The War in Ukraine Has Started. But Is Diplomacy Dead? | Opinion

In the early morning hours of Feb. 24, in a hastily arranged address, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a final verdict on what was a months-long saga over Ukraine: yes, an invasion will happen after all. Putin, dressed in what looked like the same dark suit he donned a day earlier, described his order as a "special military operation" to demilitarize what he labeled an extreme right-wing government in Kyiv that posed a national security threat to the Russian state. Ukraine's ambassador to the U.N. was apoplectic at Putin's version of events as he left an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting in New York.

Despite the exhortations and patriotic sentiment pouring out of Ukrainian defense officials and politicians, the first 24 hours of the Russian operation has gone according to Moscow's plan. By the Pentagon's own estimates, the opening phase of the war included 75 Russian combat aircraft and an avalanche of 160 ballistic and cruise missiles raining down on select Ukrainian military targets throughout the country. Airfields, ammunition depots, warehouses and barracks were destroyed, while Russian paratroopers took control of Gostomel airport, located about 24 miles northwest of Kyiv. Ukrainian civilians in the city of Kharkiv, meanwhile, packed up their bags and went to the subway station to escape the bombardment. U.S. officials told Newsweek that the Ukrainian capital could be captured by Russian forces within days.

The U.S. and its European allies have responded to Russia's thrust into Ukraine by dusting off a familiar playbook: denounce Putin for violating the rules-based international order and the rule of law, seek to isolate Moscow diplomatically by tabling strongly-worded U.N. resolutions demanding Russia withdraw its troops and target the Russian financial sector with one of the strongest sanctions regimes against a great power in history.

"Putin chose this war," President Joe Biden said at the White House on Feb. 24. "And now he and his country will bear the consequences." Those consequences include a cutoff of U.S.-designed high-end technology to the Russian market, handicapping multiple industries within Russia itself.

The question, though, is whether any of these economic and diplomatic countermeasures will have an impact on Putin's strategic calculations. Does Putin really care, for instance, whether the G-7 disapproves of his actions or whether he's breaking international law? The evidence is pretty overwhelming: no, he does not, and it should be abundantly clear by now that churning out flowery statements or lecturing the Kremlin on how to behave has no practical impact.

Will cutting off Russia's largest banks from the U.S. financial system or barring Russian financial institutions from raising money in the West generate enough pain to force Putin to change course? This, too, is highly unlikely, for several reasons. First, the Russian government is better prepared for U.S. and European sanctions today than it was in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and helped instigate a war in eastern Ukraine. Russia's $630 billion in foreign reserves, up nearly 40 percent over the last five years, will help cushion an economic blow. Russia's foreign debt is quite low (especially compared to the U.S.), and Putin has made a concerted push to de-dollarize the Russian economy, switching toward other foreign currencies. Russian officials can also be reasonably comfortable that the biggest sanction the West can invoke, cutting Russian banks off from the SWIFT international payment system, is unlikely for the time being due to European hesitancy.

Ukrainian servicemen
Ukrainian servicemen stand on the north of Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022. DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

Second, sanctions themselves aren't foreign policy fairy dust. Their success depends on what objectives the U.S. hopes to achieve. A country targeted with U.S. asset freezes, blocking sanctions, travel bans and export restrictions will obviously feel a significant degree of economic pain. The pain may be so serious that the country in question is forced to adopt unpopular austerity or social policy measures. Yet if those sanctions aren't connected to realistic goals, then they are simply a way to punish bad behavior. Tying the lifting of sanctions to Russia's complete military withdrawal from every inch of Ukrainian territory is, like it or not, an unrealistic policy goal. The Russia military has come too far to simply turn their tanks around and go home. Putin, nursing a 15-year grievance-fest against NATO expansion culminating in his hour-long diatribe earlier in the week doesn't sound like a man intent on backing down from his war aims.

Two days into the invasion, the recommendations coming out of Washington are largely the same as the recommendations that were offered before the invasion. The objective, however, has evolved from deterring a war to punishing Putin as much as possible for launching it. Yet while punishment is appropriate in these circumstances, it's not sufficient. It certainly won't lead to solutions.

Last Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that "until the tanks are actually rolling, and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this [invasion] forward." But it's precisely when the tanks are rolling and the planes are flying when diplomacy is most important. If this conflict is to recede peacefully, Ukraine, with the encouragement of the U.S. and Europe, has no choice but to come to the negotiating table with the very man who authorized a war against it.

For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, this is going to be the bitterest of pills to swallow. Unfortunately, he doesn't have any better options.

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.