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Is America’s toolbox for Russia empty?

What has been revealed is how little the US can do.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC — A few weeks ago, I interviewed Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who served on former president Donald Trump’s National Security Council. I asked her what she made of President Joe Biden’s Russia policy. “Biden’s in a bind,” she said, because the US would like Russia to just go away and not be an issue, while Russia needs to be an issue for the US – both for its own domestic reasons and for its relationship with China. 

I was reminded of that this week. Russia is amassing troops on its border with Ukraine, and some fear that the Russian president Vladimir Putin is preparing for all-out invasion, a repeat of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, has apparently responded to sanctions by attempting to push migrants over its border with Poland. The US and the EU have both said that Putin is complicit.

What should Biden – and, for that matter, the US – do? In the case of both Ukraine and Poland, what has been revealed is how little America can do.

The US is, in all likelihood, not going to all-out war with Russia over, and in, Ukraine. Though it provides support in the form of, among other things, millions in military aid, Ukraine is not a Nato ally, and so there is no Article 5 to compel the US to join Ukraine in a war with Russia.

America could, of course, add additional sanctions. Writing in the New Statesman this week, Paul Mason suggested sanctions of a kind that would cripple the Russian and Belarusian financial systems. The US could certainly try to add more sanctions, adding to the sanctions it already has on Russia and Russians: for attempted assassinations abroad; for oligarchs and elites who profit from alleged Russian corruption; and for annexing Crimea back in 2014. But it is worth noting that those sanctions have not stop Putin from amassing troops along Ukraine’s border. We cannot know the extent to which sanctions help deter more aggressive Russian behaviour, but we do know that, to date, sanctions have not convinced Putin to completely change course.

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The US could try to bring various European actors and Russia and Belarus together for a series of talks. Discussion can be good. But just this week, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov published letters between himself and his French and German counterparts after pulling out of proposed talks on the situation in Ukraine. Nobody can force Russia to the table.

Does that mean that America should throw up its hands? Of course not. The US needs to stay engaged with Russia – and Poland, and the European Union. That there are no easy answers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the question. The current crises, and America’s limited set of responses to them, do not mean that Washington should ignore Moscow. Far from it. They serve as reminders that, though Biden would perhaps rather think about China and the Indo-Pacific, or the economy or the pandemic or any number of other things, Russia won’t be forgotten that easily. 

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[See also: Russia’s military build-up at the border with Ukraine is testing the West’s resolve]