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Biden Must Choose Between Appeasement and Deterrence in Ukraine

Russia’s threat on the Ukrainian border is not a bluff, but forceful U.S. financial sanctions could stop Putin from another land grab.

By , a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who served as British ambassador to Belarus from 2007-2009.
A Ukrainian serviceman patrols.
A Ukrainian serviceman patrols at the checkpoint in the village of Shyrokyne near Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 26. ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine Border Crisis

U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday did not resolve the military crisis threatening Ukraine, but it did clarify two matters. First, it confirmed Russia’s demands for legal guarantees to constrain future NATO enlargements and force deployments—without, apparently, a quid pro quo from Russia. Second, U.S. sources made public details of the sanctions Russia could expect if it carries out a fresh invasion of Ukraine.

These developments help resolve the intense, sometimes polemical, debate on how the West should respond to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border. All sides agree that Russia’s desire to alter the status quo has created the crisis, and that a direct military confrontation between Russia and the West would be catastrophic. They differ on how to respond. There are broadly three positions: that Moscow is bluffing, that it poses a real threat to Kyiv and Ukraine should make concessions, or that Washington and its allies must threaten a strong response to deter further Russian aggression.

The first view is that Russia is bluffing. Moscow knows that an invasion of Ukraine would cost it dearly in casualties and sanctions. The West should therefore remain calm and confident and call Russia’s bluff. The only real risk is of an accidental clash, which effective communication should avert.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday did not resolve the military crisis threatening Ukraine, but it did clarify two matters. First, it confirmed Russia’s demands for legal guarantees to constrain future NATO enlargements and force deployments—without, apparently, a quid pro quo from Russia. Second, U.S. sources made public details of the sanctions Russia could expect if it carries out a fresh invasion of Ukraine.

These developments help resolve the intense, sometimes polemical, debate on how the West should respond to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border. All sides agree that Russia’s desire to alter the status quo has created the crisis, and that a direct military confrontation between Russia and the West would be catastrophic. They differ on how to respond. There are broadly three positions: that Moscow is bluffing, that it poses a real threat to Kyiv and Ukraine should make concessions, or that Washington and its allies must threaten a strong response to deter further Russian aggression.


The first view is that Russia is bluffing. Moscow knows that an invasion of Ukraine would cost it dearly in casualties and sanctions. The West should therefore remain calm and confident and call Russia’s bluff. The only real risk is of an accidental clash, which effective communication should avert.

But this view begs the question of why Russia would make such a serious but empty threat, especially as its previous buildup in April achieved little. It also overplays the distinction—always clearer in the academic world than the real world—between showing force and being ready to use it. To achieve political effects, such as intimidating others to induce compliance, threats must be backed up by the credible prospect of military action. In other words, saber-rattling only works if sabers can be drawn. On closer inspection, the bluff theory is neither plausible nor reassuring.

The second view is that Russia poses a real threat to Ukraine, which the West should avert by pressing Ukraine to meet Russian demands. Otherwise, an invasion is inevitable. According to this logic, the West cannot deter Russian aggression, and attempts to do so risk creating commitments that could escalate into a wider conflict.

Even if Ukraine was to accept Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk agreements, there is little reason to think this would be the end of Russia’s demands.

The technical term for this policy is appeasement. Until it was discredited in 1939, the diplomacy of resolving tensions by offering limited concessions to satisfy the demands of a great power was widely seen as reasonable, statesmanlike, and even honorable. Given the vastly higher stakes of major conflict in the nuclear age, it is right to consider whether such a policy might work today.

Proponents of this view focus on Russia’s charge that Ukraine has failed to implement the 2014-15 Minsk agreements. These were designed to settle the conflict through the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, free elections in Ukraine’s Donbass region, and limited devolution of power. Get Kyiv to comply, goes this argument, and Russia will be satisfied. But there are problems with this view too. First, to blame Ukraine for non-implementation of the Minsk agreements is to misread them and their surrounding diplomacy. The outstanding issue is not whether, but on what terms, to implement the agreements.

Russia demands that the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in the Donbass—run by separatists and supported by Russian forces—hold elections while Russia still occupies them. This would enable Moscow to drive events that compromise Ukraine’s sovereignty irrevocably. Kyiv insists that all Russian forces withdraw and allow Ukraine to regain control of its external borders. The stalling of the Minsk process rests on these incompatible interpretations. Meanwhile, Russia continues to undermine the agreements by granting citizenship to thousands of Ukrainian citizens in the Donbass.

Advocates of the appeasement approach assume that Russia is ready to incur the severe costs of war for the sake of achieving a very limited objective—as if a mere revision to the status of two Ukrainian regions would pacify Moscow. Yet they also argue that, if Russia cannot achieve this by diplomatic means, it might “attack far deeper into Ukrainian territory.” Why Russia would seek far more ambitious and risky goals by war if it cannot secure limited ones peacefully is left unexplained.

Third, even if Ukraine was to accept Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk agreements, there is little reason to think this would be the end of Russia’s demands. Putin’s 5,000-word essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” a magnum opus of historical revisionism published in July, effectively denies Ukraine’s legitimacy as a sovereign state. In light of Russia’s buildup since, it reads like a manifesto.

All this suggests that Russia’s ambitions extend far beyond the status of the Donbass. Its Novorossiya project, promoted in 2014 and quietly shelved (but never repudiated) in 2015, envisaged far more extensive Russian control over Ukrainian territory. Implementation of the Minsk agreements alone in line with Russia’s wishes would not satisfy Moscow. Further demands would follow in due course.

Indeed, Putin has announced fresh red lines recently, including limits on the deployment of Western military infrastructure. But Russia’s revisionism likely extends beyond Ukraine itself. Putin’s other chief grievance—reiterated in his November address to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs—is NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement.

