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Europe woke up to a major war on Thursday after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a violent, multipronged invasion of Ukraine, the democracy that sits between NATO countries and Russia.
Now that it is clear Putin will sacrifice lives and Russian wealth to reconstitute parts of the old Soviet Union, European and US troops are scrambling to fortify the wall of NATO countries that borders Ukraine – and the fear that he could move farther, past Ukraine, is now very real.
On a continent that spent decades as the front line of the Cold War in a standoff over ideology between nuclear powers, this new war seems like a return to the sort of conventional warfare that marked Europe before the world wars, when countries did battle and tested their alliances.
No one in recent weeks has claimed to know what’s in Putin’s head. But few guessed he would so boldly try to take over Ukraine, perhaps trying to topple its government, in an attack based on false claims and bravado.
Ukrainians were shocked by the missiles landing in their country and took shelter in subway stations. They saw troops entering some cities, helicopters descending on an air base outside Kyiv and even the apparent takeover of Chernobyl, the infamous site of a nuclear disaster.
Russians were shocked by their country’s actions and anti-war protests broke out in Moscow. Such displays of free speech are often dangerous for participants in a country like Russia. Hundreds were arrested.
World leaders were quick to condemn Russia and enact some new sanctions.
- “Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences,” President Joe Biden said in stern remarks from the White House.
- Putin “decided to carry out the most serious attack on peace, on stability in Europe for decades,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, appearing for a national address in front of the flags of Ukraine, France and the European Union.
- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Putin a “dictator” and pledged massive sanctions.
But the words and the sanctions behind them may do little to turn the Russian tanks.
What Biden won’t do is tempt World War III. Even as Biden announced tough new sanctions, he made clear the US will not get involved in the military fight, ceding Ukraine’s security to Ukrainians and making clear that the US and Russia, the world’s two main nuclear powers, should not themselves be waging war.
Read my story: What Biden has said about sending US troops to Ukraine.
Biden is imposing new sanctions. They are designed to hurt Russian banks and Russians who enable Putin. The US will censure five financial institutions and numerous state-owned companies. Biden also imposed new sanctions on oligarchs close to Putin and will restrict technology exports from the US to Russia.
But the penalties so far leave Russian energy exports – which fuel Europe – and Putin alone. Something to impose down the road, perhaps, since this conflict seems likely to drag on.
Pushed by reporters in Washington about why some sanctions were not employed and whether countries like China would join in to condemn Russia, Biden emphasized he is doing what is possible and that two-thirds of the world’s economy is involved in opposing Russia’s actions.
What good are sanctions? Putin has been threatened by sanctions before, so there may be no likelihood these new ones will make him reverse course on his invasion.
Even if they fail to deter him, they are still valuable to isolate Russia from the world and as a punishment, according to Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, appearing Thursday on CNN.
“Even if the sanctions fail to deter him or can’t coerce him to leave, it still is important that they be punitive, because the outside world has to signal to Moscow that this unprovoked, unjustified attack on a country in the 21st century is simply not acceptable,” Pifer said.
Not every possible sanction has been imposed. Europe was not ready to sever Russia from the Belgium-based SWIFT financial payments system, so some of the country’s access to the worldwide banking system remains.
The US and Europe have not, for now, imposed sanctions on Russia’s energy exports, which means it keeps its main lifeblood, Europe keeps access to its oil and natural gas, and worldwide energy markets keep some stability.
Even still, global oil prices surged above $100 per barrel Thursday and could go higher, writes CNN’s Matt Egan.
US markets rebounded, while Russia’s haven’t yet. Egan noted that the stock market dropped in the morning after news of the attacks on Ukraine, but then rebounded after Biden announced sanctions.
“There’s some sense of relief that while the President is imposing tough sanctions here, he’s not maxing out on the penalties on Russia,” Egan said of investors. “There’s no ban from the SWIFT payment network, no direct penalties on Vladimir Putin – importantly, no direct penalties on oil and gas companies in Russia. That is viewed as possibly bullish for the economy and the stock market even if it’s not bullish for democracy.”
Russia’s stock market, on the other hand, lost a third of its value. The value of the ruble also tumbled.
“There are some real concerns from investors about Russia becoming a pariah state at this point,” he said.
Consider the unlikely nightmare scenario. I talked to Tom Collina, policy director at the Ploughshares Fund – which pushes to eliminate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons – about what it means for the US and Russia, the world’s two top nuclear countries, to be in a standoff.
He said Putin’s new demeanor means the world needs to view him differently. The worst possible scenario, which is very unlikely, is the US and Russia in an armed conflict and a miscalculation triggering nuclear war.
“I think all bets are off as to knowing what he’s going to do next,” Collina said.
Nobody wants to trigger such a scenario, but with nuclear powers in conflict, there is major concern.
“Even if they don’t want to get into a nuclear conflict, they could by accident or miscalculation,” Collina said. “In the fog of war, things can happen that no one ever wanted to happen.”
There is already nuclear talk. Ukraine used to house many of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons but gave them up in 1994 in exchange for a security guarantee, known as the Budapest Memorandum, from the US, the United Kingdom and Russia. That promise was clearly violated this week.
Putin made up a conspiracy theory that the US and Ukraine were plotting to place nuclear weapons back in Ukraine as a pretext for his invasion.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday on French television, according to Reuters, that his country viewed some of Putin’s recent comments as a threat to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.
“Yes, I think that Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance. That is all I will say about this,” Le Drian said.