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Opinion On sanctions against Russia, the West’s best policy is to keep its powder dry

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before their meeting Jan. 21 in Geneva. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Russia continues its threatening military buildup around Ukraine. A half-dozen ships capable of carrying troops and tanks are en route from Russia Baltic ports to the Mediterranean, whence they could reach Ukraine on short notice. Russia has also dispatched new troops and aircraft to Belarus, ostensibly for military exercises in early February. There is still a hope for diplomacy: talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ended on Friday with a promise to continue later. Clearly, however, Russia is surrounding Ukraine and the questions of how best to deter an invasion — or to respond if deterrence fails — are more pressing than ever.

It’s a hard balance to strike, especially because Russian President Vladimir Putin can — and will — use any measures the United States and its NATO allies either take or refrain from taking as a pretext for aggression. With that reality in mind, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is calling for tough economic sanctions now, as punishment for the moves Mr. Putin has already made. Some Republican lawmakers echo him.

Mr. Zelensky’s argument is understandable, both politically and emotionally. But it’s not strategically optimal for the reason Mr. Blinken gave on Sunday during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “Once sanctions are triggered, you lose the deterrent effect.” Unstated by Mr. Blinken, but also relevant, is the likelihood that sanctions now would divide the alliance, because European allies would be unlikely to join in.

So it’s better to keep the West’s powder dry, while broadcasting to Moscow just how potent the sanctions bomb could be if Russia chooses to detonate it by invading. The Biden administration has usefully sent that signal by openly contemplating a plan to deprive Russia of indispensable electronic components manufactured with U.S.-made tools or containing U.S.-made software.

For now, it is more important to make sure Ukraine has defensive weapons and that its NATO-member neighbors are prepared to deal with potential cross-border consequences — from refugees to spillover combat — that Russian aggression might create. On these points, too, the administration appears to be striking the right balance, albeit after previous hesitation based on anxiety about provoking Mr. Putin.

President Biden is also considering sending more U.S. troops and planes to Eastern Europe as France, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands have already done. He should. This would be a mission of deterrence, not war-fighting, and would bolster the previous deployments of 5,000 NATO troops to Poland and the Baltic states in the wake of Russia’s 2014 aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The administration is encouraging NATO allies such as Britain and the Baltic countries to send weapons to Ukraine following a direct dispatch of some 180 tons of U.S. equipment.

“If you want peace, prepare for war,” as the old saying has it. Mr. Putin might have already gone so far down the path toward war that he will not turn back, regardless of how well NATO prepares. If there is any chance for deterrence and diplomacy to work, though, the United States and its allies have a duty to maximize it.