The World

How the U.S. Can Preempt Putin’s Next Move

Putin grim-faced in front of the Russian flag.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a video meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, on April 15, 2022. Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images

Russia has had a bad week in Ukraine. On April 13, either a Ukrainian missile strike or onboard explosion took out the cruiser “Moskva,” flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet; Sweden’s and Finland’s prime ministers announced that they were moving toward a near-term decision to seek NATO membership; and the Biden administration announced its most impactful weapons transfer yet to Ukraine. That announcement followed President Joe Biden’s April 12 assertion that Russian actions in Ukraine appeared to be genocide and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s April 10 forward-leaning statement on “Meet the Press” of U.S. aims in the conflict: “A free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia, and a stronger, more united, more determined West {that] are in sight, can be accomplished.”

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It’s been a good week for Ukraine and its supporters. The next move to watch in the war is that of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Russian forces are massing for a major assault in the Eastern part of Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Mariupol. Putin, obsessed with past Russian glories, real and imagined, may have his eye on May 9, the major Russian national holiday that marks the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. By then, he may hope to have — and for the sake of his own position, he may need to have — a visible success in the war to show Russians.

Putin may achieve such a success, notwithstanding the setbacks, losses, and blunders to date. Mariupol may soon fall to Russian forces, and their troops could advance elsewhere in Ukraine’s East sufficiently beyond the lines of Feb. 24, when the current phase of Putin’s war began, to allow a claim of “success,” however abbreviated. The Kremlin might, for example, be able to claim something like the “liberation” of the Donbas region in the East, and either recognize its independence or annex it. Putin could couple that with annexation of the Russian-controlled, Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia (whose puppet leader has already indicated interest in joining Russia). That could give some basis for a Putin claim to have reunited some of Russia’s lost empire and on that basis assert victory and vindication.

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In that case, Putin could then offer an immediate ceasefire in place and negotiations based on those new lines. Should Ukraine not accept a ceasefire in place, i.e., to de facto recognize Russian control of yet more Ukrainian territory, Putin may continue to attack Ukrainian cities, killing civilians, to pressure the Ukrainian government until it accepts these losses.

In such a situation, Putin might reasonably hope that some in Europe and the United States would urge the Ukrainians to accept a ceasefire to stop the killing. Putin might be able to accept either a simple ceasefire or a negotiated settlement based on the existing lines of contact. In either case, he would have gained territory, putting himself into a position to manipulate a frozen conflict from a more advantageous position, most likely while he prepares for a new offensive against the rest of Ukraine in the mid-term.

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The scenario above or something like it represents the best case for the Kremlin at this point. It’s one reasonably possible outcome.

But that outcome depends on Russian battlefield success, on Russia’s ability not just to seize territory but to hold it in the face of both Ukrainian resistance and Western pressure. That ability has yet to be demonstrated. The most salient fact about Russia’s war against Ukraine is that Russia hasn’t won it yet and may not win it at all. In the runup to the war, U.S. assessments of Putin’s intentions to attack were spot on. But U.S. (and European) assessments that Russia would quickly prevail on the battlefield were (thankfully) wrong,

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If Putin’s immediate objective is to achieve some battlefield success by May 9 and on that basis force a favorable settlement, the West’s play is to help the Ukrainians prevail on the battlefield and prevent the Russian army from seizing and holding significant amounts of additional Ukrainian territory. The West also must increase the pressure on Russia now, before May 9, to deny Putin a path to victory.

That leads to two policy conclusions. First, the United States and its allies should ramp up delivery of weapons to Ukraine, without dithering over “offensive” vs. “defensive” weapons, “destabilizing” weapons, supposed Russian “escalation dominance,” or patronizing characterizations of the impracticality of training Ukrainian soldiers to use complex U.S. weapons systems. I heard all those arguments during the Obama administration as it decided not to send any weapons to Ukraine at all, and echoes of those debates reoccurred during the awkward public finger-pointing about the transfer of Polish MiG fighter jets to Ukraine. Fortunately, the Biden administration seems to have moved passed the introspective agonizing stage: the April 13 arms package seems to have crossed a line of commitment.

