Despite an early chorus of insistent predictions that Russia wouldn’t possibly be able to hold on more than a few weeks in its war of aggression in Ukraine or was inches away from losing it all economically, the Russians stubbornly plow on. Putin isn’t anywhere near done in Ukraine, and it is desperately important that we stop resting on assumptions that he’s on his death bed or that Russia’s economic end is imminent. Most important of all, we must not allow ourselves to fall victim to the unfortunate American tendency to become distracted by newer and shinier objects.
Putin says he is “just getting started.” As such, we must act accordingly and dramatically. Stricter sanctions, and serious, impactful penalties for companies and other entities that don’t fall in line. Dump more weapons and aid into Ukraine than it knows what to do with. Every time Zelenskyy goes on TV to ask for something, just give it to him. Crank it up, because short of military intervention that is not going to happen, there is no other way.
It is unquestionable that American-led efforts to protect Ukraine are the reason the Russian flag hasn’t risen over Kyiv, despite the breathtakingly awesome grit and determination of the Ukrainian people. But if we don’t keep our eye on the ball — and you can be sure Putin is betting big that we will — we’re going to be dealing with this in an ongoing fashion that will only increase our own pain and that of our allies.
There are some who still say that in time, the current sanctions will work. Perhaps. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like global stability doesn’t have all the time in the world here. Following are just two examples of the fact that the current sanctions are not inflicting the level of pain that they need to to make this winnable without boots on the ground.
First, the aforementioned declarations from Russia that it has the capacity to dial up and expand its efforts. The BBC reported on Wednesday that “Russia’s military focus in Ukraine is no longer ‘only’ the east of the country, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said. In an interview with Russian state media, he implied Moscow’s strategy had changed after the West supplied Ukraine with longer-range weapons.” If sanctions were crippling, Russia would be looking for a face-saving strategy to get out of the conflict, as it looked like it may have for a minute there when we first hit it with sanctions and the Ukrainians proved they could hit back. Alas, Russia is talking tougher than ever.
Second, the Russian economy, which we had essentially banked on being toast, has stunningly bounced back and it’s the Western economies that are feeling pain. The AP reported on July 18, 2022, “across Europe, signs of distress are multiplying as Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on,” while “high energy costs fueled by the war are benefiting Russia, a major oil and natural gas exporter whose agile central bank and years of experience living with sanctions have stabilized the ruble and inflation despite economic isolation.”
Sanctions can only work if they are comprehensive and followed. We must be all-in. Governments, corporations, people, et cetera must absolutely cease all commerce with Russia, without exception.
Sanctions need to be applicable to all and, yes, enforced. They’ve taken a hit for sure, but the Russians have made modifications to the way they do business to live with the current set of sanctions. And they are exploiting and growing holes in the sanctions regime in order to get by. They’ve sold more oil to India and China to make up for losses to the West. They are using cash from those sales with increased global prices to build up the Russian military. And so forth. As Fortune headlined last week, Putin has been preparing for this moment for years.
We can and should penalize Western corporations who play fast and loose with sanctions and continue to do business in Russia. Particularly companies who enjoy massive U.S. government contracts such as Airbus, for example, who isn’t playing along because it likes the cheap Russian titanium. In April, an Airbus spokesman said, “sanctions on Russian titanium would hardly harm Russia because they only account for a small part of export revenues there. But they would massively damage the entire aerospace industry across Europe.” As I pointed out in a previous column, Boeing pulled out of Russia entirely early in the game, and as I write this it’s “massively damaged” at $160.91 a share, up $2.49 from yesterday.
So let’s clear the clearable roadblocks that currently hinder our effort to stop Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine and redouble our commitment to see our friends through. More weapons and aid will be very helpful. More sanctions would be fantastic, but if we’re not ready to go there yet, we can at least impose some discipline to fully enforce the ones already in place so that they’ll have the kind of teeth they are capable of having.