As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and other officials in Kiev make their way to the G7 Summit in Italy this week, they will be hoping for more news about who, if anyone, will impose more sanctions on Russia for its latest aggression toward Ukraine.
Last week’s escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine turned violent when pro-Russian rebels fired into the central part of Kiev from the east and the city government was forced to fire back with small arms to defend itself. This followed months of shelling by the eastern rebels and came shortly after separatists shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter.
The U.S. and Europe have imposed sanctions on Russia for its aggression toward Ukraine, while Russia has responded with sanctions on several Western businesses. But some are now calling for a more far-reaching economic boycott that would curtail trade and investment between the West and Russia.
Last week, a spokesman for U.S. President Donald Trump said that it is unlikely that the Trump administration will follow through on Trump’s campaign promise to sanction Russia over its intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Though some might claim that Moscow has no intention of doing so, it has demonstrated repeatedly that it will shoot down the last person it perceives as a threat to its sovereignty and aggression is a major threat to that sovereignty.
According to the Center for Global Policy, nearly 100 countries have military bases in Russia’s Barents Sea and the majority of those bases are facing ongoing or current strikes from the eastern area of Ukraine. In addition, these military bases house some of the most expensive vehicles in the world.
At the same time, Russia is arguably the most militarized country in the world. Even the smallest country in Europe has military bases in Russia. The Kremlin is currently building a $600 billion “megaproject” that will include an expansion of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, near the Crimean peninsula, and the building of the first of two aircraft carriers.
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing Russia can do to retaliate. Russia has used fear and disinformation to try to sway public opinion in the West in its favor since the mid-1990s. A small handful of NATO states in Europe are buying Russian-made arms for their militaries. In addition, Russia has announced the purchases of 44 medium-range nuclear-capable missiles from Ukraine and the countries have begun talks to draw down their military hardware.
Should Russia invade Ukraine, however, President Trump’s personal credibility will be on the line. Trump’s time in the presidential limelight has been filled with claims that he’ll “handle” Russian President Vladimir Putin well and that he “can’t stand” NATO. The most high-profile face of Russia, Putin himself, has praised him.
If Russia launches an attack in eastern Ukraine, the Trump administration could look like it is allowing an ally and its rich industries to violate the sovereignty of another state and perhaps allow the Russian president to win a debate over the borders of Europe.
If Trump does not act to stop Russia, then he could find his political standing in the Western world suffering, but because he has proposed to “otherwise” handle the situation, Trump would be able to cut deals with the Russians despite the threat of war.
So what are the options?
Imposing new sanctions is unlikely because the Russian economy is thriving at the moment, the oligarchs who created the crisis and are now profiting from it do not want the sanctions to go any further, and the Trump administration will not want to alienate a significant portion of the American electorate.
Sanctions are a last resort, and even a so-called secondary sanctions act, which could result in the end of trade between Russia and the U.S., might not be enough to change Putin’s intentions.
However, direct war by NATO nations against Russia would probably be a political and economic disaster for Western nations.
John Konrad is a former CIA analyst and now vice president of the Center for Defense Information.