In Ukraine Crisis, Putin Faces a Stark Choice

BRUSSELS — As he engages in coercive diplomacy with the West, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia faces a stark choice: He can move militarily to control Ukraine or preserve economic links to Europe. But it will be difficult for him to do both.

For better or worse, the European relationship with Russia is one of interdependence.

Europe still badly needs Russian gas and oil, and Russia the income from selling it. Russian gas makes up 40 percent of the continent’s supplies — in Germany, it’s more than 55 percent — and Russian oil, 25 percent. At the same time, Russia still relies heavily on energy sales, which represent more than 30 percent of its economy and more than 60 percent of its exports.

This means that even if sanctions are imposed, Europe would still need to continue buying Russian energy, whether or not the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is designed to bring Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine, comes on line. Still, the continent would then diversify supplies much more quickly away from Moscow even as it accelerates its transition to sustainable energy.

As close as Russia and China are now becoming, as evidenced by an extraordinary joint statement made by Mr. Putin and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping last week at the Olympics, it would take the Chinese market many years to make up for the loss of Europe .

Mr. Putin would no doubt turn to China, said Alexander Gabuev, chairman of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “If a new war happens in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin again will need a friend, and that friend will be his rich buddy and ally and neighbor, Xi Jinping,” Mr. Gabuev said.

Both countries are trying to present a united front against the global influence of the United States, both in Europe and Asia. But how much Russia wants to turn away from its European markets, and how much China wants to anger Europeans are open questions.

China, too, has important trading and diplomatic interests in Europe that it would not want to put at risk by too closely embracing an aggressive Russia, and Beijing has always been a firm supporter of international boundaries and against external interventions. While Beijing and most of the world consider Taiwan a part of China, Ukraine is a vastly different case.

The growing Russia-China relationship, Mr. Gabuev said, is increasingly directed at Washington, “but it’s not an alliance where both sides support each other on everything.”

A major break with Europe could last as long as a decade and would damage Russia’s credibility as a reliable trading and diplomatic partner for even longer.

That emphasizes the importance of the European Union and its willingness to sanction Russia as a way to deter Mr. Putin; NATO’s own troop reinforcements are less about deterrence than reassurance. No one expects Russia to test NATO’s commitment to collective defense of its members, which do not, of course, include Ukraine.

The United States can also wield important economic sanctions, especially over Russian banks and the import of key technical parts, like semiconductors. But the United States has comparatively little trade with Russia compared to the European Union, which is Russia’s largest trade partner.

So how the European Union chooses to exercise its economic power matters, which is why the Biden administration has spent so much time briefing and cajoling the Europeans.

And despite differences among European countries, which would pay the biggest price for sanctions and any Russian counter-sanctions, the length of this crisis has enabled substantive negotiations about a serious sanctions package. European officials have built what they consider a powerful baseline set of sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, with options to increase that depending on what Mr. Putin actually does.

The new German government, with its three-party coalition, has now had time to debate the issue internally and commit to a serious package of sanctions, including targeting Nord Stream 2. Already, the German approval of the pipeline has been slow-walked until at least this summer, and speaking alongside Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington this week, President Biden said, “If Russia invades — that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again — then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2.”

But Europe is vulnerable to Russian counter-sanctions, and not just interruptions in energy flows, which Moscow could blame on pipeline accidents or damage rather than on an open breach of contract. Even a few days of gas cutoffs would increase already high energy prices, upsetting voters and panicking the stock market.

Europe is dependent on Russia for various important raw materials, too, from palladium to titanium to potash, a major Belarus export critical for fertilizers, despite existing sanctions. The point, a senior European official said, is to ensure that Russia, the target of sanctions, feels more pain than the Europeans do.

So EU officials are discussing which countries might be hurt most from sanctions or any Russian response and what Brussels can do to limit the pain. Croatia provided a good example after Russia was hit with EU sanctions in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Croatia was impacted by Russian counter-sanctions, including a ban on some food imports. Brussels then worked with Zagreb to minimize losses.

As ever, much depends on Mr. Putin.

Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British diplomat now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks this period of diplomatic coercion is “not an alternative to aggression but a potential prelude,” with Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, coupled with cyberattacks and a reduction of gas supplies to Europe, indicating unprecedented preparations for military action.

But the response of the United States and Europe has been surprisingly firm, he writes, reducing Mr. Putin’s options as Ukraine drifts toward the West. Now, he said, “aggression is the only option that is not certain to leave Russia in a worse diplomatic position than before its buildup.”

Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie’s Moscow Center, is not so sure. Mr. Putin could easily declare a diplomatic victory, Mr. Trenin argued in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, and say he was able to “force the West to finally negotiate with us on issues of European security.” That includes reviving the Minsk accords, which laid out a path to a more federal Ukraine and a lasting cease-fire there.

Or Mr. Putin could roll the dice militarily, which Mr. Trenin regards as unlikely given the risk of bloodshed and the economic cost.

Mr. Putin would be better served with a smaller operation, like the occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, which the Russian Duma has already voted to annex, or a series of cyberattacks that shake the Ukrainian government and would be far less likely to produce punishing sanctions from Washington and Brussels.

Still, Mr. Trenin said, a new politics has been emerging in Russia that breaks with past efforts under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to integrate and cooperate with the West.

“What if the severance from the West that President Putin talked about in response to the prospects of US ‘sanctions from hell’ becomes reality?” he asked. “What if Russia eventually embarks on a completely different foreign and domestic policy course, which would also include the economic, social and ideological spheres?”

Only Mr. Putin can answer the question, Mr. Trenin said. “It’s impossible to figure out his answer from the outside. Russia has the capabilities to implement both scenarios.”