Speaking just moments after the completion of a two-hour video summit with Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden confirmed that the US would not deploy troops to the Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion.
‘The idea that the US is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not on the cards right now’, explained the President to the media present.
Instead, if Russia were to seize more territory to its east, the West would unleash on Putin ‘economic consequences like none he’s ever seen’.
A serious threat indeed, but in truth, Biden’s tough talk belies the West’s flawed approach to dealing with Putin and his allies, one that is over reliant on reactive measures, such as sanctions, and lacks a long-term strategic focus.
No one doubts that the aggressive, authoritarian Putin would be deserving of a swathe of punitive restrictions if he started a war on the EU’s eastern border.
However, what many in European policymaking circles are pushing Western leaders to acknowledge is that the current regime of sanctions on Russia, imposed in 2014 after the annexation of the Crimea, have clearly done nothing to restrain Putin’s expansionist ambitions.
Not only is he now massing troops on the Ukrainian border, but over the past eight years, Putin has blocked the de-escalation of the Syrian conflict and orchestrated the poisoning of a Russian dissident on UK soil with an internationally banned nerve agent.
The West, therefore, seems unable to understand that the threatening of sanctions to prevent an invasion is misguided when the imposition of sanctions failed to limit Putin’s aggression in the first place.
Looking north of Ukraine, the West’s policy to contain President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, a key Putin ally, has likewise proven illogical.
After Lukashenko’s forced landing of a Ryanair flight to capture Roman Protasevich, a journalist critical of the regime, the US, UK, and EU hit Minsk with a raft of financial and trade restrictions.
Yet these restrictions, which have been ramped up on multiple occasions since, have failed to remove ‘Europe’s last dictator.’
In fact, sanctions have actually served to push Lukashenko further into Putin’s orbit, to the extent that he recently announced that he would support a Russian invasion of the Ukraine – a strange statement given his own country’s vulnerability to aggression from Moscow.
As with Putin’s Russia, the sanctions have bitten hard but not hard enough to topple the offending regime, resulting in declining living standards for the citizens of the Belarus and an authoritarian backlash from its leadership.
If, in reality, the West cares not for the plight of working Russians and Belarussians, nor for the soon to be war-ravaged Ukraine, then perhaps economic self-interest will sharpen its mind to the failure of its sanctions policy.
Finance ministers in the Chancelleries of Europe will know all too well that a war with Russia would see the Kremlin cut off their gas supplies, sending inflation through the roof and pushing the continent back into recession.
As the grave ramifications of a potential conflict have become clear, a growing number have begun to ask how many Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians will have to die before the West admits the reality of the situation?
Indeed, the consensus amongst foreign policy experts is that a conflict with Russia, and now Belarus, would be an act of self-inflicted harm and a change in approach is needed.
Taking the irascible Putin first, any experienced Russia-watcher knows that while the President abhors the idea of Ukraine entering the NATO fold, he is singularly reliant on energy sales to fund his kleptocratic regime.
A quid pro quo of greenlighting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in return for the withdrawal of a sizeable proportion of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border would balance both sides of this equation.
A spike in gas sales would be a boon for the Russian economy and Putin could repress and repackage the details of the de-escalation in the country’s state-controlled media.
In terms of Belarus, Russophile journalist Owen Matthews recently argued that Lukashenko’s continued sending of vulnerable migrants to the EU’s eastern border has riled Putin, who is indeed concerned about the potential ramifications for Russian gas sales if the EU deems him to have been involved.
Consequently, while Lukashenko may have been cemented in power by Russian aid, he is now out of strategic, if not military, alignment with the Kremlin.
As a result, the moment has now come for the West to engage and tempt him away from Putin with an offer of economic respite in return for pro-democratic reforms.
Such a strategy would surely be in the West’s financial and geopolitical interests as it would reduce the number of antagonists on the EU’s eastern border from two to one.
Those who oppose a return to diplomacy have argued that Putin and Lukashenko are not worthy of diplomatic engagement, such are their crimes against their own people. This is a worthy argument.
Nevertheless, Western leaders must recognise that as things stand, with their energy markets looking increasingly fragile, they do not have the economic foundations to take on the Putin/Lukashenko axis.
It should only be a matter of time, one would hope, before they face up to this truth.