Commentary

Menu of Foreign Policy: Sanctions, Cyberwar, and Troop Deployment in Ukraine

Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in the early morning of February 24 by firing missiles at targets in major Ukrainian cities. Ground forces crossed into Ukrainian territory from Russia, Belarus, and the in 2014 annexed Crimean peninsula. 

While the invasion’s magnitude and reach may have been uncertain, Russia’s attack on Ukraine was not unexpected.

US Foreign Policy Menu

The United States has been actively preparing for the invasion for weeks.

Washington preemptively bolstered troop deployments to NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe. It threatened sanctions, and as troops massed on the Ukrainian border, imposed limited sanctions. Since then, the Biden administration has imposed new and more severe sanctions. 

Recent reports also indicate that US President Joe Biden is considering cyberwarfare options. Though the White House denied such reports, the US has conducted cyber attacks before — most notably against Iran.

As the United States faces the potential of war with a nuclear power, each response carries different implications for the route the crisis can take.

In carrying out foreign policy, countries have a menu of different options to achieve foreign policy goals. The United States has a wide variety of levers it can pull to try to dissuade Russia from continuing its invasion. It is currently evaluating which options, or combination of options, it will pursue.

Sanctions

Sanctions are one such lever. Sanctions can raise the cost of conflict by imposing economic costs on a country’s leaders and people.

If Russian political and economic elites, and the general public, are financially harmed by sanctions, they may pressure Vladimir Putin to end the conflict.

As is evidenced by widespread anti-war protests in Russia, there are many Russians who oppose the invasion. This opposition could grow as sanctions begin to take effect and people feel the burden of the conflict.

The Biden administration initially held back on imposing sanctions, hoping that their threat would deter a Russian incursion. Now their imposition is intended to compel Russia to end the invasion, but the likelihood of achieving this outcome is unclear.

Economic sanctions have a high failure rate, with some estimates putting their success rate at around 25 to 33 percent. This is not because sanctions are ineffective, but because we often do not observe the most successful sanctions.

A successful sanction does not have to be imposed because it succeeds at the threat stage: the target state will back down before sanctions are put in place.

The Cyber Option

Would a cyber attack then follow a similar logic as an economic sanction? Should the Biden administration be threatening Russia with cyber attacks? Though cyber conflict has fully emerged as a domain of conflict, in some ways, it is the opposite of economic sanctions.

A state’s capability to implement sanctions, and the resulting damage, are often known information. This is why sanctions are often so effective at the threat stage. However, with a cyber attack, the attacker and the attacker’s capabilities are often largely unknown.

The specific effects of cyber attacks can also vary, ranging from denial of service attacks on web systems to interfering with enemy communications.

If the US reveals the kind of cyberattacks it can conduct, it makes it more likely that a target can take advantage of that information to protect its systems or even use the attack themselves.

The US government maintains a process to determine which vulnerabilities it shares with software companies and holds as a state secret. Accordingly, countries often keep cyber strategies and capabilities secret until they need to deploy them, as sharing them ahead of time would decrease their effectiveness.

Sanctions and cyber attacks both raise the costs of an action, but they do not require a physical presence by the United States. Sanctions and cyber attacks may make a choice costlier for US opponents but are less likely to lead to a direct military confrontation than deploying military personnel. 

Risk of Great Power War

President Biden has been clear to note that the US will not put American troops on the ground to defend Ukraine. This action decreases the probability of war between the US and Russia.

In contrast, the United States has increased its military deployments to the allied NATO states in the region, such as Poland and the Baltic states. These troop deployments serve various purposes, including reassuring allies and sending a signal to Russia about its objectives in the region.

Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after a fighting with Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv
Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after fighting with Russian troops in Kyiv in the morning of February 26, 2022. Photo: Segei Supinski/AFP

When intervening abroad, those policies that carry the lowest risk of casualties for a country — such as sanctions, cyber attacks, or to a lesser degree, air campaigns — tend to be used in lower-salience crises.

The message these tools send to the target is that the country using them is limited in its willingness to incur costs to get what it wants — they signal that the sender has lower resolve.

What signals high resolve? Actions that carry the potential for high monetary, human, and political costs. Putting boots on the ground is an example of an action that sends such a message.

States are more likely to deploy ground forces in cases in which the issue at stake is highly important to them. Thus, the US is signaling that it is willing to risk more for NATO allies than for Ukraine

This is not a guarantee that Russia will not try to test the alliance and push its expansion beyond Ukraine, but it does mean that the pressure for the US to use force would be much higher, and the risk for war between two nuclear powers would increase.


Michael A. Allen (@michaelallen) is an associate professor of political science at Boise State University.

Michael E. Flynn(@flynnpolsci) is an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University.

Carla Martinez Machain (@carlammm) is a professor of political science at Kansas State University.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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