Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massive, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has received the immediate response promised by the United States and allied democracies: economic sanctions and solid support for Ukraine’s self-defense. While deterrence failed to divert Putin from war, its escalation remains a vital tool for the community of democracies to support Ukraine. The choice continues to be Putin’s—to stand down or to dive into an abyss of Europe’s most destructive war in eight decades. 

Ukrainians in Kyiv, the capital, survey damage from a rocket attack as Russian troops invaded the country anew Thursday. (Serhii Nuzhnenko/RFE-RL)
Ukrainians in Kyiv, the capital, survey damage from a rocket attack as Russian troops invaded the country anew Thursday. (Serhii Nuzhnenko/RFE-RL)

Putin chose to ignore the measured sanctions imposed by the United States and other democracies after he signaled his move in a 55-minute, grievance-laden speech Monday night. He first sent troops and tanks into the Russia-controlled enclaves that his forces carved from southeastern Ukraine in 2014. President Biden ordered a “first tranche” of sanctions, banning transactions with two Russian state banks and elites close to Putin’s regime. Britain, Australia, Japan, Canada and the 27-nation European Union imposed similar penalties—as did Germany, which importantly also halted the process of opening Russia’s state-owned gas pipeline to Europe, which Moscow paid half of the $11 billion to build. Putin then escalated again last night, launching missile, drone, and artillery attacks, and a ground invasion.

Biden this afternoon announced further sanctions—on Russian banks, imports from the United States and members of Putin’s circle—as Britain and other allies did the same.

Putin’s ‘Forever War’

Putin faces a domestic political risk as Russian soldiers die in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops cannot repulse an invasion by a Russian military that analysts say has three times the personnel and 10 times the budget of Ukraine’s. But Ukraine now defends itself with a vastly bigger, better equipped and more combat-experienced army than in 2014, when Russia quickly seized Crimea and part of Donbas. And Ukrainians—military veterans and civilians—have trained and prepared to fight urban and guerrilla warfare that would mean terrible casualties not only for Ukraine but for Russia.

Putin has shown he fears the risk that Russian casualties could undermine his rule. When he invaded Donbas in 2014, his government hid the number and names of Russian soldiers killed there, secretly trucking the bodies home and pressuring family members not to discuss their losses. Russian investigative journalists and pro-democracy activists found that at least 220 Russian troops had been killed in roughly the first year. Opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov had been leading that investigation when gunmen assassinated him near the Kremlin in 2015.

Why such fear on Putin’s part? It is because Ukraine’s willingness to fight for its independence as a Europe-oriented democracy poses an existential quandary for Putin’s regime—a dilemma that he inadvertently illustrated in his long, Monday speech. Ukrainians and Russians are too intertwined—by their shared Slavic ethnicities, histories and languages, and by their Orthodox Christian faith—for one not to deeply influence the other, Putin noted. So for 144 million Russians, no example of democracy could be more resonant than that of the 44 million Ukrainians who have fought political campaigns, and grassroots uprisings in 2004 and 2014, for transparent, accountable governance.

Thus, Putin’s struggle to derail Ukrainian democracy will be for him a “forever war”—whether fought by arms, sabotage, cyberattacks, disinformation or corruption—for as long as he holds power in Moscow. Yet Russians are not buying into Putin’s insistence that Ukraine cannot possibly exist as a legitimately independent state—and that preventing Ukraine’s evolution requires Russian warfare. Repeatedly during Putin’s 22-year rule, and as recently as last April, he has had to suppress mass protests by tens of thousands of Russians—not against Ukraine’s democratic and Europe-oriented inclinations, but against Putin’s own authoritarianism.

Even under Putin’s political repression and control of most Russian media, thousands of Russians in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities gathered in streets today to protest Putin’s invasion. The opposition party Yabloko has gathered 23,000 signatures on a petition declaring “No to War!” on Ukraine. A letter demanding no war, circulated by the Congress of Russian Intellectuals, had more than 2,000 signers at the start of February, and a similar letter was issued by a prominent retired army general and Putin critic who heads an association of former officers.

In this light, Putin’s current military action is more truly an act of desperation. America and the world’s democracies need to support Ukraine against this new assault not only as an ethical matter, but because the outcome of this crisis threatens the rule of law worldwide and offers new initiative for authoritarians to reverse democratic governance from Latin America to Africa to Asia.

Sustaining Deterrence—and Diplomacy

The world’s community of democracies will need to sustain a united, determined response to Putin over what now may be a years-long war in Ukraine. Alongside the new sanctions announced today, the United States, Europe and others must be prepared to strengthen support for Ukraine’s legitimate government, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and for Ukraine’s self-defense.

At the same time, the West must keep open the doors to diplomacy. These openings must visibly offer Russia the option of negotiations on problems of strategic stability—missiles, nuclear proliferation, high-tech weaponry and force levels in Europe—about which Putin has complained, most recently in his Monday speech. USIP has worked actively for years to help prepare foundations for such diplomatic efforts. These strategic issues will outlive Putin, and the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war. In the long view, the West should look ahead to a Russia that can engage on them.

As Americans, Europeans and Ukrainians cooperate to manage this crisis now, we must keep in mind that this is Putin’s permanent war. Our responses could eventually persuade him to stand down from his current escalation, but they will not end Putin’s assaults on Ukraine, Europe, America and democracy. Critically, however, our responses now will help reset the terms of engagement—whether in favor of authoritarianism or the rule of law—under which the next assaults by Putin or other authoritarians will be contested.

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