A tougher approach is needed to combat Russian aggression

A tougher approach is needed to combat Russian aggression

After months of aggressive rhetoric, Russia has finally invaded Ukraine, leading to calls that the crisis may widen into a larger conflict that threatens not only the political integrity of Ukraine, but the whole of Europe. Russia’s brazen acts are serious and harmful to civilians, with lives already reportedly lost following to airstrikes on Ukrainian cities and clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Russian aggression also has larger consequences, with it clearly rejecting the international rule of law and the premise of sovereignty in favour of its national interests and territorial gain. With the west’s diplomatic strategy to counter Russia failing, it is time for a stronger response that severely limits Russia’s ability to act militarily through sanctions and military deterrence. It is also crucial for the west to understand Russia’s long-term strategy and motivation for its continued aggression in order to successfully combat it.

The invasion of Ukraine came after Russia Amassed 190,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine over several weeks and conducted military drills in a clear act of provocation. This lead to international concerns of a full-scale invasion which as ultimately taken place. The situation then escalated further, with Russia formally recognising the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine.

Official Russian military forces were sent into these regions- collectively known as the Donbas- under the guise of ‘peacekeeping’ on Monday evening. While not a full-scale invasion, these actions were already a flagrant breach of international law which undermined the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin is not new. The Donbas has seen fighting between Russian-backed separatist groups and the Ukrainian military since 2014, after the Ukrainian revolution and Euromaidan movement, which were seen as a rejection of Russian influence. Russia also annexed Crimea, officially part of Ukraine, in the same year, in order to turn the region into a military base to give Russia a foothold to boost its influence in the Black Sea region. Russia has also occupied the Georgian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after previously supporting separatist forces to ferment instability in the country to suit its geopolitical goals.

Russia’s strategy of false flag operations, a build-up of military forces on borders and the recognition of breakaway regions is straight from  Putin’s playbook. Tactically, this was essentially a hostage situation by a regional aggressor, with Putin aiming to achieve one of two outcomes: either the west, under pressure, would refuse Ukraine’s admission into Nato or Russia would annex eastern Ukraine to undermine its sovereignty. Both scenarios would have kept Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence. The failure of the west to understand and prevent this, seen with the subsequent invasion, proves that its focus on a diplomatic approach is a fundamental, and tragic, misunderstanding of how Russia operates. 

This was evident beforehand, with Russia a longstanding and persistent violator of international law. This was self-evident in previous military engagements, annexation and state-sponsored killings abroad. While, admittedly, the west also threatened sanctions against any aggression, including financial and individual sanctions, this evidently did not prevent Putin from unleashing his forces in sovereign Ukraine. With Russia showing no sign it is willing to undertake meaningful diplomacy or respect international law, the west needs to implement a stronger, longer-term framework that will enable it to prevent aggression and weaken Putin’s regime over time. 

Because Russia isn’t interested in playing by international rules, the west needs to respond to this latest provocation in a way that can force the regime to abstain from further regional aggression. This can be done by implementing harsh economic and financial sanctions against prominent Russian individuals, particularly those closest to Putin. This can be done in the form of frozen foreign assets, travel bans for all family members, and the inability to invest outside of Russia. This will pressure individuals to choose between their personal wealth and their close association with Putin’s inner circle which could lead to strained political relationships and increased pressure on the government.

Sanctions on state-owned businesses and the financial system, including banks and investment firms, will isolate Russia economically and prevent financial institutions from accessing western financing. While President Biden promised that “the world will hold Russia accountable” through even harsher financial and individual sanctions, it is vital that sanctions are used as a preventative tool in future. This requires a transparent approach from the west that clearly outlines sanctions for particular acts of aggression, such as annexing territory, so Russia will understand the costs of illegal actions in the future. 

The west should also strengthen its military presence in Nato countries in Eastern Europe, to act as a bulwark against further conflict. The west had already attempted this, with Nato member states providing aircraft and ships to the region as a deterrent. With Russia now threatening the territorial integrity of its neighbours, this presence needs to be strengthened and remain long term to put pressure on Russia over its actions in Ukraine but also to prevent the conflict spilling over into other countries. The west, particularly the European Union, also needs to enact a long-term strategy to weaken Russia and increase their own bargaining power to prevent aggression. With the Russian economy heavily reliant on exporting energy, the long-term aim of the west should be to wean itself off Russian energy to prevent it being used as a tool for Russian blackmail. The EU is particularly suspectable to this, with Russia accounting for 65 per cent of Germany’s gas imports and around 40 per cent for the EU more broadly. 

German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has himself supported this, telling CNBC that the west has to work “very hard” to find alternative sources of energy beyond Russia. Being less dependent on Russia for its energy will enable the EU to enact strict sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, likely Russia’s worst-case scenario, as it would be an effective means of crippling its economy and would put acute pressure on Putin’s regime. The suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline by Germany is a proactive first step in doing this. With EU countries already transitioning to renewable energy, a diversification of its energy imports away from Russia will enable it to successfully punish Russia for aggression without suffering any adverse economic impacts.

Russia’s strategy is one based on perceived historic grievances and a desire to regain parts of the Soviet Union lost thirty years prior. Its actions are intolerable, in breach of international law and are putting the lives of thousands at risk. Through the steps outlined above, the west has the ability to take a no tolerance approach and develop a strong framework to prevent aggression before it occurs by clearly outlining any costs of action and to weaken the regime long-term. If Putin is unwilling to adhere to good faith diplomacy and international law, the west is entitled to isolate and weaken Russia until it adheres to the international norms of sovereignty and responsible state conduct. Doing so will lead to a more stable, peaceful Europe.