What would happen if the West stopped playing by Russia’s rules?

Russia’s renewed campaign of missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian civilians has begun in earnest. The campaign was long expected — but even so, Ukraine’s Western backers appear to be repeating the same mistakes of last year in responding to it.

During last year’s winter assault on Ukraine’s heating and power infrastructure, intended to freeze the country into submission, Western support efforts focused on replacing that infrastructure — keeping the lights on in Ukraine, but also inevitably lining up more targets for Russia to attack.

This year, the emphasis is on supplies of air defense systems to better shield Ukraine’s skies.

But the problem with both of these approaches is that they are defensive and reactive, and do nothing to address the problem at source by stopping the strikes.

At the moment there are no downsides for Russia in continuing its attacks on Ukrainian residential areas and critical infrastructure. That’s because the West as a whole, and the US in particular, have decided that they can do nothing to influence Russian choices.

But just making Ukraine a more resilient punchbag is not a sustainable strategy. If they want fewer civilians to die, Kyiv’s Western backers have to realize they can take the initiative instead of watching helplessly.

In fact one of the most obscene and perverse elements of the war on Ukraine is the way in which Russia has been permitted by the global community to wage it. The world — and the West — has acquiesced in rules of the game dictated by Moscow, where Russia is afforded safe zones from which it can launch missile attacks against Ukrainian apartment buildings without concern for counter-strikes.

That acquiescence argues a failure of imagination and initiative, and a failure to step back and realize how absurd and bizarre it is that Russia can continue on this path of behaviour unchallenged by anybody but Ukraine.

It’s a mental paralysis rooted in an assumption that Russia is too big, too strong, too irrational or has too many nuclear weapons to be influenced. Russian state behavior seems to be treated as a natural phenomenon that must be observed helplessly, rather than the result of calculated decisions by leadership figures — whose calculations can be influenced by both incentives and deterrents.

Stopping the strikes doesn’t necessarily mean simply hitting back at the sources of the missile and drone attacks. That’s largely ruled out anyway given the US ban on using US-supplied weapons against Russia inside its own borders. But that doesn’t mean the West — with or without the US — has no leverage at all.

Some options for dissuading and deterring Russia from specific actions in Ukraine have been considered and rejected. These included a troop presence from NATO member states in Ukraine ahead of the invasion in order to prevent it — swiftly ruled out as implausible without US support.

But other Western decisions have been presented to Moscow as explicit choices. Back in December 2022, the UK told Russia it would supply Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine if attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure continued. Russia did continue, and now Storm Shadow has been a significant factor in the defeat of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and holding Crimea at risk.

There is plenty more the West could do that Moscow would genuinely dislike. That could include promises of greater deliveries of high-profile weapons systems like combat aircraft or long-range missiles; or signaling more serious intent to seize Russian state assets frozen abroad as reparations for the damage done to Ukraine.

Linking the prospect of unpleasant outcomes to changes in Russian behavior would provide influence and leverage on Moscow — but this valuable opportunity seems almost never to be taken.

The Biden administration has consistently communicated its aspiration to support Ukraine. Sadly, it has also consistently and clearly communicated that it greatly fears a direct confrontation with Russia. This signaling has taken the place of any real efforts at deterring Moscow. President Joe Biden has claimed to “have Ukraine’s back” at the same time as emphasising the “flat assurance” from Ukraine that US-supplied weapons systems will not be used against Russia itself.

Throughout the war, although holding back on capabilities that would take the fight to Russia, the US has assisted Ukraine with weapons and materiel sufficient to allow it to hold back the invaders. Those supplies have been vital to Ukraine’s continued survival despite criticism of Washington’s hesitancy over specific weapons systems.

But now these flows too have been interdicted by elements of the US Congress determined to prioritise domestic political point-scoring over the future of the global system that underpins US prosperity. And Ukraine’s military leadership can’t make realistic plans while it remains unclear what military equipment will be available to implement them.

For all the disconnect between a timid White House, a recalcitrant Congress and a US military which by contrast remains fully focused on enabling Ukraine to evict the Russian invasion force, the evidence lies in the actions, not the words of the United States.

That evidence supports only one conclusion: the US political establishment has assessed that enabling Ukraine to defeat Russia is not in the broader strategic interest of the United States. That indicates an inability or unwillingness to recognize the dire consequences for the US and the West overall of Russian success.

There are disturbing parallels with the period leading up to the Second World War. Strong isolationist voices in the US argue that wars far away are of no concern at home. Others bicker over which challenge needs to be faced, as if there is a choice — with Russia and China now taking the place of 1930s Germany and Japan.

In the meantime, the US may have hoped that non-escalatory measures – like economic sanctions, and a cautious and incremental approach to arming Ukraine — would be sufficient to settle a strategic confrontation with Russia. If so, this has manifestly failed.

As so consistently throughout the conflict, the UK is at least saying the right thing and calling for Ukraine to be enabled to defeat Russia rather than merely survive. Europe too, shocked awake by the threat to US support, now says it aims to ramp up production of weapons to help Ukraine — welcome news, even if long overdue.

But that is not a substitute for a much deeper change of mindset on how to deal with Russia. And with the US out of the picture as the leader of a coalition of the unwilling, there is an opportunity for others to step up. Front-line states like Poland, acutely aware of the existential nature of the threat, can take a greater role in changing how the West as a whole understands the conflict — not just in open combat in Ukraine, but in the wider war Russia is waging on the global system that has kept Europe safe for decades.

Defending that system will be complex, messy and expensive, and involve hard choices for both Europe and North America.

But in Russia’s terror campaign in Ukraine’s skies today, the equation is brutally simple: the less willing the West is to show Russia its actions have consequences, the more Ukrainian men, women and children will die.

Keir Giles is a senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in the UK. He is the author of Russia’s War on Everybody: And What it Means for You. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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