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How the US and its allies can help Ukraine without starting World War III

It’s a very tough needle to thread, but there’s a way to make the West’s Ukraine strategy work.

Ukrainian servicemen receive FGM-148 Javelins, American anti-tank missiles, at Kyiv’s airport on February 11.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Across the world, political leaders and ordinary citizens have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, there seems to be basically no chance that the United States or any other major world power would send its troops to fight on the Ukrainians’ behalf — for the simple reason that doing so could plausibly lead to a wider war, and even nuclear conflict.

The question then becomes: What can America and its allies do if they continue to rule out direct intervention?

The answer is quite a lot, much of which — though by no means all — is being done already.

The basic Western strategy has been to make the war more painful for Putin: Supply the Ukrainians with weapons while imposing crippling sanctions on the Russian economy. These measures are designed to shift Putin’s cost-benefit analysis, making the war costly enough that he’ll look for some kind of exit. In broad strokes, experts say, it’s a sound strategy — one that can still be escalated, albeit within certain bounds.

“The West has to keep going full speed in the current direction,” says Yoshiko Herrera, a political scientist who studies Russia at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “Right now is not the time to let up on pressure.”

At the same time, Washington and its allies need to think more carefully about their endgame.

President Joe Biden said the US is “inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine,” including levying economic sanctions, choking Russia off from international banking, targeting the country’s central bank, and limiting its access to technology, during his first State of the Union address.
Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Military aid and sanctions are powerful tools, but neither of them is likely to cause Putin to give up on his designs on Ukraine wholesale. Instead, the West needs to develop a clearer strategy for ensuring that its efforts have the desired political effect in Moscow — which starts by openly laying out the conditions under which the sanctions will be removed.

It could not be more important for Washington to get this right. On the one hand, the war in Ukraine is already causing massive suffering; a successful Russian invasion could destabilize Europe for a generation. On the other, an overly aggressive response like a “no-fly zone” would be nearly certain to trigger a broader war between the US and Russia.

Threading the policy needle here will be hard. It means punishing Russia while simultaneously talking with it directly, both to insure against accidental escalation and to clearly communicate the aim of Western sanctions. The US and its allies have to try to strike this balance. The alternatives are too ghastly to contemplate.

The US can help save Ukraine without sending its own troops

So far, the West’s anti-Russia efforts have proven strikingly effective.

On the military side, weapons systems manufactured and provided by the US and Europe have played a vital role in blunting Russia’s advance. The Javelin anti-tank missile system, for example, is a lightweight American-made launcher that allows one or two Ukrainian infantry soldiers to take out a Russian tank.

Javelins have given the outgunned Ukrainians a fighting chance against Russian armor, becoming a popular symbol in the process. A figure called St. Javelin — a woman depicted in the style of an Eastern Orthodox icon carrying a missile launcher — has become an image of resistance among some Ukrainians.

Sanctions have proven similarly devastating in the economic realm. The international financial punishments have been extremely broad, ranging from removing key Russian banks from the SWIFT trading system to restrictions on doing business with particular members of the Russian elite. Freezing the assets of Russia’s central bank has proven to be a particularly damaging tool, wrecking Russia’s ability to deal with the collapse in the value of the ruble, Russia’s currency.

Elina Ribakova, the deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, told my colleague Emily Stewart that Russians “are looking at a double-digit economic contraction already.” Mass unemployment and hyperinflation loom.

Yet the West’s tools, potent as they are, are unlikely to turn the tide of the war. No amount of Javelins can make up for all of the military advantages Russia possesses; Russian tanks can still roll toward Kyiv amid an economic meltdown in Moscow.

Instead, these efforts are designed to raise costs on Russia — to make the invasion so painful that Moscow starts thinking about abandoning it. Already, Russia’s military advance has been far slower and more difficult than the Kremlin expected. The longer the war goes on, the more Russian soldiers die and the weaker the Russian economy gets — potentially galvanizing anti-war sentiment among the Russian elite and population.

Ukraine doesn’t have to win outright; it just has to hold out long enough for Russia to be convinced to change course. To help the Ukrainians further, then, the United States and its allies can simply build on what they’re already doing.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda hold a joint press conference at the multinational NATO military base in Rukla, Lithuania, on March 3.
Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the US, has warned that Ukraine is running out of Javelins and anti-aircraft Stinger missiles; she has formally requested that the US provide more. On the economic front, the West could consider expanding the number of banks blacklisted from the SWIFT system and impose restrictions on Russia’s oil and gas exports (which have not been targeted in previous rounds).

At the same time, though, the US needs to be wary of how these actions come across in Moscow. Provoke Moscow too much — convince them a Western military intervention is imminent, or that sanctions are part of a broader US regime change operation — and you risk Putin striking back against NATO targets. That could plausibly escalate to a nuclear war that no one wins, Ukraine included.

To avoid the nightmare scenario, the US and its allies should do something that may sound counterintuitive: Talk to Russia even as they help Ukraine fight it.

Putin’s war on Ukraine, explained

Keep lines of communication open

Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at the RAND Corporation, argues for strengthening dialogue on both the political and military levels. Western politicians should be directly informing Russian leaders they have no aggressive military plans and that sanctions are a response to the war and not the regime. Military-to-military dialogue can make NATO troop movements more transparent, reducing the risk that anyone tries to shoot first.

