Editorial: U.S.’s righteous response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine

Russian military vehicles in a line
Russian military vehicles are lined up on a railway platform in Belarus in an image taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Jan. 29.
(Associated Press)

As the United Nations Security Council gathered Monday to discuss Ukraine, it remained uncertain whether Russian troops massed along the border of that country would actually launch an invasion. Russia has denied that it is planning an attack, and on Monday its U.N. representative accused Washington of “provoking escalation.”

What is clear is that a Russian invasion of a nation from which it already has seized territory would be a dangerous violation of international norms. The United States and its NATO allies must demonstrate to Vladimir Putin that Russia — and perhaps the Russian president himself — will pay a high price if the troops he has massed near Ukraine’s border enter that country.

Biden administration officials said last week that an invasion would result in “massive consequences” including export controls and sanctions directed at the Russian financial sector. “The gradualism of the past is out, and this time we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there,”a White House official said. Economic penalties would be imposed not only by the U.S. but also by “allies and partners.” (The allies are less united on the question of supplying Ukraine with weapons.)


Russia lost an attempt to block a meeting by the U.N. Security Council on its troop buildup near Ukraine’s borders and Western fears of an invasion.

Threatened sanctions would have even more of a deterrent effect if the U.S. and its allies also targeted oil and gas sales from Russia to Europe. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has suggested that a Russian invasion might doom the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany. “It’s very hard to see gas flowing through the pipeline or for it to become operational if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine,” Sherman said after a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council.

Yet even as they warn Russia that further aggression would have painful consequences, the U.S. and its European allies must continue to engage Russia diplomatically in the hopes of averting an invasion and easing Ukraine’s internal conflicts. They should also resist calls for a premature imposition of sanctions, which could actually lessen the alliance’s diplomatic leverage.

It’s easy to say that Ukraine is an independent nation that should be free to determine its own destiny, including whether it will establish economic, political and even military relationships with Western nations, and that the U.S. and its allies should do everything possible to support its democratic aspirations. But in framing their response to Putin’s provocations, the U.S. and its allies must reckon with several complicated realities.

Even when the U.S. is saber-rattling, our real foreign policy tool of choice is economic and diplomatic sanctions.

One is that, although Ukraine conceivably could join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the distant future, it is not part of the alliance now and doesn’t benefit from its mutual defense provisions. The priority for the alliance is to guarantee the security of its existing members.
That’s one reason for President Biden’s insistence that he has “no intention of putting American forces or NATO forces in Ukraine.” But it’s not the only one. Biden campaigned on a promise to end “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Americans wouldn’t be likely to support a war that could put U.S. forces in conflict with another nuclear superpower.

Another complication is the historical, ethnic and linguistic ties between Russia and Ukraine. There is resentment in Russia about the way Russian-speaking populations have been treated by the newly independent Baltic states, and pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine evoke similar sympathy. In addition to annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has supported separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In 2015 an agreement was reached in Minsk, Belarus, under which foreign troops would leave Ukraine and a dialogue would begin on autonomy for two pro-Russia regions. Biden has called for diplomacy to implement that agreement and an earlier one between the Ukrainian government and the separatists that called for a cease-fire, prisoner exchanges and a withdrawal of heavy weapons. Russian, Ukrainian, French and German diplomats are now trying to reinvigorate the 2015 Minsk agreement.

Russia has enough troops in position to invade deep into Ukraine, U.S. officials say, but Vladimir Putin could still choose diplomacy.

Finally, it’s impossible to separate the crisis over Ukraine from long-standing Russian grievances about the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fear of “encirclement” by enemies isn’t particular to Putin.

The U.S. and NATO rightly have rejected Russia’s demand that Ukraine forever be barred from NATO membership and that the alliance must withdraw all troops and nuclear weapons from former Soviet republics and countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Russia could take advantage of “a serious diplomatic path forward” that would address its concerns, such as reducing intermediate-range nuclear weapons and limiting the size and location of military exercises, according to the New York Times.

Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to speak again by phone Tuesday, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

It is possible, of course, that the combination of threatened sanctions and diplomacy won’t deter Putin from further aggression in Ukraine. In that event the U.S. and its allies must make good on their warnings and prepare for a prolonged period of instability in Europe and a lengthy estrangement with Russia, if not a new Cold War. Russia, meanwhile, probably would discover that its actions would drive more nations into seeking the protection of the NATO umbrella. That is another reason for Putin to pull back.