With Russian forces having entered eastern Ukraine this week in what could be a prelude to a larger military offensive, President Biden on Tuesday leveled new economic sanctions on Moscow in response to what he called “a flagrant violation of international law.”
Opting to target financial institutions and Russia’s elite class, Biden has stopped short of committing troops to help defend Ukraine from an all-out Russian attack, but even before the sanctions were announced, some of the president’s conservative critics argued that the unfolding situation was of no concern to the United States.
“What’s happening in Ukraine has nothing to do with our national security, but it is distracting our idiot ‘leaders’ from focusing on the things that actually do matter to our national security, like securing the border & stopping the flow of Fentanyl that’s killing American kids,” Republican senatorial candidate J.D.Vance said in a tweet on Monday.
Last month, Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared that Ukraine was “strategically irrelevant to the United States,” and wondered aloud why it was “disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?”
If Russian President Vladimir Putin expands his invasion, as Biden believes he will, more robust sanctions from the U.S.and its NATO allies are all but assured, but they, too, carry risks.Here’s a look at why some experts are urging all Americans to pay attention to the growing conflict.
Possible economic fallout A gas pump in McLean, Va.(Leah Millis/Reuters) Announcing the “first tranche” of U.S.
sanctions on Tuesday, Biden said that in response to the possibility of a widening Russian invasion of Ukraine, “my administration is using every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers from rising prices at the pump,” Biden said.
At the same time, however, Biden announced that in response to Russia’s actions, Germany would not certify the Russian-owned Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, potentially limiting supply and raising global prices.
Story continues Russia is the world’s third-largest producer of oil, and the largest supplier of natural gas to Europe — commodities whose prices have been on the rise in recent months.
Even though the U.S.relies on Russia for only about 3 percent of its oil demand, American consumers will likely be affected, since any reduction to the overall supply will cause the market value to climb worldwide.Just the threat of war had pushed the price of oil above $90 a barrel as of early last week, according to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal .
Whether Russia’s energy sector is the target of additional Western sanctions, or it is weaponized by Putin in response to punitive measures, any major disruption to Russia’s fossil fuel exports will likely be felt by Americans at the gas pump, on their heating bills and in higher costs for other consumer goods, potentially causing inflation to increase as well.
“Russians are major producers of a lot of raw materials in an environment where we are already facing a 40-year high inflation, where there are already a lot of supply chain challenges,” said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group , a political risk research and consulting firm.
“This will actually increase costs on Americans, it will reduce consumer sentiment and confidence.”
As Biden said Tuesday, the administration knows those costs are coming.
“As I said last week, defending freedom will have costs for us as well and here at home,” Biden said.“We need to be honest about that, but as we do this, I’m going to take robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at the Russian economy, not ours.”
Cyberattacks A data center at an office in London’s financial district.(Dylan Martinez/Reuters) The White House has also warned that Russia could retaliate for sanctions by launching cyberattacks against critical infrastructure in the U.S.
“If Russia attacks the United States or our allies through asymmetric means like disruptive cyberattacks against our companies or critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond,” Biden said last week, confirming earlier reporting by Yahoo News that officials at the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were warning law enforcement, military and others charged with overseeing U.S.infrastructure to be prepared for Russian cyberattacks.
At the White House on Friday, deputy national security adviser Anne Neuberger told reporters that while there are currently no credible or specific cyber threats to the homeland, U.S.officials have been in communication with the private sector since before Thanksgiving, urging businesses such as banks and utility companies to beef up their cyber defenses.
Neuberger also said the Biden administration has been providing support for similar efforts by the Ukrainian government, and blamed Russia for recent cyberattacks targeting the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and major banks.
Bremmer predicted that the Russians won’t likely “simply sit down and take” the severe sanctions the U.S.is threatening.He pointed to the 2021 Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack as an example of the kind of cyberthreat privately owned U.S.infrastructure could face from the Russians.
“Americans cared about that a lot,” Bremmer said of the Colonial Pipeline attack, which saw a temporary shutdown that resulted in fuel shortages in parts of the U.S.
