Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s stark appeals in early March to NATO allies and U.S. congressional leaders for a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace and for fighter aircraft may have its echoes in other recent conflicts such as Iraq and Kosovo, but the parallels end there. The options in Ukraine are clearly more limited. The risks of a wider war—and the risk of nuclear escalation—are too seismic to ignore.
Zelenskyy’s repeated calls for all-encompassing sanctions, however, deserve a response beyond the significant measures announced thus far by the United States and the European Union (EU). The Russian invasion of Ukraine may be galvanizing a sense of purpose in NATO and the EU that is unprecedented since the end of the Cold War in 1989, but allies and member states still can do more to confront the existential threat that Russia’s actions represent. This is not just a war on Ukraine; it is a war on the entire rules-based international order built over the past 70 years.
In this context, U.S. President Joe Biden’s March 8 ban on Russian oil, gas, and coal imports to the United States is important politically, but it is still somewhat symbolic in impact: crude oil imports from Russia represent 1 percent of the total processed in U.S. refineries; the United States does not import Russian natural gas; and coal imports from Russia represent an infinitesimal amount, much less than 1 percent of consumption. The U.S. decision does seem to have acted as a catalyst for the near-simultaneous EU announcements to significantly reduce its dependence on Russian gas by two-thirds by the end of 2022 – but, just as significantly, not oil. The United Kingdom said it would phase out all imports of Russian oil and gas by the same date, but these represent perhaps 8 percent of British consumption.
There is still scope, therefore, to go further — and an urgent need to do so given the quickly deteriorating situation inside Ukraine. Western nations in unison should be taking steps now to increase sanctions more broadly on Russia – and accept and vigorously defend the costs that would follow for their consumers and the world’s economy, as Biden began to do in his remarks. These steps could include an oil and gas embargo by Moscow’s major markets in Europe, adding Russian financial institutions to the banking sanctions implemented to date, and the suspension of most U.S. and European trade with Russia.
As Russia intensifies its attacks on civilians, as millions flee to neighboring states, and as Europe’s security map is redrawn, there is no certainty as to the eventual outcome of the war. Increasing militaryand humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and strengthening NATO’s defenses will continue to be essential components of the western effort to arrest Russia’s advance. Nothing, however, will mask the failure of western nations to accept a greater level of economic sacrifice as a necessary part of the cost of assisting the Ukrainian people and intensifying the ongoing efforts to change Russia’s calculations. As Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said on March 8, “Ukrainians are fighting for their nation’s survival, but they are also fighting for all of us.”
Developments on the ground will not allow the luxury of a more measured response. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was on the mark on March 8: “The time to prove the 21st century will be different from the 20th century is now.”
An Incomplete Response on the Battlefield and on Sanctions
The still-unfolding international response to the conflict in Ukraine raises questions about whether the West is willing to take all the non-military steps it could to support the Ukrainian struggle against the Russian invasion.
The continuing concern at the highest levels of western governments about the impact gas and oil sanctions would have on world energy markets is a case in point. They are also seeking to build a wider consensus internationally (the faltering U.S. outreach to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia is an example) to minimize disruption, and that takes time. It is important, however, to acknowledge that much of the rest of the world is not imposing sanctions on Russia and is circumspect in public remarks on the invasion of Ukraine. The overwhelming vote in favor of the United Nations resolution condemning the war obscured the differences between the strong stand taken by the United States and its European allies, and the reluctance of many other countries to speak out, including not only China but Israel, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, much of sub-Saharan Africa, and countries in the Middle East and southeast Asia.
A staggered response on increasing sanctions pressures on Russia might make sense if the battlefield were more of a stalemate, but it is not. Military assistance from NATO allies, while significant, is also facing challenges. Most of the $350 million promised by the United States has arrived, and more will be forthcoming, but Russian forces continue to press ahead. Germany’s decision to reverse course and support lethal aid for Ukraine, and the European Union’s authorization of $500 million for weapons purchases, will take time to have an impact.
Germany’s commitment to a historic increase in its military budget, and now Denmark’s, may be game-changing for western solidarity and NATO, but not for the conflict at hand. Zelenskyy’s request for fighter aircraft is unlikely to be met, given concerns over how to deploy them inside Ukraine without incurring Russian retaliation or becoming a co-combatant in the war. There do appear to be other ways to strengthen Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, as Alexander Vindman suggested, but again, additional support is likely to take time to reach the frontlines.
