Moving Beyond Sanctions to End the War in UkraineRoundup
tags: Russia, Ukraine, diplomacy, sanctions
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His new book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.
As the war in Ukraine heads for its third month amid a rising toll of death and destruction, Washington and its European allies are scrambling, so far unsuccessfully, to end that devastating, globally disruptive conflict. Spurred by troubling images of executed Ukrainian civilians scattered in the streets of Bucha and ruined cities like Mariupol, they are already trying to use many tools in their diplomatic pouches to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to desist. These range from economic sanctions and trade embargoes to the confiscation of the assets of some of his oligarch cronies and the increasingly massive shipment of arms to Ukraine. Yet none of it seems to be working.
Even after Ukraine’s surprisingly strong defense forced a Russian retreat from the northern suburbs of the capital, Kyiv, Putin only appears to be doubling down with plans for new offensives in Ukraine’s south and east. Instead of engaging in serious negotiations, he’s been redeploying his battered troops for a second round of massive attacks led by General Alexander Dvonikov, “the butcher of Syria,” whose merciless air campaigns in that country flattened cities like Aleppo and Homs.
So while the world waits for the other combat boot to drop hard, it’s already worth considering where the West went wrong in its efforts to end this war, while exploring whether anything potentially effective is still available to slow the carnage.
Playing the China Card
In January 2021, only weeks after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Moscow began threatening to attack Ukraine unless Washington and its European allies agreed that Kyiv could never join NATO. That April, Putin only added force to his demand by dispatching 120,000 troops to Ukraine’s border to stage military maneuvers that Washington even then branded a “war threat.” In response, taking a leaf from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s tattered Cold War playbook, the Biden administration initially tried to play Beijing off against Moscow.
After a face-to-face summit with Putin in Geneva that June, President Biden affirmed Washington’s “unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” In a pointed warning to the Russian president, he said,
“You got a multi-thousand-mile border with China… China is… seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world. You’re in a situation where your economy is struggling… I don’t think [you should be] looking for a Cold War with the United States.”
As Russian armored units began massing for war near the Ukrainian border that November, U.S. intelligence officials all-too-accurately leaked warnings that “the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive… involving up to 175,000 troops.” In response, over the next three months, administration officials scrambled to avert war by meeting a half-dozen times with Beijing’s top diplomats and beseeching “the Chinese to tell Russia not to invade.”
In a video conference on December 7th, Biden told Putin of his “deep concerns… about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine,” warning that “the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation.”
In a more amicable video conference just a week later, however, Putin assured China’s President Xi Jinping that he would defy any human-rights boycott by Western leaders and come to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Calling him his “old friend,” Xi replied that he appreciated this unwavering support and “firmly opposed attempts to drive a wedge into our two countries.” Indeed, during the February Olympics opening ceremony, the two of them publicly proclaimed a de facto alliance that had “no limits,” even as Beijing evidently made it clear that Russia should not spoil China’s glittering Olympic moment on the international stage with an invasion right then.
In retrospect, it’s hard to overstate the price Putin paid for China’s backing. So desperate was he to preserve their new alliance that he sacrificed his only chance for a quick victory over Ukraine. By the time Putin landed in Beijing on February 4th, 130,000 Russian troops had already massed on the Ukrainian border. Delaying an invasion until the Olympics ended left most of them huddled in unheated canvas tents for three more weeks. When the invasion finally began, idling vehicles had burned through much of their fuel, truck tires sitting without rotation were primed for blow-outs, and the rations and morale of many of those soldiers were exhausted.
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