Ukraine crisis: the fighting has begun but what now?

Protestors outside Truro Cathedral | Jory Mundy

The recent deployment of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine is reminiscent of Cold War-era tensions with the United States and NATO countries. Despite the efforts for de-escalation, President Biden has repeatedly warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent, and now United Kingdom PM Boris Johnson announced that Russia is preparing to start the “biggest war in Europe since 1945”

Even though the Kremlin repeatedly denied these claims, in the early hours of February 24th, Russian troops started a “special military operation” in Ukraine, following Vladimir Putin’s televised address. Peace and democracy in Europe are under direct threat. So, how will the European Union and the U.S. respond to these aggressions against Ukraine?

Firstly, on the military aspect, the U.S. has already deployed thousands of troops in Poland, Germany and Romania, which gives some level of presence on the ground in their attempt to contain Russian ambitions. A further 8500 American troops have also been put on alert for deployment to Europe. 

it remains very unlikely that the U.S. or the European countries will send troops to directly intervene in Ukraine.

On the same line, European leaders (e.g. Macron, Johnson and Scholz) have shown their support to Ukraine and held talks with President Zelensky, which demonstrates the readiness of the U.S. allies in Europe for the same objective. Since the start of the Russian invasion, NATO countries have announced the deployment of troops to Eastern Europe and the delivery of “lethal weapons” to help the Ukrainian army contain the Russian attacks. However, since Ukraine is not a member, NATO countries are not compromised to intervene in favour of the Ukrainians in case of a Russian invasion. 

However, as Anabel Bacon wrote for the New York Times’ Opinion Today, ethical obligations of defending liberal democracy elsewhere in the world could keep the U.S. and Western Europe committed to supporting Ukraine, to some extent or even unconditionally. Nonetheless, it remains very unlikely that the U.S. or the European countries will send troops to directly intervene in Ukraine, to avoid escalating the conflict to a nuclear stage.

Secondly, instead of direct military support, the U.S. and its allies have opted for imposing economic sanctions on Russia. This seems to be the most likely path of action to follow by the Biden administration, as Vice President Kamala Harris highlighted to the MSC that “swift and severe and united” economic measures have been prepared by the U.S., which include financial sanctions and export controls that will target Russia’s financial institutions and key industries. 

These sanctions, which are entering into force in the coming days, include blocking Russia from the SWIFT system and freezing the assets of the Russian Central Bank. The effect of the sanctions is already being felt by the Russian economy, as the rouble plunged and people are forming long queues to withdraw cash from ATMs in Russian cities. Nonetheless, as PM Boris Johnson also mentioned before the attack, the “economic shock” that will follow as a consequence of a Russian invasion of Ukraine will echo around the world, which means potential political and economic damage to countries in areas of the world that are far from the conflict. But it seems like this is a risk that the U.S. and the Western democracies are willing to take, to stop Putin’s ambitions in Europe.

Furthermore, it is not that economic sanctions will only debilitate Russia’s might, it will also mean retaliation. Despite the recent claims that Russian soldiers are demoralised and refusing to fight, and the fierce response of the Ukrainian military to defend Kyiv and Kharkiv, causing heavy losses to the Russian army, Putin does not seem to be turning down his objectives. On February 27th, Putin ordered to put the nuclear deterrent forces to be put on a “special regime of combat duty”. However, it was also announced that President Zelensky agreed to meet and hold talks with Putin at the Belarussian border in the coming days. What role should the Western nations take in this crisis? Will the economic sanctions be enough to make Putin back down from Ukraine?