U.S. President Joe Biden announced "devastating" Western sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, from the White House on February 24, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Why 'Doing Something' for Ukraine--Even With Best Intentions--Might Make Things Worse

Rather than ratcheting up the violence and expanding its geographic scope, the U.S. government should focus on deescalating the conflict and bolstering diplomatic solutions.…

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's appeal to Congress this week was direct and heart-rending: "This is a terror that Europe has not seen for 80 years, and we are asking for a reply, for an answer to this terror from the whole world. Is this a lot to ask for?"

He followed his desperate plea with a video compilation of the horrifying scenes we've all witnessed on TV: a pregnant woman--who later died, with her baby--being carried through the rubble of a Mariupol maternity hospital. The emotional goodbyes of family members forced to flee their homes. Terrified children, overloaded trains, empty shelves, bombed-out homes, schools, hospitals, and places of worship.

Foreign policy decision-makers too often equate "doing something" with using force.

This is devastating to witness. In these dire circumstances, the urge to "do something" is completely understandable and commendable. Standing by and doing nothing as Russian forces rain down death and destruction upon innocent Ukrainian civilians is simply not an option if we value the lives of others as much as our own.

Unfortunately, foreign policy decision-makers too often equate "doing something" with using force. Immediately following Zelenskyy's address to Congress, President Biden announced $800 million in new assistance to Ukraine, including 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems; 9,000 anti-armor systems; 7,000 small arms; and a total of 20 million rounds of ammunition, among other things. Former key officials have already endorsed Zelenskyy's call for a no-fly zone, and a growing number of senators are pressing Biden to send fighter jets to Ukraine.

Yet it's important to understand that these steps, while they may be well-intentioned, are likely to jeopardize the lives of even more innocent people--and that there are better and more effective alternatives available. As a Quaker lobby, we oppose all war. But you don't have to be a Quaker to understand the danger of some of the policy choices being proposed at the moment.

A no-fly zone, for instance, would require the U.S. military to shoot Russian warplanes out of the sky--effectively putting the world's two greatest powers, with 90% of the world's nuclear warheads, in direct conflict. Flying Polish MiGs from a U.S. airbase in Germany into contested Ukrainian airspace could turn this conflict into World War III.

Some want to keep escalating economic sanctions in response to Putin's aggression. With the support of Congress, the White House has imposed a barrage of financial measures to punish Russia. They included banning all oil and gas imports, removing key Russian banks from the global financial messaging system, freezing Russia's central bank assets, and revoking "most favored nation" trading status. Yet crashing Russia's economy is more likely to cause massive human suffering than to weaken Putin's resolve or his political standing. It is deeply immoral to intentionally harm civilians as a way of putting pressure on their leaders.

Rather than ratcheting up the violence and expanding its geographic scope, the U.S. government should focus on deescalating the conflict and bolstering diplomatic solutions.

The U.S. government should focus on deescalating the conflict and bolstering diplomatic solutions.

President Biden should make clear that the purpose of sanctions is to end the war, not to remove Putin from office or to punish the Russian public for its leader's actions. Providing off-ramps and incentives for Putin to reverse course in Ukraine is essential if there is to be a swift and equitable conclusion to this terrible war.

Congress should express its support for diplomacy by increasing resources for peacebuilding accounts at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. By allowing the Iran nuclear accord to be resuscitated, Congress can show Russia that it will not stand in the way of negotiated agreements.

The first step to a just and lasting resolution of the conflict is a ceasefire agreement. While negotiations must be conducted directly between Ukraine and Russia, the United States can increase the chances for success by offering to roll back sanctions in response to positive steps on the ground, by inviting China to help mediate, and by encouraging all parties to engage with seriousness, flexibility, and good faith.

There is no justification for Putin's ruthless war in Ukraine, and everyone with a conscience wants to do something to help those whose lives and liberty are under assault. Let's make sure that the "something" helps bring an end to the war as quickly as possible, rather than escalating, expanding, and prolonging the bloodshed.

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