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The West has a few bargaining chips to stop Russia from invading Ukraine

About 100,000 Russian troops have been spotted at the Ukrainian border.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gestures from behind a podium as he speaks at a press conference on January 7, 2022.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Russia-Ukraine tensions in Brussels, Belgium, on January 7, 2022. 
John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of two crucial meetings this week, the United States and NATO allies are discussing a number of ways to deal with the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West, and the looming prospect of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Although US and NATO leadership have both expressed a strong desire for a diplomatic path forward, more aggressive options to support Ukrainian sovereignty against Russian aggression, including major trade restrictions, are reportedly on the table.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted an increasingly bellicose posture toward Europe and the West, particularly over the past several months. Among other actions, an increasing number of Russian troops — about 100,000 at present, according to the New York Times — have been stationed along Russia’s border with Ukraine, possibly in preparation for a major offensive.

The Biden administration and the Kremlin are scheduled to discuss the US response to Russian military action in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, and a larger conversation between NATO member countries and Russia is set for Wednesday in Brussels, Belgium. Further talks about Russia’s actions and proposed security demands are also set to take place in Vienna, Austria, with member nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

After a virtual meeting Friday of foreign ministers from its member states, NATO promised a coherent response to protect Ukrainian sovereignty, and Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg insisted in a statement Friday that the alliance is committed to a diplomatic approach with Russia.

“Russia’s aggressive actions seriously undermine the security order in Europe,” he said. “NATO remains committed to our dual-track approach to Russia: strong deterrence and defense, combined with meaningful dialogue.”

But should NATO’s present tack — and next week’s talks — fail to deter Russia from action against Ukraine, Stoltenberg has signaled that NATO is prepared to pursue more aggressive options. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO and thus the alliance is under no obligation to step in should Russia attack, Stoltenberg’s statements to the press show that he views Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as destabilizing to European security; and that should that security be threatened, there will be consequences for Russia.

“We have troops, we have forces,” Stoltenberg told reporters Friday, although he declined to discuss details. “We have the readiness. We have the plans to be able to defend, protect all allies, and we are constantly adapting, and also actually investing more now than we had done for many years in modernizing our military capabilities to make sure that we preserve peace in Europe.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also warned that the US was “prepared to respond forcefully to further Russian aggression,” although it’s unclear exactly what form that response might take.

Sanctions are a well-trod path in the US-Russia foreign policy space, and other nations, including the United Kingdom, have indicated their willingness to increase economic pressure on Russia should upcoming talks fail to reach a diplomatic outcome.

Senior US officials told CNN’s Natasha Bertrand that the US is preparing economic blocks on Russia that would severely curtail the country’s ability to import goods like smartphones, aircraft, and car parts — damaging the Russian economy and putting it in the company of pariah nations like North Korea and Syria, which have similar severe trade restrictions.

As Alex Ward explained for Vox last year, previous sanctions have targeted mostly businesses, institutions, and individuals. But large-scale trade sanctions, which are reportedly now under consideration, would impact Russia on an entirely different level, preventing the import of common goods and technology from the US and partner nations.

The UK is also preparing to impose “high impact measures targeting the Russian financial sector and individuals” should Russia invade Ukraine, Reuters reported Thursday, and the European Union agreed in December to work in tandem with the US and UK to impose sanctions of its own.

Still, Russia has thus far presented an unmoving stance, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov telling Russian state media agency RIA that the Kremlin “will not make any concessions under pressure and in the course of threats that are constantly being formed by the Western participants of the upcoming talks.”

Russia continues to deny that it’s planning to invade Ukraine and insists that Ukraine, NATO, and the West are the aggressors in the present conflict, a stance that’s reflected in the security demands Russia sent out last month to NATO and US leadership. Among other things, Russia seeks to prevent Ukraine specifically, as well as other former Soviet republics like Georgia, from entering NATO — a stipulation that NATO leadership says absolutely won’t fly.

Blinken also said Sunday that key Russian demands from its draft documents last month are off the table, though reporting from NBC on Friday suggests that the US is considering a reduction of forces in Eastern Europe.

The Biden administration has denied that any cuts to troop deployments are being considered, but Blinken didn’t reject host Jake Tapper’s suggestion that repositioning heavy weaponry in Poland, moving missiles, or making changes to military exercises could be bargaining chips when he appeared on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday.

In Monday’s talks, the Biden administration will likely reassure Russia that it doesn’t plan to build missile systems in Ukraine, though it has defended US missile systems’ positioning in Romania and Poland. The administration has also promised NATO officials it won’t make unilateral decisions for the alliance, a diplomat from a NATO member state told Politico.

However, there could be room to negotiate over military drills on both sides, the escalation of which has contributed to increased tensions. NATO regularly conducts training exercises in the Baltic region and includes non-NATO states like Sweden and Finland in those exercises, which Russia sees as a threat; Russia, meanwhile, has been conducting larger and more frequent drills closer to NATO countries, and both nations have increased the frequency of nuclear-capable bomber sorties near Ukraine.

Russia-Western relations are at their lowest point in decades

The relationship between Russia and the West has been particularly contentious over the past few months, as the Ukraine crisis reaches a tipping point. Furthermore, Moscow’s support of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko in his quest to anger the EU by shuttling Middle Eastern migrants to his country’s border with Poland, and the recent deployment of Russian troops in Kazakhstan, have only inflamed tensions as Russia seems intent on cementing its sphere of influence in former Soviet states.

The public consensus among Western officials, including Blinken, is that while next week’s talks offer possibilities, the seriousness with which Russia is approaching them is unclear at best, as is the Kremlin’s commitment to any reciprocity.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Ukraine and Russia agreed to — but never fully implemented — a peace agreement called the Minsk Agreement. Since then, continued conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 14,000 people, as Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote in December, and helped push Ukraine, particularly under the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, toward the West and NATO. Putin sees in that shift the potential for Ukraine to join the alliance — and therefore, a threat to Moscow.

Short of a full invasion of Ukraine, however, Putin’s desire to wield his power and remind the West that he still has leverage in the region could be another reason behind the troop buildup, and a tactic to get the US and NATO to negotiate with him.

But the path forward is murky for Western powers and alliances. For example, it’s still unclear how tighter sanctions against Russia might play out, given that previous measures in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine have done little to deter Putin.

Additionally, while the new sanctions proposals would represent a major escalation in Western efforts to deter Putin, it’s quite a gamble to imagine that those measures alone would be enough to deflect what appears to be significant, entrenched military buildup under the direction of an authoritarian leader whose motivations are arguably much more existential than merely the acquisition of territory.

As Alexander Motyl, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet politics at Rutgers University Newark, told Kirby, “The problem is we don’t know what Putin wants, and this is really the bottom line.”

Any consequences for Russia’s actions are difficult to determine and implement, since Putin remains inscrutable, Motyl argued. “Is he testing? Is he invading? Is he teaching the Ukrainians a lesson? We don’t know. And so it’s hard to do anything, because we don’t know what [Putin] wants, and we don’t know how far he’s willing to go.”

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