Russia has just sent soldiers back into Ukraine. What comes next?

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed Russian soldiers into the two separatist areas in eastern Ukraine after recognizing their independence, confirming weeks of grave Western warnings. The post-Cold War security order in Europe is now under risk, with many questioning if those forces will stop at the contact line dividing the separatist republics from Ukrainian government-controlled territory. 

With a dangerous opponent encroaching on Ukraine’s territory, Western leaders must race to respond to a geopolitical nightmare coming to reality.

As the situation on the ground evolves, our experts weigh in on what this critical moment means for Ukraine, Europe, and the rest of the globe.

No one was shocked today when Vladimir Putin acknowledged the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk peoples republics, the territories of Ukraine’s Donbas where Moscow orchestrated a “revolt” against Kiev’s central government. His remarks also made it apparent that he has plans for other sovereign republics that arose after the Soviet Union fell apart. And, as we can see from the draft treaties Russia gave to the US and NATO, his plans include Warsaw Pact states. This proves that appeasing Moscow in Ukraine would not satisfy Putin’s desire for land and provocation.

The following steps taken by the United States, NATO, and the European Union are critical. Putin has made a significant provocation. If the West’s response is only verbal, Putin will detect weakness and escalate the conflict. The West must act immediately. That involves imposing swift and severe sanctions. The Biden administration appears to be sanctioning economic activity in the territories that Putin has recently acknowledged as autonomous. If that is the limit of the response, the US will be asking Moscow to escalate further. Following negotiations with friends and partners, the government has said that more measures would be imposed for this new provocation.

The perfect target for sanctions should be Nord Stream 2, which the Biden administration should never have let to proceed last year. If not, the US should blacklist at least one large Russian bank, as well as some of the high-profile persons associated with Russia’s leadership. The US must also make it clear that if Moscow starts a big new effort, considerably harsher penalties would be imposed. Sanctions on the Russian secondary debt market must be included, and ejection from the SWIFT banking system must not be ruled out. Furthermore, it is time to commit additional NATO soldiers and equipment to the Alliance’s eastern flank. Finally, the administration should reconsider its decision to refuse to assist in the evacuation of American people from Ukraine. If Putin invades again, tens of thousands of Americans would be stuck there, and the US military has a long history of rescuing its compatriots in perilous situations. An operation of this magnitude would also impede Russian intentions.

Putin’s actions on Monday evening essentially legalize his rule over a vast swath of eastern Ukraine that he has controlled since 2014, when Russian thugs invaded the country’s former industrial heartland. 

The announcement recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk’s “independence” comes as no surprise. Putin believed he could make the land grab without triggering the harsh penalties that the West has been warning about for weeks. The move by US President Joe Biden on Monday to put further restrictions on commerce and funding in the two occupied zones is too little, too late. The sanctions would apply to anybody conducting business in the country, which would mostly be Russian-linked firms and persons. Many people, including myself, believe that Russia has inoculated itself against such sanctions to some extent. Biden’s penalties will be regarded as inadequate in Moscow, thus inviting future actions. When Putin detects weakness, he probes for more soft tissue. 

The statement further requests that Russian “peacekeepers” infiltrate the two zones. This is a strategy right out of the Russian playbook for disguising a formal military takeover as a peaceful operation. Nobody will be duped.

To prevent further Russian aggression and inflict tangible pain on Putin’s inner circle, the UK must promptly target some of the 2,500 Russians who acquired so-called golden visas. The West might go much farther by removing Aeroflot and other Russian commercial airlines’ landing privileges. And the “nuclear option”—the termination of the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline—must begin to be implemented. Though it remains to be seen whether European cities, particularly Berlin, have the political will to inflict such anguish.

Finally, Russia’s advance in the Donbas calls into question the survival of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, which is the largest of its type in the organization’s history. The SMM’s capacity to carry out its mandate had already been hampered by the United States’ and United Kingdom’s hurried decision to remove its nationals. Can the mission continue to monitor the situation in the occupied areas in a safe and lawful manner now that they are “independent” and no longer part of the OSCE landscape?

The Russian military buildup at Ukraine’s border, as well as the possibility of a Russian invasion, demonstrate the limits of US and European power on Vladimir Putin. The US supplied military assistance to Ukraine, and the Biden administration promised crushing economic penalties, but a Russian invasion would indicate that the deterrent threat had failed. Not for the first time, harsh measures imposed by the US and Europe in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 have failed to force a Russian withdrawal.

Outside pressure may not have been enough to persuade Putin to back down. He caused this catastrophe and takes responsibility for it. And there are numerous unanswered questions, such as the nature of Russian military actions. However, the ramifications go well beyond Ukraine, with increased oil prices and overall instability having an impact on the global economy. In the future, many Americans empathize with Ukraine’s predicament but vehemently reject more US intervention in the country. US President Joe Biden has sensibly rejected the idea of sending US soldiers to battle in Ukraine.

He should stay steadfast in his commitment to prevent military escalation, even while he and his staff, in collaboration with US partners and allies, investigate all viable options for defusing the crisis.

The US and its NATO allies and partners must not remain in a defensive mindset. It is vital to grab the initiative in order to discourage further Russian military action while also resetting Alliance strategy and posture for this new period of European vulnerability. Putin’s speech, in which he questioned Ukraine’s basic sovereignty, foreshadowed where he will go next; the West should take him at his word and abandon its lawyerly attitude to the present activities on the ground, which are likely to spread geographically.

To discourage further Russian aggression, the United States and its NATO partners should implement the following six actions as quickly as possible: 

  • Implement the broad, damaging financial penalties on Russia that have been promised for weeks; 
  • Plan and carry out further military reinforcements to the frontiers of NATO’s easternmost members, notably Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary, with a special focus on ground and air troops;
  • Engage actively with Sweden and Finland, and (if those two countries so choose) investigate methods to significantly strengthen their present alliance relationship arrangements; 
  • Increase military aid to Ukrainian troops, allowing them to possibly impose serious, long-term costs on occupying Russian forces; and Launch a sustained media effort to expose Putin’s and his associates’ tremendous corruption and theft of billions of dollars from the Russian people. 

This will go after what Putin cherishes the most: his own personal position of power.

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