A tougher approach is needed to counter Russian aggression

After months of aggressive rhetoric, Russia finally invaded Ukraine, leading to calls that the crisis could escalate into a larger conflict that threatens not only the political integrity of Ukraine, but of all of Europe. Russia’s brazen actions are serious and hurt the civilian population, with reports of people already dead in airstrikes on Ukrainian cities and clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Russian aggression also has more serious consequences, since it explicitly rejects the international rule of law and the principle of sovereignty in favor of its national interests and territorial gain. As the Western diplomatic strategy to counter Russia has failed, the time has come for a stronger response that severely limits Russia’s ability to act militarily through sanctions and military deterrence. It is also critical for the West to understand Russia’s long-term strategy and motives for its continued aggression in order to successfully counter it.

The invasion of Ukraine came after Russia amassed 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders over several weeks and conducted military exercises in what is clearly a provocation. This led to international fears of a full-scale invasion, which eventually took place. Then the situation escalated even more when Russia officially recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine.

Official Russian military forces were sent to these regions, collectively known as the Donbass, under the guise of “peacekeeping operations” on Monday evening. Although these actions were not a full-scale invasion, they were already a flagrant violation of international law, undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin is not new. In Donbas, fighting between Russia-backed separatist groups and the Ukrainian military has been going on since 2014, following the Ukrainian revolution and the Euromaidan movement, which were seen as a renunciation of Russian influence. Russia also annexed Crimea, officially part of Ukraine, that same year to turn the region into a military base to give Russia a foothold to increase its influence in the Black Sea region. Russia has also occupied Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after previously backing separatist forces to stir up instability in the country in line with its geopolitical goals.

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Russia’s strategy of operating under a false flag, building up military forces on its borders, and recognizing breakaway regions is straight out of Putin’s play. Tactically, it was essentially a hostage situation by a regional aggressor, and Putin sought one of two outcomes: either the West would pressure Ukraine to refuse NATO membership, or Russia would annex eastern Ukraine to undermine its sovereignty. Both scenarios would leave Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence. The West’s failure to understand and prevent this, as evidenced by the subsequent invasion, proves that its focus on diplomacy is a fundamental and tragic misunderstanding of how Russia operates.

This was obvious in advance, since Russia is a long-standing and persistent violator of international law. This was evident in previous hostilities, annexations and state-sponsored killings abroad. Although, admittedly, the West has also threatened sanctions against any aggression, including financial and individual sanctions, this apparently did not prevent Putin from unleashing his forces in sovereign Ukraine. With Russia showing no signs of being ready to engage in meaningful diplomacy or respect international law, the West needs to put in place a stronger and longer-term structure that will allow it to prevent aggression and weaken the Putin regime over time.

Since Russia has no interest in playing by international rules, the West must respond to this latest provocation in a way that will force the regime to refrain from further regional aggression. This can be achieved by imposing tough economic and financial sanctions against prominent Russian figures, especially those closest to Putin. This can be done in the form of frozen foreign assets, a travel ban for all family members, the inability to invest outside of Russia. This will force people to choose between their personal wealth and close ties to Putin’s inner circle, which could lead to tense political relations and increased pressure on the government.

Sanctions on state-owned businesses and the financial system, including banks and investment firms, would isolate Russia economically and deprive financial institutions of access to Western funding. While President Biden promised that “the world will hold Russia accountable” through even tougher financial and individual sanctions, it is imperative that sanctions be used as a preventative tool in the future. This requires a transparent approach on the part of the West, which clearly defines sanctions for specific acts of aggression, such as the annexation of territory, so that Russia understands the cost of illegal actions in the future.

The West must also increase its military presence in NATO countries in Eastern Europe to act as a bulwark against further conflict. The West has already tried to do this, when NATO member countries provided aircraft and ships to the region as a deterrent. Now that Russia is threatening the territorial integrity of its neighbors, this presence needs to be strengthened and maintained in the long term in order to put pressure on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, as well as to prevent the conflict from spreading to other countries. The West, especially the European Union, also needs to develop a long-term strategy to weaken Russia and strengthen its negotiating position to prevent aggression. Since the Russian economy is heavily dependent on energy exports, the West’s long-term goal should be to wean itself off Russian energy resources to prevent them from being used as a tool for Russian blackmail. The EU is particularly suspect of this, as Russia accounts for 65% of Germany’s gas imports and about 40% for the EU as a whole.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself backed this up, telling CNBC that the West has to work “very hard” to find alternative energy sources outside of Russia. Decreasing energy dependence on Russia would allow the EU to impose severe sanctions on the Russian energy sector, which is likely the worst-case scenario for Russia, as it would be an effective means of hurting its economy and putting a lot of pressure on the Putin regime. The suspension of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by Germany is the first active step in this direction. As EU countries are already shifting to renewable energy sources, diversifying their energy imports outside of Russia will successfully punish Russia for aggression without any adverse economic consequences.

Russia’s strategy is based on perceived historical grievances and a desire to reclaim parts of the Soviet Union lost thirty years earlier. His actions are unacceptable, violate international law and put the lives of thousands of people at risk. Through the steps outlined above, the West can take a stance of intolerance and develop a solid foundation to prevent aggression before it happens by clearly identifying any costs of action and weakening the regime in the long run. If Putin is unwilling to adhere to good faith diplomacy and international law, the West has the right to isolate and weaken Russia until it adheres to international norms of sovereignty and responsible state behavior. This will lead to a more stable and peaceful Europe.

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