newly independent countries began looking to western institutions – including the European Union (EU) and NATO – as guarantees for their security and prosperity. Ukraine was no different. In 2008, NATO – led by U.S. President George W. Bush – essentially promised that Ukraine and Georgia, another former Soviet state, future NATO membership. Yet, apprehension across both sides of the Atlantic as well as concerns over corruption have prevented Ukraine from obtaining it what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently termed Ukraine’s “unattainable dream.”
Considering the West’s rocky relationship with Ukraine, the Biden administration’s decision against sending U.S. troops to Ukraine in a fighting capacity is not a surprise. For one, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and, thus, is not a treaty ally. In other words, the United States is not bound by a defense treaty to protect Ukraine militarily the same way it is obligated to defend its NATO allies or allies in Asia like Japan or South Korea.
More alarmingly, the United States and Russia are both nuclear powers. In restating his aversion to sending U.S. troops to Ukraine, Biden noted in late February that “that’s a world war when Americans and Russians start shooting at one another.” A Pentagon official concurred, adding, “No one wants to risk nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine.” Another factor dictating Biden’s decision is fatigue after the chaotic withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan. Biden, who has adopted anti-interventionist tendencies over years in Congress and as vice president, and the American people are wary of sending more U.S. troops into another war. Even despite Russia’s recent aggression toward Ukraine, the United States has taken sending troops off the table.
Here Come the Sanctions
In what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the “first tranche.”, the United States and its European allies have mostly responded with economic sanctions. After Putin deployed Russian peacekeepers to the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of Ukraine, the United States and Europe swiftly imposed economic sanctions in what Biden denounced as the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. These sanctions included cutting off global financing for two Russian banks and Russian oligarchs. The new sanctions were not limited only to Russia as he sanctions also targeted individuals in Belarus as a result of that country’s role in the Russian attack. Outside of Europe, Japan and South Korea, as well as Taiwan – close U.S. allies and partners in Asia who are equally concerned about what the Russian invasion of Ukraine means for the future – agreed to the imposition of harsher sanctions.
Chief among these economic consequences is Germany’s decision to halt the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This will likely hurt Russia’s economy as the $11 billion pipeline – completed but not yet operational – is critical to Moscow’s efforts to increase energy sales to Europe. Biden revealed sanctions on a subsidiary of Gazprom, the large Russian energy company, which built the pipeline, as well. After the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, the United States and Europe unveiled a new round of punitive and harsh sanctions against Russia.
The imposition of economic sanctions and troop deployments to bolster NATO’s eastern flank are not enough to aid Ukraine. While necessary first steps, the United States and its European allies need to take more robust, concrete steps in defense of Ukraine. The Biden administration has increased U.S. economic and military aid to Ukraine, providing $650 million in defense equipment and services to Ukraine in the past year. Moreover, in mid-January, the Biden administration announced an additional $200 million of lethal aid. Similarly, the EU approved a €120 billion emergency financial assistance package for Ukraine.
A number of countries in Europe – between the EU and NATO – have provided arms to Ukraine to bolster their defenses against Russia and those shipments are expected to increase. Both the U.S. and NATO has stressed that no troops will be deployed to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces, and that is the right decision. Yet, more needs to be done. The United States and Europe need to provide more military support and equipment to Ukraine to bolster their defenses against Russian forces.
The United States and Europe have indicated reserving some sanctions in case the situation gets worse. Russia has already invaded Ukraine; the situation cannot get much more dire. Some countries in Europe – including Germany – have been reluctant to hit Russia with harsher sanctions, largely due to dependence on Russian energy. Despite these factors, the United States and Europe need to impose even harsher sanctions, ones targeting Putin himself and his inner circle.
In an effort to impose harsher economic consequences, the Western allies also need to seriously consider kicking Russia out of the Belgian-run messaging service known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT. This action is viewed as the nuclear option since, if Russia is kicked out, it would be cut off from much of the global financial system. As a result, this could bring complications for the rest of the world.
The New York Times reported in January that the Biden administration was considering supporting a Ukrainian insurgency to fight Russian forces in the event of an invasion. Seemingly, debate is taking shape among Biden administration foreign policy officials, with some cautioning that arming Ukrainian resistance could make the U.S. “legally a co-combatant to a wider war” with Russia. The debate also hinges on the legality of the president’s war power authority. This option has not been ruled out yet and is an avenue that the Biden administration should explore further if the U.S. and NATO are not going to deploy troops.
Above all, the illegitimate Russian invasion of Ukraine violates the rules-based international order that has governed international relations since the end of World War II. Russia shows little regard for Ukraine’s sovereignty – a tenet of the rules-based order – and a willingness to use force to accomplish the goals of its autocratic leader. The time has come for the United States and Europe to stand up against Russia.