Do economic or military pressure have greater impact in encouraging Putin to de-escalate – or is diplomacy the only route?
With Russia launching its offensive into Ukraine on 24 February, we are about to enter the fifth month of the war – with no end in sight. The conflict has taken a heavy toll on both countries, with thousands of casualties and the displacement of millions of Ukrainians. The Ukrainians have borne the brunt, but the Russians have also suffered significant losses: as much as 4% of its military manpower, according to some estimates. The two sides appear locked in a stalemate as neither side has been able to achieve a decisive victory, and the fighting continues. What are the options for bringing this destruction to an end?
The west’s first and most common response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on individuals, state-owned banks and oil companies. The measures have even targeted Putin, his family members, and top Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On 3 June, the EU joined the United States in imposing an additional package of economic sanctions that included a ban on importing Russian oil into the EU and cutting off more Russian banks from the international payment system SWIFT.
But these vigorous measures have so far failed to stop the Russian offensive or change Putin’s behaviour. Experts say their impacts will likely be felt more in the long term as they make it harder for Russia to borrow money, invest, and do business internationally. In the short term, however, they are not likely to have a significant impact on the conflict. “I do worry a little bit that if there’s no immediate economic impact on Russia, it may give Putin the idea that the pain of sanctions is less than he anticipates and gives him some incentive to keep pushing the envelope,” said Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
With the most recent calls from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy for diplomacy as “the only way” to end the conflict, this option appears to be gaining traction. But efforts to date to broker a peace deal have not yielded results as yet. In March, Turkey tried to mediate a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine as it hosted a meeting between Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, but the talks failed to produce any breakthroughs.
Days later, Putin laid out six conditions for resolving the conflict, which were swiftly rejected by Ukraine since doing so would effectively result in its dissolution as a sovereign nation. These conditions included it not joining Nato; the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia; granting independence to the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics; demilitarizing Ukraine and surrendering any weapons that constitute a threat to Russia; and making Russian the second official language of Ukraine.
While US President Joe Biden has not talked to Putin since the war in Ukraine started, EU leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz, have been in regular communication with the Russian leader to de-escalate the conflict. Their last phone conversation occurred late last month when the EU leaders urged Putin to begin a “direct dialogue” with Zelenskiy to resolve the conflict.
Proponents of this solution argue that the only way to stop the Russian offensive is to provide Ukraine with the military aid it needs to defend itself. While no amount of military assistance may be able to fully match Russia’s military might, making the war more costly for Russia could help deter further aggression and bring Putin to the negotiating table.
“The Ukrainians have to go into negotiations with the upper hand at a position of strength,” said Stephen M Twitty, former Deputy Commander of the United States European Command, in a recent webinar hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Twitty noted that while Russia was initially struggling to make progress in the conflict, things appear to be shifting in its favour as it has focused on the eastern part of the country.
Last month, Biden signed a $40 billion package that will provide Ukraine with military and non-military assistance. That is greater than one-fourth of Ukraine’s GDP and more than what Ukraine has spent on its military over the past decade. While half of the funding is supposed to go toward military aid, the US has so far provided just over $4 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. The list of equipment the US has sent to Ukraine includes, most notably, more than 1,400 stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 90 155mm Howitzers, 5,500 Javelin anti-tank missiles, 14,000 other anti-armour systems, hundreds of switchable and tactical drones, and millions of rounds of ammunition. But Ukraine says it needs a lot more than that: 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks, among other heavy weapons, and 1,000 drones.
While there is overwhelming western support for arming Ukraine, some argue that doing so could only escalate the conflict and put the lives of more Ukrainian soldiers and broader international security at risk. “There’s a hot war going on with a nuclear-powered Russia, and I feel quite uncomfortable with the talk of victory, with the talk of a long-term weakening of Putin,” said Charles A Kupchan, a former White House advisor in the CFR webinar.
“I see as a strategic priority and a measure of strategic prudence the need to end a hot war and begin the diplomacy. I would keep the pressure on. I would keep the sanctions on. I would not say, yes, Russia, you can have this, but I do think that the hot war aspect of this is more dangerous than many people perceive, not just because of escalation but because of the blowback effects,” Kupchan added.
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