“If we were to go gloves-off in a cyberwar with the Russians, we will be facing massive problems in terms of data compromise, in terms of disruptions, including to our critical infrastructure in the U.S.,” Bremmer said.
“That’s something Americans have really not been thinking about, frankly, since the days of the Cold War.”
‘A direct threat to democracy’ Ukrainians protest outside the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb.22, 2022.(Umit Bektas/Reuters) At the heart of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is the latter’s right to exist as a sovereign nation.Putin, Biden said Tuesday, “directly attacked Ukraine’s right to exist.”
Ukraine has been an independent country since 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Putin has repeatedly made clear that he doesn’t see it that way.
“Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” Putin said in a speech delivered Monday .“These are our comrades, those dearest to us — not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.”
Questioning the legitimacy of Ukraine’s elected leaders, Putin called the country “a colony with puppets at its helm.”
“Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood,” Putin said.
“There has never been a sustainable statehood in Ukraine.”
Experts warn that Putin’s ultimate goal is to turn the clock back.
“Russia is essentially attempting to renegotiate, by force, the international order that has been established in the post-war era, …which is based on sovereignty and self-determination,” said Andrew Lohsen, a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
These principles, Lohsen explained, are outlined in international agreements, such as the United Nations Charter created in the aftermath of World War II, as well as the Helsinki Accords, the Paris Charter for European Security, and others that followed the Cold War.He said that such documents established the “rules of the game” that have helped reduce conflict around the world and specifically in Europe, over the last several decades.
In the past, Lohsen said, “Russia has at least paid lip service” to these agreements.But by “trying to impose its will on Ukraine,” he continued, Russia “seems completely intent on rewriting the rules.”
Lohsen said a Russian invasion of Ukraine could send the message to the rest of the world that “might is right,” emboldening other strong countries to stake their claim over smaller neighboring states just because they can.The most obvious example of concern is China, which many fear could follow Russia’s lead and invade Taiwan.But Lohsen said it wouldn’t just be “the heavyweights trying to knock each other around to establish new zones of influence,” but smaller states would also likely get in on the action, leading to the “normalization of this kind of conflict.”
During Tuesday’s briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Russia’s actions in Ukraine encapsulated a fundamental philosophical difference with the West.Putin, she said, believes “he has the right …
to take the territory, to claim territory from another country and we just don’t agree with that.”
While Putin has stated that its military buildup stems from Russian security concerns, Lohsen argues that one of the main reasons Ukraine finds itself in Russia’s crosshairs is because of its movement toward democracy over the last 30 years, and the fact that Ukraine’s leaders are accountable to its voters, rather than Putin.
“What Russia is trying to do is to ensure that countries along its periphery don’t have a choice in how they want to organize their societies,” said Lohsen.He warned that this, too, could spark another dangerous trend, giving a green light to authoritarian regimes around the world to exert similar pressure over other smaller, less stable democracies.
“That is a direct threat to democracy around the world,” he said.
Humanitarian toll A funeral service in Kyiv on Tuesday.
(Chris McGrath/Getty Images) The prospect of war between Russia and Ukraine also carries substantial risks for death and human suffering.
During a press briefing at the Pentagon last month, Gen.Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if Russia attacks Ukraine, “it would be horrific,” and that such a move would result in a significant amount of casualties.
According to the New York Times , Biden administration officials have told lawmakers that a full-scale invasion by the Russians could result in the deaths of up to 50,000 Ukrainians and 25,000 members of the Ukrainian military, as well as up to 10,000 members of the Russian military.The U.S.government also estimates between 1 million and 5 million people could be displaced if the two countries go to war, sparking a refugee crisis across Europe.
Lohsen said the flow of refugees from Ukraine will put intense pressure on the economies of neighboring countries, especially Poland, and may result in harsher immigration restrictions imposed by those governments.He also noted that Ukraine is a major exporter of food , wheat in particular, to a number of vulnerable countries, mainly in Asia and the Middle East, which could face food insecurity if Ukraine’s grain exports are disrupted.
At the White House on Tuesday, Biden signaled he may still be willing to engage in diplomatic negotiations to prevent Russia from escalating its invasion of Ukraine.
“There’s still time to avert the worst-case scenario which will bring untold suffering to millions of people,” he said..