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The West Needs to Unleash Sanctions Hell on Russia or Risk a War with NATO

NLAW missile firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
NLAW missile firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The West Must Intensify Russian Sanctions Or Risk Wider War  – The conflict between Russia and Ukraine appears to be broadening and deepening. While Moscow’s initial strategy of a swift coup de main to decapitate the Ukrainian government failed, Russia has had significant successes in the South and East. It now appears that the combination of direct Western military assistance to Ukraine, coupled with the impact of multiple waves of economic sanctions, has allowed Kyiv to slow the Russian offensive. Some observers believe that despite Russia’s territorial gains, its army has been decimated, and Ukraine could even recapture some of the territories it has lost.

But it is unclear whether Ukraine has a winning military option, regardless of how much assistance the West provides. Even if the current Russian offensive can be halted, Ukraine lacks the military means to force Russia to relinquish its territorial gains. If Russia is to be forced to end its aggression or even withdraw from the portions of Ukraine it has seized, this will have to come via other means. In particular, the Western sanctions campaign, which has already wreaked havoc on the Russian economy, must be intensified.

The War in Ukraine: State of Play 

The Russia-Ukraine conflict is unlike any that the U.S. and its allies have fought for three-quarters of a century. It is a war in multiple dimensions. Understandably, the primary focus of attention by both analysts and the news media has been on the military aspects of this conflict. Russia has hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thousands of tanks, and dozens of naval vessels, including missile-launching submarines. The Russian military has deployed most of its advanced weapon systems, including land, sea and air-launched cruise missiles, thermobaric weapons, drones, and even hypersonic weapons.

Western military assistance to Kyiv has already had a significant impact on the battlefield. Although the U.S. and its allies are not directly participating in the conflict, they have provided or are in the process of providing many of their most advanced weapon systems. The combination of advanced unmanned aerial systems and sophisticated artillery systems from multiple countries, including the U.S. Grey Eagle drone and HIMARS rocket artillery, reportedly has had a severe effect on the Russian military. The current conflict appears to have proven the correctness of the U.S. military’s vision of a future high-end war.

Ukraine has also deployed some very sophisticated weapon systems, including air defenses that have downed dozens of Russian aircraft and the anti-ship cruise missiles that sank the Russian cruiser Moskva. Kyiv is also operating advanced military systems provided by emerging military export powerhouses such as Turkey.

Most experts predict a protracted conflict that will last months, perhaps years.

The NATO vs. Russia War Scenario and Why More Sanctions Matter 

The specter of a protracted conflict that could draw in NATO is a chilling thought. This makes the economic dimension of the conflict even more important. If Russia cannot be defeated on the battlefield, perhaps its military campaign can be undermined from another direction.

Within days of Putin launching his attack on Ukraine, the West imposed severe sanctions on Russia and the regime in Moscow. Individuals, companies, and even entire sectors were sanctioned. This meant that Russia could not do business with most of the world’s largest economies, and Russian banks were barred from the SWIFT system of international financial messaging. It is reported that Russia is already in default on its international debts, a condition that it last experienced during the economic meltdown that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The centerpiece of the sanctions campaign has been the effort to throttle the Russian energy sector. Europe, to its credit, has decided to sharply reduce its purchases of Russian oil and natural gas, even at the risk to its overall energy security. In the U.S., eschewing Russian oil has contributed to the rise in prices for gasoline and home heating oil.

These sanctions have had a serious effect on the Russian economy, which is expected to contract by as much as 15 percent this year and next. Some 600 Western companies have left Russia, taking with them access to their supply chains, technology, and human capital. The supply of the necessary parts to build and repair advanced weapon systems also has been reduced with significant effects on the Russian military-industrial complex.

However, it is unclear whether the existing sanctions regime will be sufficient to bring the war to a satisfactory end. Increases in the prices of oil and gas have softened the effects of Western sanctions on the Russian economy and the state budget. Several countries, including the so-called BRIC nations, continue doing business with Russia and finding ways around financial sanctions.

Some observers believe that Russia has been able to manage the existing set of sanctions, albeit at a significant cost to its economy and the welfare of its people. Consequently, a broader economic campaign against Russia may offer more leverage. Washington continues to broaden its sanctions list, going after government leaders, critical industries, and sources of foreign currency earnings. Last month, the G7 took the step of banning imports of Russian gold.

Another area of the Russian economy where more pressure could be imposed is specialty metals. Before the invasion, Russia was a significant exporter of metals such as titanium, palladium, nickel, copper, and bauxite. This was a big source of foreign currency earnings for the country.

Western governments need to prevent exports of these metals. Western companies could voluntarily reduce or eliminate their purchases of Russian metals. For example, titanium is extremely important in manufacturing advanced commercial aircraft. Despite that, Boeing swore off the use of Russian titanium shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. However, the other major Western manufacturer of commercial transport aircraft, Airbus, has not. Western companies must play a role in the current effort to halt Russia’s aggression. Refusing to buy Russian minerals would help. Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, warned that “We’re fighting a proxy war against ourselves.”

Absent an unforeseen collapse of the Russian military, only a significant increase in sanctions on the Russian economy has any chance of bringing the conflict with Ukraine to an end. If NATO wants to avoid being drawn into a war with Russia, it must take additional steps to cripple that country’s economy.

Author Biography and Expertise: Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

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Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.