The Russian military is doing an unfortunate amount of posturing in Central Europe, with more than 100,000 troops amassed on its border with Ukraine. The crisis will serve as a litmus test of President Joe Biden’s ability to get our NATO allies to pull together. They need to blunt any Russian threat to invade Ukraine by raising their own military preparedness and giving arms to Ukraine. Also, they must speak with one voice on the financial risks Russia will face if it continues its aggressive behavior.
The Russian effort to intimidate Ukraine follows years of actions in defiance of peaceful relations with its neighbors and the United States, ranging from assassinations on foreign soil to physical and cyber sabotage and online interference with elections in Europe and the United States. The latest example of cyber crime involves the exploitation of Solar Winds software last fall to compromise U.S. government agencies and many private corporations.
President Biden has responded to Russia’s actions in an appropriately measured way so far. In an April 13 call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Biden offered to meet him this summer in Europe to discuss relations. In an April 15 speech on relations with Russia, he reiterated this offer but also issued new economic sanctions for the Solar Winds attack and Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections last year. He also ordered the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats. Earlier, he had applied sanctions for Russia’s treatment of dissident Alexis Navalny, who was poisoned, then arrested on orders from Putin, and who now appears close to dying in jail.
Mr. Biden has tried to strike a balance between raising the cost to Russia of its harmful foreign actions and keeping lines of communication open on subjects of mutual interest, such as nuclear arms control and Iran.
But he may have to get tougher. Indeed, his April 15 remarks promised just that.
In an angry response to these new sanctions, the Kremlin expelled 10 U.S. diplomats, sanctioned eight other U.S. officials and called Mr. Biden’s actions an obstacle to a meeting between the two presidents. Russia also stepped up military maneuvers on Ukraine’s border.
The most powerful sanction Mr. Biden has issued since the early April flare-up forbids U.S. banks and financial institutions from participating in the market for Russia’s official debt, a move likely to raise Russia’s cost of financing its debt.
A solid front by American’s main allies on this matter would have a devastating effect, and Mr. Biden should push for their cooperation.
But there are even more powerful financial weapons available to Mr. Biden if he decides he has to raise the cost to Russia even more. Banning Russia from participating in the international financial clearing house known as SWIFT could bring the country’s export and import economy to a halt. It is considered the nuclear option of trade sanctions, and one that Russia has reason to fear.
Mr. Putin has been cooperating more with China on a range of foreign issues as a hedge against deteriorating relations with Europe and the United States.
But his threatening moves on Ukraine’s border will backfire if — as they should — they raise the alarm in European capitals and prompt European leaders to cooperate more with the United States. In fact, Russia’s ill-considered threats may have done more to strengthen NATO than anything in more than a decade.