While Russia cannot force NATO members to leave the organization, it may in due course from a position of greater strength try to nullify enlargement, by engineering a crisis that wrecks the credibility of the alliance’s core Article V commitment to mutual defense—perhaps through aggression (which could take many forms) against a NATO member state, most likely one of the Baltic states.

All evidence suggests that complicity in compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty would not mollify Russia but embolden it.

Achieving primacy in Ukraine would make this more feasible in two ways. First, by calling the U.S. bluff of supposedly ironclad commitments to Ukraine’s sovereignty, it would confirm to Putin the West’s lack of resolve and encourage him to push further. Second, it would extend Russia’s reach, posing new threats to Ukraine’s NATO neighbors: Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. It would also intensify pressure on Belarus for fuller military integration, thereby threatening the Baltic states. For both psychological and military reasons, then, Russian domination of Ukraine would have major implications for European security.

This may cast light on Putin’s recent calls for “serious long-term guarantees” that ensure Russia’s security. In better times, over a decade ago, Western governments gave short shrift to proposals from then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a more palatable leader, to negotiate a new European security architecture. They are even less inclined to entertain this today. But Russia could make the case for such an agreement more compelling and urgent by forcing new realities on the ground that threaten Western security.

Moscow has never signaled limits to its ambitions, even when it might have been astute to do so. In 2014 it could have said: “Russia has unique historical and cultural ties with Ukraine that compel us to act, but we have no quarrel with the rest of the continent. Accept our dominance over Ukraine and we can pursue cooperative relations.” Had it done so, some Western observers, and possibly governments, might have found reasons to tolerate Russia’s violations of international law, hindering a united diplomatic response.

But Russia did the opposite: It adopted a posture of unprecedented and escalating hostility toward Europe that included aggressive air and naval maneuvers directed even at non-NATO members such as Sweden and Finland. In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov threatened to cut off relations with the EU if it imposed new sanctions. Russia has at no point suggested that a settlement over Ukraine would restore relations with the West. Why then should the West offer this now? All evidence suggests that complicity in compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty would not mollify Russia but embolden it.

The third view also takes Russia’s threat seriously but argues that the best policy is deterrence, not appeasement. The West can avert renewed Russian hostilities with the credible threat of costly consequences. The burden would fall on non-military means, especially economic and financial sanctions. This might seem an unequal contest, akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight. But the quiet threat of severe sanctions probably restrained Russia from escalating its aggression at the height of conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. Some have dismissed this as a “low bar for success.” But in truth it was a remarkable use of power. The United States’ global financial primacy constrained Russia’s battlefield superiority—and it could do so again.

Russia has taken steps to increase its resilience, such as building up its foreign reserves to record levels. But Russian institutions remain dependent on dollar clearing, and Russian elites still need access to safe Western jurisdictions for their assets. By floating details of potential new sanctions—including restrictions on ruble convertibility and Russia’s major banks—the U.S. government has signaled its readiness to exploit these vulnerabilities far more intensively. Unlike most earlier sanctions designed to impose growing costs over time, these measures would have an immediate and devastating financial and psychological impact.

After heavy rhetorical investment in Ukraine’s sovereignty, U.S. failure to support it would signal a further lack of resolve.

But the question of whether Russia believes the West will impose such sanctions remains. This is a question above all for the U.S. government, which wields the biggest stick by virtue of the unique global role of the dollar. The Kremlin is working hard to persuade Washington to limit its response to escalation in Ukraine, both by warning it of the consequences and by holding out the prospect of a better relationship.

In his Foreign Affairs Ministry speech, Putin was notably warmer about the prospects of a “constructive dialogue” with the United States than with Europe. He has also spoken far more warmly of Biden than of any European leader in recent memory.

This is a new way of pursuing the old goal of decoupling the Atlantic alliance. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union typically sought warmer relations with Europe than with the United States—the main enemy. Today, Russia is doing the opposite: intimidating Europe while offering the illusion of a more productive relationship with the United States. Russia aims to avert a strong U.S. reaction to any renewed aggression against Ukraine and, ultimately, to make a deal with the United States over Europe’s head.

But even if the United States agreed to this, nothing in Russia’s behavior suggests it would then seek the stable and predictable relationship that Washington hopes for, either in Europe or beyond. It has already failed a test that was easy to pass by continuing cyberattacks on the United States, despite Biden’s warning, at the Geneva summit in June, that this was a red line.

After heavy rhetorical investment in Ukraine’s sovereignty, U.S. failure to support it would signal a further lack of resolve—and would be far more significant than the withdrawal from Afghanistan, given Biden’s lack of enthusiasm for that more peripheral conflict. China, too, would take note, and encouragement, from a fresh U.S. failure to honor its commitments to allies.


Responsible policymakers must assume that renewed Russian aggression is not an idle threat but a real possibility. The policy response—appeasement or deterrence—then rests on two factors: judgements about Russia’s goals and resolve, and the West’s risk appetite. If Russian aggression is undeterrable, its intentions limited, and the danger of a wider military escalation high, then the case for accommodating Russia’s security demands might appear plausible. However unpalatable, limitations on NATO’s force deployments and future enlargement could be an acceptable price for long-term security in the region. This is the strongest feasible case for appeasement today.

But Russia’s words and actions offer no assurance that its aims are limited. It is threatening force to demand unilateral concessions while it continues to occupy the territory of a sovereign state. The United States, supported by a united West, has now credibly committed to unprecedented sanctions that could avert aggression. If Tuesday’s Biden-Putin meeting revealed anything, it is that pursuing deterrence is essential.

Nigel Gould-Davies is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a 2021-22 fellow at the Wilson Center. He was the British ambassador to Belarus from 2007-2009.

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