America's Choice in Ukraine | Opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin is gambling that squeezing multiple Ukrainian cities from the outside and pummeling them with artillery and missiles will eventually compel Kyiv to cave in to Russia's demands. The United States and its allies are betting that persistent pressure on the Russian economy, combined with an influx of military equipment to the Ukrainian army, will compel Putin to stop a military operation that is getting uglier by the day. Both sides are preparing for a further escalation of the war. What is needed instead is a diplomatic off-ramp before the war bleeds outside of Ukraine.

The first two weeks of the Russian invasion have been deadly for all parties involved. Putin is likely surprised and angry about the Ukrainian army's heroic resistance and his own military's bumbling performance. While exact numbers are hard to verify, hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian troops have died on the battlefield. Russia's dependence on large convoys and armor have provided Ukrainian soldiers with targets of opportunity, even more so when the tanks and personnel carriers are stuck in the mud or out of gas. Russian commanders appear flummoxed on how to combat more nimble Ukrainian units, exposing the Russian military writ-large as a far more incompetent institution than U.S. intelligence officials previously thought. The Russians, stalled outside Ukraine's major cities, are changing tactics, relying on brute, indiscriminate fire against residential areas to wear down the Ukrainian army's resistance.

Washington and its allies in Europe and Asia wish to elude a direct military war with Russian forces in Ukraine, knowing such a clash would have horrible and unforeseen military consequences. Russia, after all, is the largest nuclear weapons power on the planet. The Biden administration and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg are rightly ruling out the establishment of a no-fly zone in Ukraine, which would amount to direct involvement in the war as U.S. and NATO pilots engage Russian combat planes in the air and missile systems on the ground. Yet the U.S. and select NATO countries are still involved militarily, sending 17,000 anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian army and using NATO members Romania and Poland to keep Kyiv supplied. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated the U.S. would send Poland advanced F-16 fighters if Warsaw delivered spare Soviet-era aircraft to the Ukrainians.

Economically, the U.S. is leveraging its control over the international financial system to make Russia's life hell. The Biden administration, in conjunction with the U.K., the European Union and Japan, are implementing a list of sanctions measures against the Russian economy in retaliation for the invasion. Sanctions against Russia's Central Bank have frozen as much as half of Moscow's $630 billion in foreign reserves, minimizing Putin's ability to prop up a depreciating ruble. The Russian stock exchange has been closed since Feb. 25. Russia's wealthiest oligarchs are watching police in multiple countries seize their yachts and luxury apartments. This week, President Biden signed an executive order that banned the import of Russian oil, natural gas and coal. The Russian political leadership is flirting with a massive decline in GDP, perhaps as much as 7 percent if JPMorgan's projections are accurate.

U.S. and European officials clearly think the stick is more effective than the carrot at this point in time. Perhaps due to a genuine belief that Putin will change his strategy after feeling the economic heat, the Biden administration is wary of jumping into a dialogue with Moscow. Given the indiscriminate bombardment Ukrainian civilians are currently experiencing, the mood in Washington is one of understandable revenge against Russia's horrific military tactics. Holding Moscow accountable for starting an unprovoked war of aggression remains more of a priority than exploring ways to deescalate and possibly end it.

Ukrainian refugees wait in the line
Ukrainian refugees wait in the line near the border with Poland at the town of Ustyluh, western Ukraine, on March 6, 2022. DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

To bank explicitly on the stick, however, is to tie one's hand behind one's back and all but dismiss the possibility of a mutually-acceptable diplomatic resolution as a viable option. When the hopes of a negotiated outcome are prematurely nipped in the bud, the only path available is one of further escalation until the other side blinks. This is not a smart or effective approach, especially when the competition is Vladimir Putin, who is more likely to double down than to capitulate to our demands.

The Biden administration wasn't able to prevent Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But two weeks into the war, there is still a chance to end it before millions of more Ukrainians are made refugees and thousands of additional civilians die. But this is only possible if Washington, Europe and more importantly the Ukrainian government recognize that Russia won't stop military operations or pull out its forces for free. Ukraine's geopolitical orientation is a matter of immense importance to Russia—and based on his policy to date, Putin is willing and able to continue the war in order to accomplish his objectives.

The task for Ukraine's friends is clear: lean on the stick and hope Putin becomes a new man, or give Russia the opportunity to climb-down from what is turning out to be a major geopolitical mistake. The first is a road to a dangerous pattern of escalation and counter-escalation. The second is a difficult but necessary trade-off to ending Europe's largest war sooner rather than later.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.