March 5, 2022

Ukraine War Sanctions— Abandon Incrementalism.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

Putin ratchets up civilian casualties as the West ratchets up sanctions.

The sane world hopes the brutal and, frankly, criminal war being waged by Putin against Ukraine will be a limited war, or as Putin likes to say, a special military operation. Putin’s aggression isn’t going to end with Ukraine. Should Ukraine (which is not a member of NATO) fall, Russia will find its nearby NATO-member neighbors intolerable. For example, should Putin succeed in breaking the back of Ukraine (population 44+ million), it is improbable that he will, or can, tolerate Estonia (population 1.3 million and a NATO-member country. He isn’t going to tolerate Latvia either, a NATO member with a population under 1.9 million, or Lithuania, a NATO member, with less than 2.7 million people.

None of these nations have or would threaten Russia. Still, by joining NATO, they have taken steps to discourage Putin from reclaiming them as Russia’s inheritance from the now-deceased Soviet Union. Make no mistake about it, the current attack on Ukrainian civilian targets is also Putin’s intended Coming Attractions for the Baltic NATO members. None of these nations ever want to be part of Russia again. None! And none will be intimidated by Putin’s Coming Attractions. NATO is a purely defensive construct. It isn’t going to attack or threaten anyone unless one of its members is attacked.

Regarding Ukraine, the incremental ramp-up of sanctions against Russia is apt to grow less, not more, effective. As we ramp up sanctions, step by step, so do the Russians. We, essentially, squeeze Russia’s economy. Russia’s response is to squeeze the life out of Ukraine by exerting ever-growing savagery against Ukrainian civilians. Given that there was no Ukrainian provocation for this war, we are all watching an immense war crime in real-time.

Just about every relevant political leader in the world has condemned Putin’s absurd justification for the attack on Ukraine, with the notable exception, of course, of one former head-of-state who has embraced Putin’s rationale for aggression as “genius… he’s going to go in and be a liberator…how smart is that,” but I digress. For Ukraine and its people, sanction-incrementalism is a long-term losing strategy. Now is the time for the total weight of available sanctions, short of boots on the ground or planes in the air. The sooner we complete the isolation of Russia from the family of nations, the better.

Measures that could be taken immediately:

1. A temporary suspension of diplomatic relations with Russia until the Zelensky government and Russia have re-established diplomatic relations. Ukrainian President Zelensky is a dead man walking if the West doesn’t make his survival a prerequisite to Russia rejoining the family of civilized nations. Diplomatic relations between Russia and a Ukrainian, pro-Russian, installed puppet government should be a non-starter.

            2. Cessation of oil and gas imports from Russia by the U.S. and the E.U. This will inflict temporary but diminishing pain on the free world as nations scramble to replace much of Russia’s oil and gas.

The US imports Russian oil, but it is not highly dependent on the country for its supplies.

In 2021, the US imported an average of 209,000 barrels per day of crude oil and 500,000 of other petroleum products from Russia, according to the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers trade association.

That’s three percent of US crude oil imports and one percent of the total crude oil processed by US refineries. By contrast, the US imported 61 percent of its crude oil from Canada, 10 percent from Mexico, and six percent from Saudi Arabia in the same year, according to Aljazeera.

The decision to terminate imports of petroleum products from Russia is a bullet we’re going to have to bite sooner or later. Sooner would be better than later. China will not be a reliable long-term, off-setting purchaser of Russian petroleum products. China will not tie its long-term vitality to Russian petroleum and natural gas availability, and certainly not to Russian reliability. The Chinese economy requires an ongoing market relationship with the E.U., America, and Japan.

            3. Cessation of all banking protocols between Russia and the United States, European Union, Switzerland, and Japan.

       4. Substantially strengthen NATO’s readiness to defend its Baltic members bordering Russia (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). This is imperative because  Russia will no more respect a free Baltic region than a free Ukraine. Russia will test one or more of its neighboring NATO countries when it is through with Ukraine. Putin will not be as inept in military ground attacks in the Baltics as in  Ukraine. The Baltic nations need to know that their membership in NATO assures that their independence will be defended.

These are the measures that will, sooner or later, drive a wedge between Putin and the Russian people he purports to lead, the military on which he depends, and the oligarchs who run the economy and pay enormous tribute to Putin. While time is not on Ukraine’s side, the winter thaw promises some significant headaches for Russia too. The Russian generals are all quite familiar with the winter thaw and what they call the Raputitsia, literally, the sea of mud. I researched this phenomenon when writing the last book of the Eden Trilogy, “Cry Eden.” The Raputitsia, what the Russians call the mud season, immobilized the Nazi panzers during the Second World War, stopping German tanks in their tracks. It stopped the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century, the French in the nineteenth century, and the Germans in the 20th century. It will be no less a headache to Russian armor.

If Putin is allowed to get away with the rape of Ukraine, attacks against neighboring NATO nations will not be far behind. Putin will not stop with Ukraine. He can’t. That would leave him weaker, not stronger, relative to NATO. He has caused NATO to beef up its presence in neighboring NATO-member countries. He will have conquered a non-existent threat from Ukraine while simultaneously creating a substantially more serious NATO defensive threat in the neighboring Baltic countries and Poland to the immediate West.

