Blake Williams on “Sanctions Alone Will Not Deter Russia: Is it Time to Talk?”

Today’s post is by Lawfire contributor LTC Blake Williams, and his essay adds to our ongoing series about the Ukraine crisis (you may recall his recent post Action and Reaction: Are NATO States Ready to Contain the Risks Tied to New Sanctions?”).  In his newest post Blake, a fellow and instructor with the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in Sanremo, Italy, offers his personal view as to the efficacy of threatened sanctions as a means of deterrence, and what to do if they fail.


The White House had threatened “severe economic sanctions” and Congress was preparing to impose the mother of all sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion.  However, news reports today indicate that the U.S. is uncertain as to how to respond to Putin’s deployment of what he claims are Russian army “peace peacekeepers” into areas of the Ukraine already under the control of Russian-backed separatists (“White House wrestles with whether Russia has ‘invaded’ Ukraine”).  Even if there are sanctions in response will they rise to the threatened level or be short of it?

Of course, this is a classic example of a grey zone approach…and Putin is a master of them.  We recently discussed them in the war in the infosphere post, so the question today is how far will grey zone techniques extend into more earthly spheres of conflict?  Has Putin figured out a way to get troops on the ground in the Ukraine without breaching the threshold that would trigger “severe economic sanctions”?  Recall our earlier discussion (here). 

Obviously, much is still uncertain, to include whether or not the “peacekeepers” will engage directly with Ukrainian forces holding parts of the area claimed by Russian-backed separatists.  More troubling: is this simply part of a larger, all-out attack on the Ukraine?  Is it really the “beginning of an invasion as a White House official said today?  Those are important questions, but first let’s grapple with the here and now by reading LTC Williams’ sober analysis of the U.S.’s and its allies’ deterrence strategy.  

Blake’s essay:

Sanctions Alone Will Not Deter Russia: Is it Time to Talk?*

by LTC Blake Williams, USA

The Ukraine Crisis

Despite a threat of crippling sanctions, Russian authorities have not de-escalated the situation in Ukraine. In fact, on 21 February 2022, President Putin chose to recognize two republics in the Donbass region and authorized the Russia Army to act as peacekeepers to protect these republics. It is unclear just how far into Ukrainian territory these troops will go.

Sanctions as Deterrence?

It appears the West hoped a threat of sanctions would prevent Russian troops from entering Ukraine. Just days prior to this aggressive action by Russia, Reuters asked Vice President Harris about the purpose of sanctions.  She replied that the purpose of the proposed sanctions is deterrence.  Yet President Putin has not been deterred so far. Will he be deterred from further aggression? What is deterrence?  Did the proposed sanctions qualify as adequate military deterrence in Ukraine?

US Doctrine

For the United States military and by extension of the US government, deterrence has a specific definition.  According to Joint Publication 3-0, “Deterrence prevents adversary action through the presentation of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and belief that the cost of the action outweighs the perceived benefits.” 

Unacceptable Counteraction?

To deter Russia the counteraction must be unacceptable to Russian leadership.  However, Russian authorities are saying in their English language press that Russia is immune to sanctions. Although Russia is certainly not immune to sanctions, President Putin’s statement indicates that the threatened counteraction is not considered unacceptable to Russia. This is a serious deficiency. To deter, a counteraction must be unacceptable.

Putin is in Charge of Russia

Even if the specific and special sanctions planned are unacceptable to Russia, the counteraction must be unacceptable to the actor subject to deterrence, in this case President Putin.  If he says he does not care about sanctions, he is either lying or the selected counteraction is inappropriate and cannot deter him.   Even if Putin secretly finds the threatened sanctions unacceptable, the likelihood of achieving deterrence is still based on a combination of capability, credibility, and communication. 

Is the Western Message Clear?

Let us start with communication. What exactly are the sanctions for military aggression? The Ukrainian President does not know. The United States government has not provided details on the sanctions. According to the US Government’s own doctrine, military deterrence is best achieved through clear communications of consequences.  Not only is the extent and nature of sanctions planned not clear, it is also unclear what the exact triggering conditions are for implementation. 

Is the US Capable?

Do the US and its allies have the capability to impose life altering sanctions on Russia? In other words, is it believable that the level of sanctions promised can be delivered?  Given US and UK influence in international banking, it would appear that the answer is yes. However, Germany is the economic leader of Europe and a major trading partner with Russia.  Germany has been hesitant to impose sanctions.  Asian states appear uninterested in sanctions, even Japan wants to avoid further sanctions. China meanwhile is supporting Russia. 

Is the Threat Credible?

Taken together, the Western hesitance to announce specific sanctions and the public disagreement between allies regarding the depth and breadth of sanctions undermine the credibility of the threat of sanctions.  The extent of Russian military action may provide the ability to rally consensus on sanctions even amongst NATO powers, but this would occur after the fact. Credible deterrence requires certainty rather than possibility.

Sanctions Fall Short

According to US military doctrine the failure of sanctions both at this time and going forward was and is predictable. The sanctions promised fail the US government’s own doctrinal test for deterring adversarial military action.  President Putin doesn’t fear the counteraction America is promising.  Furthermore, the disagreement amongst allies reduces the credibility of the threat and the imprecise communications further dilute the threat.

Another Form of Deterrence?

If the threat of sanctions will not deter Russia, what would? What counteraction is unacceptable? Russia repeatedly says that it wants NATO to stop expanding and to stop exercising and basing forces in former Soviet states. Should accelerated NATO expansion and basing be threatened?  If Russia says that bi-lateral military training with Ukraine should be stopped, should the threat be to increase it? Historically, the strongest deterrence has come from the threat of military counteraction. Should NATO promise to defend Ukraine? Regardless of the form of deterrence, the form of counteraction must be unacceptable to Russia. This may involve options that pose significant risks for NATO and the US.  Difficult options may be difficult to credibly present as counteractions.

An Agreement?

If a proper deterrent is not offered, a negotiated agreement takes on a larger importance. Russia has been asking for an agreement, but preparing for a general invasion. If US policymakers are sincerely convinced that Russia will invade, they must believe that Russia thinks its best alternative to a negotiated agreement is invasion. An invasion may rank as the US government’s worst alternative because it not only threatens regional security, but the very existence of the UN Charter provisions outlawing war. In a situation where one party’s best alternative to a settlement is the other’s worst alternative, negotiations should be pursued.

About the author

LTC Blake Williams is a fellow and instructor with the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in Sanremo, Italy and a US Army Judge Advocate with 16 years of experience. He holds a Masters of Operational Studies with Honors from the US Army Command and General Staff College and Fort Leavenworth; a LL.M from the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School at Charlottesville, Virginia; and a J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law.  He is admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States and Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. 


* The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other agency of the U.S. government.

The views expressed by guest authors also do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!



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