Four Ways to Counter Russian Aggression That Don’t Risk Nuclear War
The world needs to punish Vladimir Putin for his illegal war and deter similar behavior in the future. Here are four options that don't require the West to get into a shooting war with Moscow.
Ever since Russian president Vladimir Putin made the appalling and disastrous decision to invade Ukraine, the endgame has been shrouded in uncertainty. While news of talks between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, are encouraging, we’re also seeing signs of a ramped-up turn toward militarism by everyone involved.
Yesterday, Putin put took the unprecedented step of putting Russian nuclear forces on high alert, a reckless escalation that, posturing or not, significantly ups the risk of nuclear catastrophe. Russia-allied Belarus has now changed its nonnuclear status, potentially ratcheting things up further.
Yesterday, Germany, previously one of the NATO states least eager for conflict with Russia, pledged to pour more than 2 percent of its GDP into the military. And hard-right former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is now calling for Japan to revoke its long-standing nonnuclear policy and start sharing US nukes, which would dramatically escalate nuclear tensions.
In the United States and United Kingdom, there’s budding talk of military intervention. Conservative British politicians, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), and some US commentators have called for a “no-fly zone” in Ukraine, a misleading euphemism that means shooting down Russian planes. The “restrained” alternative to this that Western leaders in both the United States and Europe are pursuing is to pour military aid, including weapons and now fighter jets, into Ukraine.
Though such moves have an obvious logic to them from the standpoint of averting a Russian conquest of Ukraine, they also have pretty big drawbacks. Any direct intervention by Washington or another NATO government could easily spiral into a nuclear exchange that would leave untold numbers dead, Americans included. A deluge of weapons into Ukraine, meanwhile, isn’t likely to significantly alter the military balance in the war, which is overwhelmingly on Russia’s side, but is very likely to fall into the hands of various regional extremists, including the far-right groups that are part of the Ukrainian military and national guard (currently boasting about its fighters greasing their bullets with pig fat to kill Muslim troops), raising the possibility of al-Qaeda-like blowback in the West, given these groups’ ties to homegrown extremists.
Still, something has to be done to punish Russian leadership and prevent something like this from happening again. There are, of course, many possible courses of action in this regard. What follows, though far from an exhaustive list, are four possible policy options that lack the risks inherent in military escalation.
Aggressively accelerate the green energy transition.
Oil and gas suffuses the Ukraine crisis. Part of Ukraine’s importance to Russia is as a transit route for Russian gas exports. The West’s ability to respond to Putin has been hampered from the start because of European dependence on fossil fuels, and even now, the unprecedented Western sanctions against Moscow come with significant costs for the countries imposing them, massively raising prices for voters at home.
“Russia is incredibly unimportant in the global economy except for oil and gas,” former Barack Obama advisor Jason Furman recently told the New York Times. This is remarkably unreassuring, since oil, gas, and fossil fuels more generally are the fundamental ingredients that make the economy and modern society run. Without them, you don’t have international or domestic travel, international trade, heating and air conditioning, the transport of food and consumer products within countries, the internet, electricity more generally, and so on — more or less everything that defines modern existence.
As long as the world continues to rely on fossil fuels for these things, any autocrat sitting on a massive pile of oil and gas has tremendous influence over other countries and the relative freedom to act in a variety of outrageous ways. This has been the long-running issue with Saudi Arabia, a deeply authoritarian and violent government that almost certainly facilitated an attack on the United States at the start of this century, but which Washington has nevertheless felt compelled to mollify and support anyway because of its power to cause economic and political disaster for US leaders by turning the valve up and down on oil production. And there’s no sign Putin will be running out anytime soon. The warming climate produced by the burning of fossil fuels is already opening up newly thawed areas for Russian fossil fuel production.
Absurdly, the US right is already pushing the nonsensical talking point that president Joe Biden’s “green agenda” caused this war to happen, while the fossil fuel industry is using the war to call for more production. Besides the fact that this green agenda doesn’t exist — Biden’s climate legislation was killed after a half-hearted push, and he’s meanwhile aggressively pushed domestic oil and gas production — this would ultimately only lead to more war and conflict, with worsening climate change fueling political instability and a scramble for resources everywhere.
Crack down on tax evasion and wealth hoarding internationally.
One of the traditional problems with sanctions is their tendency to hurt ordinary citizens. One possible way to target Russian elites specifically is to crack down on tax evasion, something that’s an economic and political priority outside of this current conflict anyway. We’ve long known about Russian oligarchs’ and politicians’ hoarding of vast wealth they’ve stolen from their countries in offshore bank accounts, and were again reminded just last year by the massive Pandora Papers leak, in which Russian billionaires and other nationals — including Putin himself — made up the biggest share of tax-dodging elites.