Apologists for Russia like to draw comparisons between Russia’s intolerance of NATO in the Baltics and America’s intolerance of foreign adventurists in our hemisphere. They point to our response to the Cuban Missile Crisis and our Monroe Doctrine as an example of American hypocrisy. It is a weak crutch on which they prop up their case. Essentially, the Monroe Doctrine was America’s response to the threat of European nations continuing to carve out colonies in our hemisphere. The Cuban Missile Crisis resulted from the Soviet Union trying to erect offensive ballistic missiles 90 miles from the United States. As most of us can remember, those missiles were in transit when President John F. Kennedy sent an armada of warships to intercept the Soviet fleet transporting them.


Putin’s massive attacks against Ukraine, a non-NATO nation that represents no offensive threat to Russia, have left him with a coalition of newly reinforced NATO countries on his borders. It is only a short matter of time before he demands that these nations exit NATO. They will not.

The world has become an exceedingly dangerous place, the most dangerous since World War Two. Putin is playing with fire. He has brought the hostility of the civilized world to his nation. This human tragedy is a crisis of his making. The civilized world, including the Russian people, deserve better.

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9 responses to “Ukraine War Sanctions— Abandon Incrementalism.”

  1. Chris Haedt says:

    Hal, thank you for your brilliant, thorough, and always educational essay regarding the heartbreaking human tragedy of Ukraine, brought on by such an evil, selfish person. It’s horrific to think that Putin will probably surge battle forward into Russia’s NATO neighboring countries. I’m praying this will not happen.

  2. Jamie Kabler says:

    Hal you are so prescient . “Coming attractions” is so scary
    I agree with you 100%
    I will be quoting you

  3. Chuck Anderson says:

    Hal, I’m curious about a piece of history no one is discussing. About 30 years ago then newly independent Ukraine was persuaded by the US, UK & Russia to give up its substantial nuclear weapons stockpile in exchange for absolute guarantees of its sovereignty in the future. If that is a correct assessment why are we & the UK not living up to our end of the bargain. I would appreciate your feedback on this.
    Thank you for once again a thoughtful outline of events to come.

    • Chuck Anderson is absolutely correct. I covered this reality in last week’s column.
      Specifically, “This war has been unprovoked, and it constitutes the proverbial stab in the back. Ukraine formally agreed to unilateral nuclear disarmament in return for its freedom from Russia. Nearly thirty years ago, Ukraine was the last of the old Soviet republics to agree to nuclear disarmament. Ukraine, in effect, traded its substantial nuclear arsenal, the third-largest in the world, for formal written assurances by Russia, Great Britain, and the United States to respect the country’s territorial integrity and political independence. The language of the 1994 Budapest Agreement is unambiguous. Russia was a substantial beneficiary of that agreement. So, when Russia belligerently, reminds the West that it is a nuclear power to be contended with, it is brandishing the substantial capability it received from Ukraine in return for an agreement to respect Ukraine’s independence.

      This is no small matter. Ukraine reluctantly agreed to allow their nuclear warheads to be shipped to Russia only after receiving “iron-clad” agreements from the Russian Federation and the United States and Britain that its territorial integrity and independence would be respected. The accord provided that no signatory would use force or threats against Ukraine, and all would respect its sovereignty and existing borders. Ukrainian-Russia relations have a long, unhappy, and tortured history, so the guarantees, were critical for Ukraine and, also, for the United States because we applied the most pressure for Ukraine to accept the deal.”
      The United States and Great Britain have a responsibility to be forthright in addressing those guarantees. The problem is that the Budapest Agreement only calls for one remedy to Russian aggression. That is, the US and Britain will take any Russian aggression to the UN Security Council. Technically, and sadly, we have satisfied that obligation.

  4. Andy Lask says:

    The only addition to the essay is they should not be accorded status to negotiate anything on the world stage with any country who opposes their actions in Ukraine (Iranian deal, WTO, etc.) until they achieve a peace agreement with Ukraine. UN would be an exception.

  5. Perry says:

    Imperialism whether it be Russian or Japanese during WW 2 is intolerable. We must take further actions to ensure a more permanent and lasting peace. To merely cut off our Russian oil
    is a small step, but we must also become AGAIN energy independent. Let’s open ANWR and
    begin to drill and solve our domestic problems while we attempt to solve the World’s.
    Someone wake up Wash.D.C.

  6. Larry Feldman says:

    Sadly, the Ukraine situation is another example where we have not lived up to our commitments after convincing a country to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. How can the US expect to get Iran or North Korea, for example, to give up their nuclear ambitions for US or any other Country’s commitments? The people of the world have been fighting for 5000 years and this is another sad example that we have a lot to worry about the continued existence of the world as we know it.

  7. Steve says:

    Somehow it doesn’t feel right to stand by and watch a free and Democratic nation getting crushed by an autocratic bully. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see where this goes next.

  8. Rosalind Hack says:

    This is a compelling analysis of the Ukraine-Russia crisis stated clearly and precisely. I grieve for the Ukrainian people as they scream for help and the world watches the Russian war crimes being committed in real time. Another Holocaust. “Never again” are just words if the world can only watch from the sideline. The US, sadly, is just a shell of its former self when we boasted strong, intelligent, leadership highly respected and feared worldwide.

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