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How to punish Putin if Russia invades Ukraine

Germany fears losing Russian natural gas, but NATO allies should insist that if Russia launches a war in Europe, it will pay a steep price: exile from the world’s banking system and crippling sanctions.

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 22. Soldiers and civilians in eastern Ukraine are waiting with helpless anticipation to see if war comes.Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

The year was 1994, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and Ukraine was in possession of the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, some 1,900 nuclear warheads. In what became known as the Budapest Memorandum, Kyiv agreed to give up that arsenal and, in return Russia, the United States, and Britain pledged “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against that country.

Today some 100,000 Russian troops are amassed at Ukraine’s border, Moscow’s Pacific Fleet forces recently arrived in Belarus ahead of a major military exercise, and more than 60 Russian fighter jets and bombers are involved in drills near Crimea, a section of Ukraine already illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.


So much for Russia’s promise to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

For Vladimir Putin, international agreements are mere words on paper — signed with vanishing ink. That’s something the United States and Europe should never, ever forget as they develop a strategy for reining in a man with vast territorial ambitions and a deep desire to restore a lost empire of which Ukraine was once a part.

Putin understands only action. And so the Biden administration’s move to put some 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployment to Europe, presumably to protect NATO’s Eastern flank, is precisely the kind of message likely to be understood in Moscow. But not only is it a message to Putin, it is also a message to those former Soviet Republics — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania — now all NATO nations, that the Western defensive alliance means something.

This isn’t mere political theater. Seen in conjunction with the recent direct movement of more than 180 tons of US equipment to Ukraine (including anti-tank missiles and bunker busters) and growing specificity about US sanctions should Russia invade, this is what deterrence looks like.


The White House has confirmed — and, yes, public disclosure itself is a helpful weapon — that it is considering export controls on all manner of essential software and advanced electronics that would cut Russia off from the high-tech gear used in everything from airplanes to smartphones. It would essentially put Russia in the same category as Iran, Cuba, and North Korea.

The Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act was also filed earlier this month by Senate Democrats, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, but with backing from the White House. It proposes expanded military assistance to Ukraine, assistance in countering ongoing Russian disinformation efforts, and support for the nearby Baltic nations, which live under similar fears of Russian aggression.

And the bill proposes a laundry list of economic sanctions in the event the president determines Russia or its proxies “is engaged in or knowingly supporting a significant escalation in hostilities or hostile action in or against Ukraine” and if “such escalation has the aim or effect of undermining, overthrowing, or dismantling the Government of Ukraine, occupying the territory of Ukraine, or interfering with the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

The “cascading sanctions” include those on Russian financial institutions, cutting Russia out of the SWIFT financial system, which allows bank-to-bank transfers around the world, prohibiting primary and secondary transactions on Russian bonds, and sanctions on the Russian president and the entire top echelon of officials. And in a particularly mischievous section, the bill would require the public disclosure of Putin’s assets and those of his family and of his reputed girlfriend.


Speedy passage of the bill would, of course, also send the message that, at least on the issue of the future of democratic Ukraine, the Congress does indeed speak with one voice.

That’s more than can be said of European allies these days, Biden’s insistence earlier this week of their “total unanimity” notwithstanding.

British planes recently took an hours-long detour around German airspace to deliver antitank weapons to Ukraine, and Germany has refused to grant permission to Estonia to send German-made howitzers to the beleaguered nation.

And while Germany has for now put on hold activation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is to bring Russian natural gas to Western Europe, it has resisted making the pipeline part of any future sanctions package against Russia. Of course, with or without the new pipeline, Germany remains dependent on Russian natural gas.

And so to shore up the European alliance, the White House confirmed Tuesday that it is was seeking additional natural gas and oil supplies for Europe from North Africa, the Middle East, and the United States in the event Russia cuts off supplies.

No one really knows what Putin’s next move is. But he knows that Russia paid a small price for moving on Crimea and even less for aiding and abetting the war of aggression by Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine that has already claimed more than 14,000 lives.


If deterrence is to have any meaning, Putin must continue to be made aware — with every weapon delivered, with every soldier sent to protect Eastern Europe, with every potential sanction etched in stone — that this time it’s real. This time, Russia will pay a heavy price for its aggression. The security of Europe — not just of Ukraine — depends on the United States and its allies keeping their promises.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.