Sanctions, no-fly zone, diplomacy: the West’s complex calculation to stop Putin

Despite unprecedented sanctions and strong support for Ukraine, Western states have failed to stop the Russian onslaught and even expect things to get worse. But their options for stepping up pressure on President Vladimir Putin are likely to be limited.

More penalties?

The Group of Seven countries pledged on Friday to impose “tough new sanctions” on Russia, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to “increase the extraordinary pressure we are already exerting”.

But there’s not much wiggle room. The United States had promised before the invasion to “start at the top of the climbing ladder and stay there”, and kept its word.

Together with their European allies, they have decreed unprecedented sanctions against the Russian financial system and the oligarchs close to the Kremlin, banned exports of crucial technologies and imposed an air blockade.

Russia has been banned from major sports competitions and dozens of companies have withdrawn from the country.

“Some people thought, and I would be included in this group, ‘that the threat of these sanctions’ would be enough to deter President Putin, but that was not the case,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor said. .

“And so, it’s not clear to me that further sanctions would cause him to step down.”

So far, the Russian energy sector has been relatively spared. Many US lawmakers are urging President Joe Biden to ban US imports of Russian oil, which the president has not ruled out.

Some hawks are also calling for a complete cut off of the Russian financial system from the rest of the world, while Westerners have been careful to target the banks least linked to the hydrocarbon sector.

Blinken warned of moves that would reduce the world’s energy supply and automatically raise the price at the pump for Americans and Europeans.

This, he warned, was not in the West’s “strategic interest”, appearing to bet more on the effect of current sanctions unfolding over time.

No-fly zone?

To limit Russian airstrikes on Kiev and other cities, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with NATO to establish a no-fly zone over his country. But for now, it is a red line for the transatlantic alliance, of which Ukraine is not a member.

“The only way to implement a no-fly zone is to send NATO fighter jets into Ukrainian airspace and then enforce this no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes,” said alliance secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.

“If we did that, we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe, involving a lot more countries and causing a lot more human suffering. So that’s why we’re making this painful decision.

Raising the specter of a nuclear confrontation, many experts believe this is the reason why the United States and the Europeans will not deviate from this course, as long as the conflict remains confined to Ukraine or any other country. non-NATO.

Inside the Beltway in Washington, a handful of elected Republicans like Adam Kinzinger and Roger Wicker believe, however, that the allies will finally have to take the risk of a no-fly zone.

In the absence of such a solution, Washington and the European Union have so far pledged to continue supplying arms to the Ukrainian forces.

Here, too, voices are being raised in favor of providing more offensive equipment, including Soviet-made fighter jets which some Eastern European countries have and which Ukrainian pilots already know how to handle.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham didn’t mince words: he called “someone in Russia” to assassinate Putin.

“We are not advocating killing the leader of a foreign country or regime change,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “It’s not the policy of the United States.”

But some observers believe that by draining the Russian economy and especially the assets of the oligarchs who have enriched themselves from their proximity to the Kremlin, the sanctions could push some close to Putin to turn against him.

“The likelihood of a palace coup or an oligarchic revolt is significant,” Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer, director of the French Institute for Strategic Research at the Military Academy of France, said in an article. for the War on the Rocks online site.

Others, like Samuel Charap of the think tank Rand Corp. are more skeptical.

“People who have the ability to affect things are extremely loyal and they are there for their loyalty,” he said.

And diplomacy?

According to Charap, Biden should continue, like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, to try to convince his Russian counterpart to step down, relying on the power of sanctions to push him forward.

“It may not be possible. But I think it’s the best thing we can do right now,” he said.

Some are betting instead on another adversary of the United States and Europeans: China.

A Western diplomat noted that “Beijing is increasingly uncomfortable with what is happening” and has not come to the aid of the Russian economy to mitigate the effect of the sanctions.

China can therefore play a much more effective role, behind the scenes, than the West, the diplomat said.

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