As effective as sanctions are at driving Russians into poverty, it’s uncertain whether they will affect the course of the war in Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the U.S. announced a flood of new weaponry into Ukraine, including advanced anti-aircraft weaponry and small arms aimed at helping the Ukrainian government repel Russia’s invasion. The weapons will almost certainly kill more Russian service members in Ukraine, adding to the thousands who are already believed to have died in the past few weeks. The arms may also, paradoxically, serve a more humanitarian purpose: helping bring the conflict to a stalemate and putting the Ukrainian government in a stronger position to negotiate an end to the war.
Ending the war by such a negotiated outcome could also serve to reduce civilian harm in a perhaps less expected way: providing an opportunity to end the economic warfare that is already doing damage to millions of innocent Russians.
The United States and its allies have waged the economic total war against Russia since the start of the invasion, quickly making Russia the most heavily sanctioned country on Earth. This economic offensive is already inflicting harm on everyday Russians, including those opposed to Vladimir Putin’s government. Yet as effective as these sanctions are at driving Russians into poverty, it’s uncertain whether they will affect the course of the war in Ukraine. Undeterred, the Russian military is still bombarding Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol with artillery and airstrikes on a nightly basis.
Paired with diplomatic pressure, military aid that helps the conflict reach a stalemate could end the war sooner by making it nearly impossible for the Russian military, which is already showing signs of exhaustion, to take major urban centers and win a decisive victory. With military victory off the table, negotiations could bring a meaningful end to the war, prevent a nightmare scenario of occupation and insurgency, and — crucially, for humanitarian purposes — allow many Russia sanctions to be lifted in exchange for concessions to Ukrainian sovereignty.
There are reasons for the international community to support taking a hard line in defense of Ukraine, including by providing them weaponry. What is at stake is not just one country’s sovereignty but the already-besieged post-World War II principle that large countries cannot simply devour their neighbors or reshape their borders through armed force. The final death of that principle on the streets of Ukrainian cities will make the world a more violent place than even what we see today. It will mean a regrowth of the violent jungle that characterized Europe during the period of the world wars — but spread over the entire planet.
The current, punitive approach of targeting ordinary Russians through economic warfare is likely to be both harmful and ineffective. Tailored sanctions against oligarchs and Russian officials involved in human rights abuses during the current war are warranted, but even the harshest such economic measures will not be enough to stop a regime that has already put its political credibility at stake in conquering Ukraine. Responding to Putin’s military aggression by denying ordinary Russians access to their life savings is a cruel non sequitur that does little to help Ukrainians.
The oft-unspoken aim of the present approach of trying to immiserate Russian society is that it will stoke so much discontent that it results in regime change. Yet the Russian masses have little say over their government or their leaders, who are glad to repress any serious dissent, so fomenting bottom-up revolutionary change seems extremely unlikely. Past sanctions campaigns against countries like Iraq and Iran have never resulted in such regime collapse. Even the Cuban government is still in power after decades under economic embargo.
Instead of toppling governments, there is even reason to believe that sanctions like those now being implemented on Russia can help solidify authoritarian leaders’ hold on power: forcing their middle classes to focus more on survival than political change, while regime-connected elites hoard resources and become gatekeepers to what remains of the economy. Some leaders of sanctioned countries have even turned sanctions into a means of ideological legitimization, portraying themselves as nationalist defenders against hostile foreign powers’ economic warfare.
Then there are the calls for a more robust, direct intervention against Russia. These ideas are nonstarters. The breathless calls for a NATO-backed no-fly zone fail to acknowledge that the policy would constitute an act of war, requiring direct targeting of Russian military assets. There is also the small but real possibility of nuclear escalation, a disaster that Cold War-era military officials avoided only with great care.
A significant boost to Ukrainian firepower might allow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government to reach terms with Putin, spurring a negotiated end to the war short of surrender. Instead, the current balance could see something like what happened in Syria, where foreign powers provided enough weaponry to the opposition to keep it fighting but not enough to win or force a permanent stalemate. The result in Syria was that much of the country was destroyed over the course of a decade, while the Assad regime remained in power.
The current balance could see something like what happened in Syria, where foreign powers provided enough weaponry to the opposition to keep it fighting but not enough to win.
Letting the Ukrainian government fall while arming a long-term insurgency against Russian control — or even a lengthy, debilitating siege where the Ukrainians hang on, but only in pockets — could make the country permanently unstable, killing Russian conscripts and ordinary Ukrainians in huge numbers while failing to bring a return to peace. Ukraine would truly become a European version of Syria — or even Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets: the social fabric destroyed beyond repair and an incubator for far-right terrorist groups established in the wreckage.
Such an outcome would be a disaster for everyone. Putin would enrage the West by deposing or killing Zelenskyy, a liberal political leader now widely viewed as a hero for his role during the crisis, and imposing a puppet in his place. The misery of de facto occupation and insurgency in Ukraine would be accompanied by the misery that a broad sanctions regime imposed on Russians for years to come.
During the Cold War, Russia and the United States fought proxy battles all over the world that did not result in conventional war between the big powers, let alone nuclear escalation. Maintaining deconfliction hotlines and avoiding scenarios that lead to NATO and Russian troops shooting at each other directly are critically important. There is no scenario that significantly raises the risk of nuclear conflict that can be tolerated, but that doesn’t mean NATO countries are constrained from giving more serious help to Ukrainians.
It scarcely needs saying, but there are no good options today in Ukraine. Sending more arms to a country at war seems like a paradoxical way of lessening harm to innocent people. Raising our eyes beyond the short-term, however, there are reasonable grounds to believe that such a policy of bolstering the legitimate Ukrainian government could spare the lives of more people than letting the country collapse into Putin’s hands — or dooming 140 million Russian civilians to life under permanent economic siege.
A continued flow of arms is a logical step given the brutal reality of Russia’s continued attacks across Ukraine. Averting disaster may now depend on whether the Western countries can prevent the fall of Kyiv in the weeks to come. Simply put, sustainable peace in Europe will not happen without a strengthened Ukraine. There is still time to save the continent from returning to the savagery that it experienced in the 20th century. That time, however, is running out — and quickly.