Weapons and sanctions
By David Leonhardt
Civilians lay dead in the middle of the street. Others lay by the side of the road, next to or underneath their bicycles. Often, the victims had been shot in the head. Some of them had their hands tied.
These were the scenes that the world discovered as Russian troops retreated from the area around Kyiv. In one suburb, Bucha, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine alleged that Russia had tortured and killed more than 300 people, with the death count still rising. In another town, Nova Basan, residents told The New York Times’ Carlotta Gall about being beaten, tortured and subjected to mock executions.
In response to these atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, President Joe Biden and European leaders vowed last week to take new measures against Russia. Their options fall into two main categories: weapons for Ukrainian troops and economic sanctions against Russia.
The West is already providing Ukraine with a large number of weapons, especially shoulder-fired missile systems like Javelins and NLAWs. Those systems have helped Ukraine repel Russian troops in several parts of the country, including around Kyiv.
But Zelenskyy has criticized the West for not sending a broader array of weapons. He has also asked for fighter jets and S-300 missile systems, which are based on the back of trucks and can shoot down airplanes and missiles. “If we don’t have heavy weapons, how can we defend ourselves?” he said last week. “Just give us missiles. Give us airplanes.”
The West has refused. Some Western military officials argue that these weapons will not help Ukraine as much as Zelenskyy thinks. But the main reason seems to be a fear that President Vladimir Putin might see the weapons as a precursor to a Western invasion of Russia and respond by widening the war, including potentially with nuclear weapons.
It is a difficult balance for the West. A wider war could be even more horrific. On the other hand, the refusal to give Ukraine what it wants also brings a big downside: Without more planes and missile systems, Ukraine may struggle to recapture territory in the east and south that Russia now occupies.
“Putin is in control of large parts of Ukraine, and we know atrocities are occurring there,” Frederick Kagan, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. So far, Kagan said, the West has mostly been providing Ukraine with smaller weapons that help defend territory. But for Ukraine to retake territory — and to stop the violence there — it also needs weapons that are useful on offense.
At least two European countries, both on Ukraine’s border, seem open to providing some of the weapons that Zelenskyy wants. Slovakia, which owns S-300 missile systems, has said it is willing to send them to Ukraine, while Poland has offered to send MiG fighter planes. But both countries want the transfers to be part of a larger agreement that includes the United States or NATO — so that Slovakia and Poland, suddenly without key weapons, do not feel more vulnerable to a Russian attack.
The Biden administration has blocked both deals, out of a concern over Putin’s reaction. Some members of Congress have criticized the administration for not being more willing to take risks to help Ukraine.
Before the evidence of atrocities emerged, the administration could point out that Ukraine was winning the war without the more aggressive weapon systems. That may still be true. But the human costs of a long Russian occupation of Ukraine have become clearer in the past few days.
Biden and European leaders have both vowed to enact additional economic penalties on Russia in response to the atrocities. “This guy is brutal,” Biden said, suggesting he would soon announce new sanctions.
For Europe, the biggest potential step would involve a reduction in the purchase of Russian natural gas.
Lithuania said this past weekend that it had stopped importing any natural gas from Russia, and some officials elsewhere have called for similar measures. “You can’t constantly support a great power like Russia with billions in payments from the purchase of energy,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s deputy prime minister.
But the full European Union does not seem poised to do so. Officials are worried that such a move will do too much economic damage when inflation is already a problem. A compromise step would be to stop purchasing oil from Russia, which President Emmanuel Macron of France has suggested. Germany has resisted that policy, though, dooming it. Still, some experts think the recent atrocities may be shifting the debate.
For now, the most likely step appears to be reductions in the purchase of coal — the third-largest form of energy that the EU buys from Russia. “In the grand scheme of things, they’re unlikely to create much more of a headache than what the EU has already done,” said Matina Stevis-Gridneff, the Times’ Brussels bureau chief.
The United States could also intensify its sanctions. It could make it harder for more Russian weapons makers to import parts, notes my colleague Alan Rappeport, an economics correspondent. Or the Western countries could seize — not just freeze — Russian government money held in foreign banks, said Jeffrey Schott of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
But sanctions rarely affect battlefield behavior, says Nicholas Mulder, a Cornell historian. When they work, it can take a long time.
Stopping the atrocities, Kagan predicted, will probably require expelling Russia from Ukraine with military force.