“U.S. policy has generally been to offer sticks to Moscow and carrots to Kyiv. Successive administrations have tried to use coercive instruments—largely sanctions or the threat of them—to incentivize Russia to withdraw forces from rebel-held areas of the Donbas and deter further incursions. In parallel, Washington supports Kyiv economically, politically and militarily. The assumption is that the U.S. can coerce Russia into backing down by threatening consequences while strengthening Ukraine’s defenses and anchoring it to the West.”
“But Moscow’s current military buildup has been accompanied by dramatically tougher rhetoric in recent months, suggesting that this time is different. President Vladimir Putin may believe Ukraine is at an inflection point and that it’s time to up the ante. The risk of a major war seems real enough to justify a new U.S. approach. The current policy of threatening punishments and bolstering Kyiv might be morally justified, but it is highly unlikely to alter Putin’s calculus. The Biden administration should accept the unsatisfying reality that it will likely not be able to coerce Putin to de-escalate if he is determined to act. America’s leverage is limited.
Where the United States does have significant leverage is with Ukraine—and this leverage is largely untapped. Rather than focusing only on coercing Russia, the Biden administration should also push Kyiv to take steps toward implementing its obligations under the Minsk II agreement, which Ukraine has shown little desire to do since the deal was brokered six years ago. Ukrainian steps toward complying with the agreement, flawed as it is, might actually invite de-escalation from Russia and reinvigorate the languishing peace process.The threats against Ukraine implicit in Russia’s troop buildup are morally reprehensible and contrary to Moscow’s international commitments. But to avoid a war, persuading Kyiv to make the first move might be our best hope.”