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There need to be a lot of such packages, though. In fact, there needs to be a flood of weapons and ammunition flowing into Ukraine from the United States, the U.K., Germany, Poland, and other European allies. This needs to be a security-assistance logistics operation on the scale of wartime and warfighting, not peacetime.

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Second, the United States and its allies need to take sanctions and other economic pressure to the next level. The sanctions that the U.S., Europe, the U.K., and the G7 imposed immediately after Feb. 24 were strong. The rapid G7 move on Feb. 26 to freeze more than $300 billion of Russian Central Bank reserves was bold, swift, and prepared with laudable secrecy on a compressed timeline.

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Sanctions since have continued, but not at the pace and not to the degree that need requires. If Putin is going for a sort of win by May 9, the United States and its allies need to take steps before then to achieve as much near-term impact as possible. The Kremlin loves to claim that pressure will fail and that the Russian people will withstand any hardship. Russian history suggests otherwise: Russia’s failed wars of aggression more often result in domestic turmoil, even revolution.

Going for the strongest sanctions option means going after Russian energy exports, by far Russia’s greatest export earner.  That’s a heavy lift and for good reason: Russia is the world’s largest oil exporter and gas exporter, and Europe is a major customer for both. Several months ago, the possibility of curtailing Russian energy export earnings was close to zero. But Europe has been moving fast toward doing just that: the EU has announced its intention to cut gas imports from Russia by two-thirds by the end of the year, though getting there will be a challenge.

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Going after Russian oil export revenues may be easier because supplies are more flexible. EU staff is supposed to be working on a timetable for ramping down EU imports of Russian oil. Germany, the key country in the European debate on energy sanctions, has spoken of stopping its imports of Russian oil by the end of this year as well. Senior German energy officials are weighing the possibility of high tariffs on Russian oil, the effect of which would be to lower Russian income from such sales even if they continued. Russia could of course try to sell its oil to alternative purchasers, probably at a discount, but the United States could squeeze such sales by threatening to sanction third-country purchasers of Russian oil, waivable if there were significant reductions in those purchases. (This was the policy the United States used to cut Iran’s oil sales, and it worked.)

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The public debate about energy sanctions has focused on immediate embargos on Russian oil and gas exports. That’s not the right standard: the point is to take funds from Putin’s war machine. The West’s objective should be to do as much as it can, as swiftly as it can. Announcing these or other sanctions that eat into Russian cash inflows before May 9 could frustrate Putin’s plans for a victory by May 9 and keep the pressure on him to end his war on terms better for Ukraine.

What might those terms be? Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly said that wars end in negotiations and has made clear that Ukraine is ready to offer neutrality, i.e., ending Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO, and suggested openness to other sorts of compromises. Putin hasn’t taken the talks seriously and recently halted negotiations, saying that they had “reached a dead end.”

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But Putin’s obdurate stance could change if the battlefield does not turn out his way. The Biden administration has rightly noted that decisions about terms of a negotiated settlement are Ukraine’s to make; that the United States will not push Ukraine into taking any particular deal. If the negotiations get serious, the United States and Europe will have to consider two difficult issues: the Russians will insist on sanctions being removed and the Ukrainians will insist on some sort of security guarantees, including from the United States and Europe. And neither the U.S. nor Europe, and certainly not Ukraine, will want to accept a deal that papers over a frozen conflict, giving Putin the ability to re-start the war.

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If the deal at hand were serious, a phased and conditioned lifting of sanction, based on Russian fulfillment of its terms, could make sense. Releasing the frozen Russian reserves would probably require an enforceable arrangement for Russia to contribute, voluntarily or not, to Ukrainian reconstruction.

For the present, however, there are no negotiations taking place. The next move will be on the battlefield. The United States and Europe have two tools to help Ukraine in its fight for survival: military assistance and sanctions. The task is to push forward now on both those fronts.

More From Just Security:

How International Justice Can Succeed in Ukraine and Beyond

Still at War: The Forever War Legal Paradigm in Afghanistan

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