The United States government is giving a great deal of attention to the situation in Ukraine, but it does not seem to be willing to threaten the sort of military action that would make an invasion prohibitively costly for Russian. (This related question ask about one of the U.S. government's main activities: saying what they think is going on in Ukraine.)

I suppose on the one hand talk is cheap, but on the other hand it seems like speaking loudly and carrying a small stick would ultimately make the United States look weak, or at least not fully committed to, e.g., protecting weaker states from stronger states. (I can't work it into a sentence, but the example of the Crimea seems instructive.)

Is the U.S. just trying to deter Russia from invading, or do they expect to have some higher moral standing after an invasion because of the attention they're giving Ukraine now?

  • Do you want the official line, from the US government and its friendly media and think tanks? Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 3:39
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    It could also be explained in terms of US economic and geopolitical self interest, but this would conflict with your premise that the US always has noble and altruistic motives. Or it could be explained as an attempt to distract Americans from domestic problems, as with previous anti-Russia and anti-China campaigns. Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 4:15
  • @KeithMcClary It's a good-faith question. Obviously any question can be read in any tone of voice, but in general I would think that questions of the form, “What are government X's incentives for behaving in Y manner?” would be welcome on this site.
    – adam.baker
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 12:08
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    Which sort of military action that would make an invasion prohibitively costly for Russian you are tallking about? Direct military confrontation with a nuclear power is not a good idea even for an other nuclear power.
    – convert
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 13:27
  • Yeah, to be clear I'm not saying it'd be good to have a military confrontation. I'm asking why the U.S. is making such a big deal out of something they seem unwilling to take decisive action against. Sanctions have been placed on other countries without talking about that every day for two or three weeks, or whatever it's been now.
    – adam.baker
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 13:51

4 Answers 4


The US won't defend Ukraine with combat forces, that could be triggering WWIII. They have promised to retaliate with painful economic sanctions. Those sanctions will also hurt the US and their allies, even if the US assumes that they'll hurt Russia more. So to the goal is to deter Russia from invading.

  • Have the list of sanctions been published and independently analysed? Because the Russian say they're not bothered. en.vestikavkaza.ru/news/… (Well they would say that, wouldn't they.)
    – Jontia
    Commented Feb 20, 2022 at 22:18
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    @Jontia, the West says they won't publish sanctions and their specific triggers because then Russia could maneuver around them. Just that there would be sanctions.
    – o.m.
    Commented Feb 21, 2022 at 5:25
  • "So to the goal is to deter Russia from invading." Didn't work out. Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 10:45
  • "The US won't defend Ukraine with combat forces, that could be triggering WWIII." That logic of course makes the US highly vulnerable. I think it will be interesting to see long term strategy the US really has to cope with rampant Russia. Judging by history it may sometimes better not to wait to long or the price will even be higher. I guess at least in the long run, the US and the EU will need a good strategy. Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 11:36
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    @Trilarion It’s even better not to attack a nuclear superpower, especially the other nuclear superpower. It’s like everybody forgot the Cold War ever happened and we avoided war with the Soviets then. Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 5:16

Sanctions are usually considered the most powerful and extreme punitive action available that isn't outright war.

While the US has a prodigious military, it has issues with deploying it on large scales over large distances. Which is mostly just the result of a simple fact: the planet's big. The logistics involved are highly non-trivial, and the military has for the most part had little reason to seriously focus on the issue at least since the end of the Cold War (but even during it NATO was well aware of these logistical issues and tried making various plans that didn't depend upon a full scale US involvement). Any attempt by the US to stage a serious military defense in Ukraine will take probably months at least, and with that much heads up Russia could simply go into a fully offensive invasion into Ukraine long before the cavalry arrives. From what I gather from experts, it's really unlikely Russia could actually win in the span of a few months, short of a dramatic shift in the Ukrainian people's willingness to defend themselves. But the devastation could be significant, and Russian forces could be entrenched and reinforced for a lengthy conflict long before US forces would be strong enough to attempt to expel them or hold them off. And that would amplify the severity of the conflict between them, creating greater risk of a nuclear incident, or full on nuclear war.

A much more likely military defense of Ukraine would originate closer to Ukraine: within Europe. But this, again, heightens the severity of the conflict, making it a World War waiting to bloom, with multiple nuclear powers involved.

With serious domestic issues at home to deal with, some of which this crisis is only going to amplify no matter what, the general willingness of the US population to back an actual military response isn't very strong. Combined with the prospects of a major conflict with an entrenched aggressor thousands of miles away, a military response simply isn't viable.

