Boris Johnson has denounced Vladimir Putin’s further attack on Ukraine as a “hideous and barbaric venture.” President Emmanuel Macron vowed “consequences” for Russia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised Russia “will pay for a long, long time.” From Western foreign offices and media alike, we see the hollow accusations that Russia is violating international law, shattering norms, and casting Europe back to the dark days of 1945.
Such accusations are true enough; indignation is real and justified. But the tanks roll on. And we hear a similar cant that Europe and the United States stand by our friends in Ukraine. Let that sink in for a moment. While Russian missiles strike military targets, and Russian tanks cross international borders, while Russian aircraft target Ukrainian cities and Russian airborne troops seize Ukrainian airports, the good people of the West—committed to international law, peace, stability, and order—want Ukrainians on the front lines staring down Russian tank battles, fleeing their homes, piling into bomb shelters, or just plain terrified at home with their children who can’t go to school today, to know that their thoughts and feelings are with you.
We want Ukrainians to know that sanctions are coming, impressive, painful, harsh sanctions that will make it difficult for the wives of Russian oligarchs to shop at Harrods for the spring season. Sanctions that will stop the children of oligarchs from going in person to their classes at Ivy League schools, sanctions that will stop the oligarchs themselves from visiting their penthouses in Mayfair, or their villas in Cyprus.
There is a fundamental gap, analyzed quite well by scholars like Stephen Walt between “the level of resolve conveyed by the United States and NATO and the diplomatic position the alliance has taken.” We expect Russia to back down, abjure violence, and acquiesce to a path to NATO membership for Ukraine based on the threat of economic sanctions and international outrage, while openly saying that NATO and American troops will not defend Ukraine. The West attempted to deter Russian action through the threat of sanctions and is now attempting to halt Russian aggression with the same broken tools.
China, which already settled a 30-year deal to import Russian gas (in euros, not dollars), has now agreed to import Russian grain in a move that will provide another lifeline to Russia’s economy in the face of Western sanctions. And those sanctions are already struggling to get off the ground. A proposal to block Russia’s access to the SWIFT banking system is already facing opposition within the EU from states like Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Cyprus that do a great deal of business with Russia. Furthermore, blocking Russian access to SWIFT may further strengthen China and serve to undermine the position of the dollar in the global economy.
And speaking of China, I can only imagine what policymakers and military leaders in Beijing are thinking about today. There is an island 100 miles off their coast that they have never recognized as an independent state. And while the United States and the West have repeatedly said that they support the independence of that little island, they are under no legal obligation to defend its independence.
I hope the citizens of Taiwan can sleep tonight. I know the citizens of Ukraine will not. They are at war. And the West stands ready to help with all the might its sanctions and cant can muster.