The West struggles to respond forcefully to Russia’s war in Ukraine

“PUTIN’S AGGRESSION against Ukraine will end up costing Russia dearly, economically and strategically. We will make sure of that.” With these fighting words, President Joe Biden announced on February 24th that America would impose sweeping economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The measures freeze the American assets of Russia’s biggest banks, hamper its ability to raise debt, restrict its import of high-tech goods and seize the wealth of its elites and their children. Britain and the EU announced similar steps.

But those who imagined that sanctions would cripple Russia’s economy overnight are likely to be disappointed, if only because much of the world still wants its oil and gas. And the West has signalled that, for all its horror at Mr Putin’s wanton aggression, it will not act militarily against a nuclear power. Instead, America and Europe seem to hope that opprobrium, economic pressure, the grind of war and, perhaps, discontent at home, will eventually convince Mr Putin to pull back—or at least not advance further.

Mr Biden denounced the brutality of Russia’s “war without a cause”, and hailed the unity of the West in the “contest between democracy and autocracy”. Yet the West is confronting a sobering failure: its ever-greater resort to sanctions as a tool of foreign policy has only a limited impact. One reason is that they also inflict pain on those who wield them, often unevenly.

After months of threatening “massive” sanctions, Mr Biden says he never pretended that sanctions could deter Mr Putin from going to war. Instead, he says they are now intended to sap Russia’s strength in the long term, to the point of turning it into “a secondary power”. He predicted: “Some of the most powerful impacts of our actions will come over time as we squeeze Russia’s access to finance and technology for strategic sectors of its economy…Between our actions and those of our allies and partners, we estimate we’ll cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports.”

The West’s response, however, remains far from exhaustive. Mr Biden was keen to highlight the fall of the Russian currency and its stockmarkets. But he was discomfited by the increase in energy prices as Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, briefly soared above $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014. A notable exclusion from the sanctions were Russia’s big energy companies. And America’s financial restrictions are allowing “energy payments” to continue. “My administration is using the tools—every tool at our disposal—to protect American families and businesses from rising prices at the gas pump,” said Mr Biden, warning oil and gas companies not to “exploit” this moment to raise prices. He said that personal sanctions against Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, were “on the table”, but there was no sign of them.

After a day of frenetic consultations among Western leaders, several of Ukraine’s calls for tougher action were left unanswered. These include the severing of Russia from the SWIFT system of financial transactions, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and the closure (by Turkey) of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits for Russian vessels sailing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, implored the world to act firmly: “If you my dear European leaders, my dear world leaders, leaders of the free world, don’t help us today, if you do not strongly help Ukraine, then tomorrow war will knock on your doors.”

For all the support given to Ukraine in the form of money and weapons, America has drawn a clear line between countries that are in NATO, which must be defended, and those that remain outside, like Ukraine, which must fend for themselves. That may give countries like Sweden and Finland renewed cause to consider joining the alliance.

Even within NATO’s domain, the allies have been at pains to indicate military restraint. They will be doubly cautious now that rival planes, ships and ground forces are operating in close proximity along the borders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Mr Biden said America was sending more troops to Europe and would help defend “every inch” of NATO territory, but would not be drawn into the fighting in Ukraine. “Let me say it again. Our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict with Russia in Ukraine. Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine, but to defend our NATO allies and reassure those allies in the east.”

NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said that “peace in our continent has been shattered”. NATO had activated its “defence plans”, which give commanders more leeway, but has not yet deployed the NATO Response Force, its 40,000-strong rapid-reaction force. As NATO leaders prepared for a video summit on February 25th, Mr Stoltenberg admitted: “We don’t have all the answers today.” He emphasised the importance of “deconfliction”, ie, avoiding the risk of inadvertent clashes, between NATO and Russian forces, and that “what we do is defensive, is measured and we do not seek confrontation.”

American hawks, such as John Bolton, a national-security adviser under Donald Trump, blame the war on Mr Biden’s “weakness”. In Mr Bolton’s view the feebleness dates to the time of George W. Bush, who did not stop Mr Putin from going to war in Georgia in 2008. It is especially true of Mr Trump, whom Mr Bolton served and who this week praised Mr Putin as “very savvy”. Mr Bolton said: “There’s a lot of tough talk in Brussels. And all that tough talk won’t buy you a cup of coffee.” In his view, America should have deployed troops to Ukraine months ago to act as a deterrent; now it’s “too late”.

Meeting in Brussels, national leaders of the EU’s 27 states castigated Russia for the “unprovoked and unjustified military action”. They agreed on the need for “massive and severe consequences”. Sanctions are also to be meted out against Belarus, which aided Russia with its attack. However the details of the measures have yet to be revealed. Some EU members—notably Germany and Italy—are less hawkish than hardliners in Poland and the Baltics.

In general, Western sanctions aim to hit Russia in areas where they have a clear balance of economic power, such as finance and technology. The penalties on big Russian banks will make life difficult but not impossible for Russia. It has built up large reserves, sought to make itself less dependent on the dollar and can probably rely on China to help evade the restrictions. The financial shock will be counterbalanced by the bumper revenues brought by high prices for oil and gas. Calls to cut Russia off from SWIFT met resistance from several European countries, and might anyway have carried the risk of contagion in already turbulent markets. The details of sanctions on tech exports to Russia remain unclear, but their impact is likely to be felt cumulatively over years rather than days.

Faced with a wall of denunciation—including an initial round of sanctions from Japan, Australia and South Korea—Russia found some solace from China, to which it has cleaved ever more closely. Hua Chunying, the Chinese foreign ministry’s chief spokesperson, declined to describe Russia’s action as an invasion, and instead blamed America: “They started the fire and fanned the flame. How are they going to put out the fire now?” And India sat uncomfortably on the fence: it has moved closer to America in recent years to offset China’s power, while remaining a long-time friend of Russia’s and a large buyer of its weapons. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, appealed for “an immediate cessation of violence”. That is unlikely. And the longer the war drags on, the more awkward India’s position will be. Some in Washington think that the ever-closer relationship between Mr Putin and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, will force India to strengthen its ties with the West. But that will probably take time. For now, the West has few good options to stop Mr Putin’s war.

All of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here