The hope with sanctions, as the hope always is (though some debate if this is a vain and futile hope), is that the economic pressures on the economic and political elites will undercut the support for Putin's (or more generally the Russian Federation government's) actions enough to encourage a de-escalation and potential return to a pre-invasion state. For all the talk of how the US is basically an oligarchy these days, Russia is very much more one, so attacking the pockets of their elites is the most accessible and glaring pressure point and weak spot available. And the US has immense power in international financial markets and banking to enable such attacks. Whether it will work or not is another matter.

  • That is a good argument for why they are using sanctions, yes. The question is why there's all the talk.
    – adam.baker
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:02
  • (Would supplying Ukraine with arms be considered a stronger response than sanctions?)
    – adam.baker
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 9:03
  • "US has a prodigious military, it has issues with deploying it on large scales over large distances" But that kind of worked fine in Iraq or Afghanistan? But what you say afterwards makes sense. They would basically come to late to any war. One could say they were unprepared (and similarly other NATO armies, probably not used to war anymore). Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 11:01
  • " prospects of a major conflict with an entrenched aggressor thousands of miles away, a military response simply isn't viable" But it was viable in Iraq or Afghanistan for example. I understand that maybe the US population is war wary, but then it didn't seem like it 10-15 years ago and it lets the US (and the EU) look kind of very weak now. Russia can do what it wants and invade a neighbor and all it gets is some lousy sanctions and a few mean words (one could say). Is the US still a superpower? Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 11:03
  • @Trilarion Yes and no. Afghanistan troop deployments peaked at 110,000. In 2011. 10 years after war was declared. Iraq troop deployments peaked around 170,000, in 2007, 4 years after things started. Though to be fair that's also about what they started with, but that started 5 months after Congress authorized Bush to use the military. Putin has some 200k+ troops already in and around Ukraine as I understand it. How big a force do you think the US would need, and how many months would it take to both authorize it and deploy it? As I said: months is what you'd expect. Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 11:33

Purely from having sat with this question for a few days, my current suspicion is that the purpose of all of the U.S. press is to put pressure on other Western nations to join the U.S. in imposing sanctions. Looking at trade figures, the Netherlands and Germany are the major trade partners with Russia that the U.S. could expect to influence. Germany especially might have let Nord Stream 2 continue rather than cancelling it, had not the U.S. raised the profile of the situation. (This is speculation informed by facts, but without specific documentation for what I imagine to be the principle motivations behind the actors.)

  • "Germany especially might have let Nord Stream 2 continue..." They kind of canceled it yesterday. Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 10:49
  • Yes, the sentence assumes that fact. It says that, contrary to fact, they might not have cancelled it, had the U.S. not done what it did.
    – adam.baker
    Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 11:25

Is the U.S. just trying to deter Russia from invading, or do they expect to have some higher moral standing after an invasion because of the attention they're giving Ukraine now?

Sanctions against the members of the Russian ruling elite and the Russian population that silently supports the current invasion are meant to deter Russia from executing upon further plans to deal with Ukraine. The Russian plans, as well as the intent of the Western sanctions, are delineated in the analysis of politologists (such as Vitaly Portnikov and Viktor Nebozehnko), politicians (such as Toomas Hendrik Ilves) and diplomats (such as Ambassador Michael McFaul). Note that all of the above analysts are pro-Western, even though they appear to be independent and not associated with each other.

There exists also another point of view, presented mostly by the mainstream media of the Russian Federation (RF) as well as by their friend and colleagues around the world. According to the RF main channel news (note that it is controlled by the government of the Russian Federation), the US is trying to weaken Russia economically using the sanctions without any valid root cause, presumably out of general animosity to Russia and its people.

Which of these opposing viewpoints is correct is left as an exercise to the reader. I personally favor the first explanation, because I find more factual errors per word in the news reporting from the RF in general than in the analysis by the pro-Western analysts above.

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    This is not a debate site, it is a Q&A site. While participants can have firm political convictions, the tradition is to keep reasonably non-inflammatory language and to try to acknowledge the existence of different viewpoints. This is the root of the high number of downvotes for your questions.
    – o.m.
    Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 11:16
  • @o.m. Thank you for the constructive comment. Edited the answer to fir the site tradition. :) Commented Feb 22, 2022 at 12:22
  • "exercise to the reader" You meant simply to wait and see, I guess. The number of possibilities reduced itself within a few days after posting here. Commented Feb 25, 2022 at 10:49

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