There’s already an effort underway to clean up the UK’s oligarch-friendly financial policies, but to be effective, it has to go well beyond one country, since Russian wealth-hoarders can always find another country to park their ill-gotten gains. We can look at the fledgling push for an international minimum corporate tax rate as a model. It’s true this is an uphill climb, but there could be real momentum to tackle offshore hoarding now if it’s framed as a response to this war, given the almost uniform global revulsion toward Moscow’s actions.
Estimates of just how much wealth is being hidden away in the world’s tax havens range from nearly $9 trillion to a staggering $36 trillion, and Russia, with the fifth-highest number of the world’s billionaires, will be disproportionately implicated. An added benefit is that once the world’s governments have collaborated to dig out this wealth and tax it, the revenues could be used to fund the climate efforts urgently needed to both constrain the power of fossil-fuel-funded tyrants and prevent large-scale planetary disaster.
A major obstacle is that any such effort won’t impact just Russians but oligarchs and elites everywhere, including in the United States (the number-one most billionaire-populated country) and Ukraine, whose president was embarrassed last year when the Pandora Papers revealed he and his allies have a secret network of offshore companies. It will also encounter opposition from jurisdictions where wealth-stashing is effectively the primary industry, like Biden’s home state of Delaware.
Match humanitarian aid to the level of military assistance.
According to Western policymakers, the weapons they’re pouring into Ukraine right now are out of humanitarian concern for Ukrainians. As Pennsylvania Senate candidate Conor Lamb put it, while words of support for Ukrainians “mean nothing to them . . . anti-tank missiles and bullets do.”
More weapons in Ukrainian hands will certainly increase the costs of the invasion for Russia. But it does far less for the vast majority of the country, who are not fighting in the war and are instead dealing with food shortages, the disappearance of hospitals and health care facilities, and a loss of shelter, among other things. By one estimate, nearly 3 million Ukrainians need urgent humanitarian assistance right now.
Already Western countries, including the United States, are opening their doors to Ukrainian refugees, which is heartening to see, and could go further. But if Western actions here are to be driven by guaranteeing the security of ordinary Ukrainians and preventing their further suffering, then there needs to be a massive step up in humanitarian aid and economic assistance to the country, too.
As it is, the level of humanitarian support being offered by Washington is dwarfed by the military assistance being provided. Yesterday, secretary of state Anthony Blinken announced nearly $54 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, bringing the total of aid over the last eight years to $405 million. By contrast, Washington has sent more than $1 billion worth of military assistance, more than double the amount of humanitarian aid, to the country in just the last year alone, with $350 million of that coming just a few days ago.
This is reflective of US leadership’s warped priorities in the conflict, but it should be unacceptable to the rest of us. Humanitarian assistance should be ramped up to at least the same level as the amount of military aid. If Western leaders want their nationals to travel to the country, rather than encouraging them to fight Russia, they’d do better to encourage them to carry out vital humanitarian assistance for the people on whose behalf they would fight.
Clean our own house.
The denunciations of Putin’s invasion that have come thick and fast over the last week are entirely correct, with the world remarkably united in its disapproval. World leaders have criticized Putin for trampling international law, violating another country’s territorial integrity, making ordinary people pay the costs for his own geopolitical priorities, and more.
But these denunciations lose their moral force when the governments making them are themselves engaged in the same kind of behavior. This isn’t referring to recent history, like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but active humanitarian disasters and criminal acts of aggression going on this very minute.
Washington, for instance, is right now causing a massive humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan — the country it occupied for twenty years — due to its decision to freeze, then steal, the country’s foreign reserves. UNICEF warns that as a result, 9 million Afghans are facing famine and 23 million suffering from acute hunger, predicting that 97 percent of the country will fall into poverty by the middle of this year, and 1 million kids under age five will die by the end of it if the policy continues. Ordinary Afghans are currently selling their organs and even their children to stay alive. This is at least as morally grotesque as Putin’s invasion, and could be solved quickly, without any bloodshed, if Washington simply lifted these needless sanctions.
Similarly, the UK, France, and, especially, the United States are selling weapons to and providing key logistical support for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as they enter the seventh year of their borderline genocidal war against Yemen. This war is identical to the one Moscow has launched against Ukraine — a foreign aggressor starts what it casts a “defensive” war against a neighboring country to fulfill its geopolitical aims — but in this case, the West is firmly on the side of Moscow’s equivalent, steadfastly backing the aggressors as they carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians, engineer a famine, and create the conditions for an explosion in disease.
There are many other instances of humanitarian disasters we could point to, but these are the most flagrant and urgent. Ending them is not only a matter of basic moral integrity, as the West seeks to isolate Russia for its own atrocious violation of sovereignty; it’s also a good in itself. Western observers’ disgust with Putin is rooted not in some special affinity for Ukraine but in universal human empathy and a desire to help a suffering people whoever and wherever they are. Pushing Western leadership to end their own ongoing crimes against humanity would do that for millions of people, and inarguably make the world a better and safer place, while also boosting the West’s moral authority in condemning Putin and other warmongers.