“The US and NATO military chiefs should maintain the channels of communication they have with their Russian counterparts,” Charap writes in the Financial Times. “These links are essential to avoid miscalculation.”

This isn’t a novel idea. Dialogue between rivals who are fighting each other through proxy forces is a common feature of international conflict; the US and the Soviet Union managed it several times during the Cold War.

“States often cooperate to keep limits on their wars even as they fight one another clandestinely,” Jason Lyall, a professor at Dartmouth College who studies insurgency, tells me. “While there’s always a risk of unintended escalation, historical examples like Vietnam, Afghanistan (1980s), Afghanistan again (post-2001), and Syria show that wars can be fought ‘within bounds.’”

If this dialogue is happening behind the scenes, then continuing the current strategy — even escalating it — is a feasible way to help Ukraine without significantly raising the specter of a US-Russia shooting war.

How to convince Putin to end the war

While the current Western approach has been good at raising the costs of Putin’s invasion, it’s less obvious exactly how it’s supposed to end it.

One common misconception about sanctions, in particular, is that they work by brute force: that the target country suffers so much economic pain that they unilaterally give up on the policy the sanctioner dislikes. In actuality, sanctions more typically work when used as a negotiating tool — serving as a stick, accompanied by diplomatic carrots.

The Iranian nuclear program sanctions are a good example.

For years prior to the 2015 deal, the US and its allies had imposed harsh sanctions on Iran as punishment for its nuclear program — but Iran had refused to unilaterally cease its efforts. It took serious negotiations, and a whole raft of complex provisions in a final deal, for the US to convince Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. When Trump tore up the Iran deal, and returned to sanctions absent serious negotiations, Iran returned right back to nuclear development.

In the Ukraine context, the US and its allies have not publicly laid out a plan for any kind of negotiated Russian climbdown. It’s not even clear that they have one: Politico’s Alex Ward spoke to several US and European officials and found that only one even had a “clear-ish plan” for deescalating the sanctions.

Unless they’ve been considerably clearer in their communications with Russia, this vagueness makes the entire US strategy less effective — at least if the aim is to arrive at some kind of political settlement that ends the war short of regime change in Kyiv.

“If the goal is to compel, then the sanctioners need to be explicit about what Russia can do to get the sanctions lifted,” Dan Drezner, a political scientist at Tufts University who studies sanctions, writes in the Washington Post. “Lack of clarity undermines coercive bargaining, because the targeted actor believes that sanctions will stay in place no matter what they do.”

There are several ways to go about this. Charap proposes trading relief of the central bank sanctions for a ceasefire, at least temporarily. More broadly, the West and Ukraine could pair sanctions relief with some diplomatic concessions — reassurance that US troops will never be stationed in Ukraine, for example — as part of a broader peace package.

Vladimir Putin, however, may not be interested in anything like this negotiated outcome. It’s possible he cares more about bringing Ukraine under his control than he does the lives of Russian soldiers and the health of the Russian economy. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t matter how clear the West is about its terms: No settlement will be possible as long as Putin believes he can ultimately triumph on the battlefield.

In that eventuality, which seems sadly likely given Putin’s statements before the invasion, the West will need to bank on something else bringing Putin to the table: domestic political problems.

Members of Ukraine’s territorial defense units stand guard at the Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 2.
Erin Trieb/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Among Russia scholars I’ve interviewed, there is broad consensus that Putin cares about one thing above all else: his hold on power. If presented with a credible threat to his regime, be it from elite dissent or mass popular protest, that might give him a powerful incentive to try and cut his losses in Ukraine. This is a less openly stated part of the West’s strategy: a hope that Russian military casualties and economic pain don’t just raise the costs for Russia, but actually galvanizes Russians to challenge the Putin government.

There’s evidence that this hope is bearing out: all of Russia’s major cities have seen protests against the war, a striking development given how seriously the Russian government punishes political dissent. The level of discontent among the Russian elite, ranging from oligarchs to athletes, is stunningly high; Alexis Lerner, a scholar of Russian dissent at the US Naval Academy, told me that it was “unprecedented” in recent Russian history.

It is not obvious that sanctions will help these dissenters in the way many assume; it could cause Russian citizens to blame the West and rally around their government. The Putin regime, which is already shutting down independent media outlets, will undoubtedly attempt to encourage this.

In theory, the West can try and counter this through its own media operations: using Russian-language outlets, for example, to blame Putin for sanctions and provide more accurate information about the war than what’s on government-aligned TV networks. But any such efforts will need to be done in extremely delicate fashion — too much overt interference, and it’ll discredit the protesters and elite dissenters or perhaps even convince Putin that the West has launched a regime change operation. The risks for the US and its allies in any kind of influence operation are very high.

“Ukraine is going to lose unless something happens in Russian domestic politics,” says Steve Saideman, an expert on NATO at Carleton University. “The best way to fuck that up is for us to try to impact Russian domestic politics.”

So this is the needle that President Joe Biden and other Western leaders need to thread in the coming days: keeping the pressure on Russia without crossing over into too dangerous territory, while simultaneously creating a diplomatic off-ramp that’s acceptable to the Kremlin (and to Kyiv). It won’t be easy, but it’s the best hope that Ukraine has.