The West imposes swift sanctions on Russia. Can they stop a war?

WESTERN COUNTRIES moved quickly to impose a first tranche of economic sanctions on Russia after President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine and ordered the deployment of Russian troops there. this. On February 22, America, Britain and the EU rolled out measures that include restrictions on the sale of Russian debt, freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs and their children, banks and parliamentarians – and threatened further if Russian troops attacked territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. . Most striking was Germany’s unexpected decision to suspend authorization for Nord Stream 2 (NS2), an undersea gas pipeline to transport more gas from Russia to Germany.

For some, including some former Republican officials in America, the transatlantic response so far has been safe, not least in the degree of diplomatic coordination and the use of intelligence to expose and disrupt Russia’s military plans. The question is whether the sanctions are commensurate with Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and whether they can dissuade Mr Putin from sending the roughly 190,000 troops he has amassed to Ukraine’s borders. Ukraine to grab more territory.

On February 21, after a bitter and heartbreaking speech, Vladimir Putin signed treaties of “friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance” with the two Russian-backed dissident states, the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. He announced that he would send “peacekeeping” troops to the enclaves. A day later, Mr. Putin sought and quickly obtained permission from parliament to deploy troops “abroad”. Russia also announced the evacuation of its diplomats from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

Western sanctions are not – at least not yet – the “massive” response the West has promised if Russia invades Ukraine. Perhaps inevitably, the debate turned to the question of what counts as an invasion. Initially, senior White House officials declined to use the i-word, noting that the planned deployment of Russian troops to Donetsk and Luhansk only formalized Russia’s barely-hidden eight-year presence there. -low. But on February 22, President Joe Biden changed his tune, describing the events as “the start of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” He swore: “I will begin to impose sanctions in response, well beyond the measures that we and our allies and partners implemented in 2014. And if Russia goes further with this invasion, we are ready to go further as with sanctions.

The difficulty for the West will be to calibrate its response. He wants to demonstrate his resolve in the face of Russia’s threats and actions so far. But it also seeks to make room for diplomacy, maintain Western unity, and maintain a credible deterrent in the face of widespread invasion. It all depends on whether Mr. Putin’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk is an end in itself or a step towards a wider war. America and Britain are convinced it is the second. “Everything indicates that Russia continues to plan a large-scale attack,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

In a televised press conference, Mr Putin was asked whether Russian troops would be deployed only in areas controlled by the two pseudo-states, or whether they would seek to occupy all the territory claimed by their rulers, including much of it is still in the hands of the Ukrainian government. Mr Putin endorsed their demands but did not say how far he would send his troops: “It is impossible to predict the scenario that unfolds. This will depend on the situation on the ground.

Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank, suggested that after months of military buildup and high-stakes diplomacy, recognizing small states might have been the least risky way for Mr Putin to avoid send his troops home empty-handed. Recognition could therefore be an effort to “escalate to defuse”. But Mr. Putin’s rhetoric against Ukraine, a state he called a Bolshevik invention, was so vicious that Mr. Trenin would not rule out an invasion. The overt deployment of Russian troops in Donetsk and Luhansk, he noted, increased the risk of conflict if, for example, Russian troops were injured in firefights across the frontline.

Hope for a diplomatic solution is fading. French officials have expressed bitterness over Mr. Putin’s treatment of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who has long sought to coax Russia into security deals and has gone to great lengths to give Mr. Putin a way out of the crisis. In the early hours of February 21, Mr. Macron announced that Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden had agreed in principle to hold another summit to avert a war. Mr Putin has never confirmed this. He also said the so-called Minsk agreements of 2014-15, which were supposed to settle the status of Donetsk and Luhansk and which France and Germany had tried to reinvigorate, were dead. Mr. Putin also called on Ukraine to demilitarize. In another grim development, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has canceled a scheduled meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, which was scheduled for February 24.

As the West turns to sanctions, Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, has the opportunity to lead the European response. For weeks he endured criticism that Germany had been too passive. The Allies have complained about his refusal to arm Ukraine (aside from a much-mocked 5,000 helmets) and his reluctance to agree to the most aggressive potential sanctions, such as ejecting Russia from the system of SWIFT international payment.

The biggest irritant was NS2, a completed but not yet operational pipeline designed to double undersea gas deliveries from Russia to Germany. Critics, including Eastern European allies as well as successive US administrations, said NS2 would boost Russia’s ability to use gas as a geopolitical weapon. And by depriving Ukraine of transit fees for an existing onshore pipeline, it risked removing one of that country’s few sources of leverage against its larger neighbor.

Critics and admirers were surprised when Mr. Scholz said on January 22 that he would cancel regulators assessing whether NS2 could start operations. Mr Putin’s decision, Mr Scholz said, was “one-sided, incomprehensible and unjust”, and it was time to do “something very concrete” in response. Admittedly, NS2’s certification has been suspended, not abandoned. Mr Scholz asked the German economy ministry to withdraw its assessment, published in October, that NS2 posed no risk to the security of Europe’s energy supplies. This verdict was a prerequisite for regulators to start evaluating NS2. In the meantime, Scholz said, Germany should diversify its gas sources (Russia accounts for just over half of German imports).

For now, there will be no direct impact on European energy supply. Either way, NS2 wouldn’t enter service until much later this year. But Russia, which has always sought to insulate its energy relationship with Germany from geopolitical disputes, seemed taken aback. Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the National Security Council and former president, threatened a “better new world” in which Europeans would find themselves paying €2,000 ($2,266) for 1,000 cubic meters of gas. (In fact, spot prices briefly rose above this level in December.)

Why did Mr. Scholz act now? Mr. Putin’s moves have undermined the Franco-German strategy of reviving detailed negotiations on constitutional arrangements in Ukraine. The Chancellor may also have wanted to forestall the risk of America stepping in to kill NS2 itself, as Joe Biden threatened to do earlier this month. And by moving now, Mr Scholz has ensured a more comfortable position for Germany in sanctions talks within the EU.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission (the EU’s executive arm), said members had reached a political agreement on a “calibrated” response, including sanctions on debt, banks and the people Russians, as well as on trade with the separatist regions. Moreover, she added, “we are limiting the ability of the Russian government to raise capital in EU financial markets. We will make it as difficult as possible for the Kremlin to continue its aggressive policy. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said the decision was unanimous, despite signs of objection from Hungary; among those under sanctions will be some 350 members of the Russian parliament, who are being punished for voting to urge Mr Putin to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk governments.

Britain, which is no longer an EU member, said it would use its “economic clout to inflict pain on Russia”. This included freezing the assets of five Russian banks accused of “funding the Russian occupation”. The assets of several oligarchs – Gennady Timchenko, Russia’s sixth-richest man, and Boris and Igor Rotenberg, close to Mr Putin’s government – ​​have also been frozen. Some noted with disdain that the three men had long been under US sanctions.

America was the first to react on January 21 by banning investment, trade and financing from small dissident states, and invoked the power to impose sanctions on anyone operating in these areas. The following day, he said the sanctions would be aimed at hampering secondary markets in Russian debt, isolating two major Russian banks and freezing the assets of individuals, including family members of figures close to Mr Putin. In the US Congress, meanwhile, there were growing demands for stronger action. Bob Menendez, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said America needed to stop “trivializing” about starting the invasion. Despite Germany’s decision, he said, America should end President Biden’s waiver of sanctions against NS2 “so that he is dead forever.” He asked: “When are we going to make it clear to Putin that there are serious consequences for what you are doing? When he takes another bite after this bite?

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