Meanwhile, the sanctions on Russia’s financial institutions may have come later than they could have, but they did have an immediate and dramatic effect on the wider Russian economy. Perhaps they also could have influenced political decisions in Moscow or strengthened opposition voices if they had been imposed on Feb. 21, the day Russia recognized the separatist Donbas enclaves, instead of waiting until Feb. 26 – two full days after the invasion of Ukraine had begun.
The conflict is now moving into a phase familiar to those that have followed Russian interventions over the past two decades: the bombing of civilians in Aleppo in Syria is one example. Grozny in Chechnya is the more useful parallel, where Putin turned a city in his own country into rubble. As attacks on civilian residential areas and infrastructure intensify in Ukraine, and food, energy supplies, and water run low for millions of inhabitants as highlighted by senior intelligence officials in congressional testimony on March 8 , it is possible to imagine what is in store in the coming days and weeks.
Still Time to Add Sanctions
The next few days offer an opportunity to raise the bar on sanctions and punitive measures, before and not in reaction to the next inevitable escalation in the conflict. The West has already made major military, humanitarian, and political commitments to Ukraine in response to the heroic resistance and the suffering of its people. As Putin intensifies attacks against civilians, however, the West also has an obligation to use every economic tool at its disposal to pressure Russia, while accepting the reality that direct military intervention is not in the cards.In short, the deteriorating situation will require western leaders to go further than they have and explain to their publics that taking additional steps to assist Ukraine will also require real economic sacrifices for them at the gas pump and for the global economy. In doing so, it will be important to continue to make clear that the measures are not directed at the Russian people per se but at their government waging war in Ukraine.
The options for greater sanctions include:
Expanded gas and oil sanctions: International financial markets are already pricing in a cutoff of Russian energy exports. In addition to the measures announced by the EU in Brussels on March 8, German politicians and EU President Ursula von der Leyen (also German) have noted Europe can survive without Russian gas for an indeterminate period as winter ends and alternative suppliers are sourced. For Russia, the critical statistic is that energy exports and the taxes they generate comprise close to 40 percent of the government’s budget. The direct impact of wider oil and gas sanctions on Russia would be substantial by any measure, as the Fitch warning March 9 of an “imminent” default on debt payments by Russia suggests. Russia’s strident response to the prospect and threats of what this will do to world energy prices suggest Moscow is deeply concerned. Washington’s sanctions led the way; Europe should follow.
Deeper Financial Sanctions: Western countries have taken groundbreaking measures to block key Russian banks (holding 75 percent or more of the country’s assets) from the SWIFT inter-bank messaging system and to restrict the Russian Central Bank’s access to its large foreign exchange reserves. There are still loopholes for banks to process energy payments (including giants Sberbank and Gazprombank), and there are still dozens of Russian financial institutions in the domestic market that could be targeted. They may not need immediate access to world markets, but the broader impact on business confidence could be palpable.
A broader trade embargo: To date, the West has been selective about which Russian economic sectors are sanctioned. In addition to gas and oil, other major exports to and imports from Russia could be curtailed to include minerals, consumer products, and services. Europe, which takes almost 40 percent of Russia’s exports, imports billions of dollars of goods other than oil. Western nations are likely to feel the pain, and Russia may find other markets, but the impact of trade sanctions across a variety of economic sectors could be significant inside Russia.
The Time for Action is Now
Zelenskyy was searing with his words on March 4 directed at NATO: “All the people who will die from this day will also die because of you.” Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko may have been accurate in stating to the BBC on March 9 that “NATO is already involved in the conflict,” but the constraints on direct western military intervention remain, even as efforts to expand assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces and negotiations on humanitarian corridors for civilians continue.
It is tempting to point to the failure of harsh sanctions to produce a fundamental change of behavior in other crises (Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela). They are not, however, comparable to the war that is underway in Ukraine, nor are the stakes as high for the international order built since 1945. In his address on Ukraine on March 8, Biden stated that “defending freedom is going to cost.” He is right: the political and strategic constraints on broader economic sanctions become less credible and tenable by the day. The time for broader sanctions is now.