Is America’s toolbox for Russia empty?


WASHINGTON, DC – A few weeks ago I interviewed Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia who served on the National Security Council of former President Donald Trump. I asked her what she thought of President Joe Biden’s policy towards Russia. “Biden is in a quandary,” she said, because the US would like Russia to just leave and not be a problem, while Russia should be a problem for the US – both for its own internal reasons and for its relationship with China.

I was reminded of this this week. Russia is accumulation troops on the Ukrainian border, and some fear Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for a full-scale invasion, a repeat of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, appears to be replied to sanctions trying push migrants across the border with Poland… Both the US and the EU have said that Putin is an accomplice.

What should Biden do – and for that matter the US? In the case of both Ukraine and Poland, it was revealed how little America can make.

The United States, in all likelihood, will not go to an all-out war with Russia over and within Ukraine. Although Ukraine provides support in the form of, among other things, military aid in the form of millions, it is not a NATO ally, and therefore there is no Article 5 that would force the US to join Ukraine in the war with Russia.

America, of course, could have added additional sanctions. Writing in New statesman this week Paul Mason proposed sanctions of the kind that would harm the financial systems of Russia and Belarus. The US could certainly try to add more sanctions by adding to the already existing sanctions against Russia and the Russians: for attempted assassinations abroad; for oligarchs and elites who profit from alleged Russian corruption; and for the annexation of Crimea back in 2014. But it’s worth noting that these sanctions did not stop Putin from concentrating troops along the border with Ukraine. We may not know to what extent the sanctions help contain more aggressive Russian behavior, but we do know that to date, the sanctions have not convinced Putin to reverse course completely.

The US may try to bring together various European players, as well as Russia and Belarus, for a series of talks. The discussion could be good. But literally this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov published letters between himself and his French and German colleagues after withdrawing from the proposed negotiations on the situation in Ukraine. Nobody can force Russia to sit down at the negotiating table.

Does this mean America should make a helpless gesture? Of course not. The US must stay in touch with Russia – and Poland, and the European Union. The fact that there are no easy answers does not mean that we should not ask this question. Current crises and America’s limited range of responses to them do not mean Washington should ignore Moscow. Not at all. They serve as a reminder that while Biden might have preferred to think about China and the Indo-Pacific, or the economy, or a pandemic, or whatever, Russia is not so easy to forget.

[See also: Russia’s military build-up at the border with Ukraine is testing the West’s resolve]

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