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Ukraine war: Have sanctions on Russia worked? Gradually increasing weapons aid?

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(WASHINGTON) — As Russia’s forces closed in on Ukraine a year ago, many anticipated its capital Kyiv would collapse in a matter of weeks, if not days.

But while Washington has widely rejoiced in what has so far been an upset of historic proportions by the underdog Ukraine — boosted by its steadfast Western allies — a prolonged conflict is presenting its own set of problems.

ABC News spoke to analysts and former officials about U.S. efforts to bolster Kyiv while imposing steep costs on Moscow through the war’s first year, how those strategies might shift in the months to come, and whether a resolution is within reach.

Getting Western weapons to the frontlines

While few may have predicted that Ukraine could sustain Russia’s attacks for so long, the West’s strategy for arming its fighters has changed along the way — ultimately amounting to support of unprecedented proportions, led by President Joe Biden.

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“A year ago, no one would have predicted or anticipated in the U.S. would have provided Ukraine with more than $25 billion in security assistance,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe Program and the Stuart Center in Euro-Atlantic and Northern European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official. “That’s in part because the Ukrainians demonstrated not only that they could use the equipment, but that they were going to have an army that needed to be resupplied and that was not a given pre-war.”

The steady increase in the level of firepower shipped to Ukraine has served another strategic purpose by limiting the risks of aggravating Russia and provoking a broader conflict, according to Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and former senior advisor at the State Department.

“Part of this is the successful boiling of the frog,” he said. “By doing this gradually, I think Russia has adjusted to each incremental ramping up and nothing has been seen as such a great departure from what was going on just before it that would merit Russia undertaking a dramatic shift in the pursuit of its war aims.”

Brad Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Senate adviser on foreign affairs, says that while the Biden administration deserves commendation for “moving heaven and earth to conduct a one of the most impressive security assistance programs in modern American history,” ultimately the issue isn’t keeping pace — but rather, a slow start.

“The Biden administration was incredibly slow before the February 24th invasion in sending weapons to Ukraine. They lost valuable time,” Bowman said. “That was painful and who knows had we been more aggressive? Maybe we would have deterred the invasion. We’ll never know.”

Bowman also says what he calls the “no, maybe, yes” dynamic that has played out when determining whether military supplies like Abrams tanks and Patriot missiles can be sent to Ukraine is detrimental.

“The request initially comes from Kyiv. The first answer is no,” he said. “And then something horrific happens in this unprovoked invasion. And then it becomes a maybe, and then it becomes a yes.”

“It isn’t an intellectual debate,” Bowman added. “This is life and death, victory and defeat on the battlefield.”

Have sanctions been effective?

Along with pledging its unwavering support to Ukraine, in the lead-up and immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the White House promised it would impose “severe and swift economic costs” on Moscow. Now, the Treasury Department is arguing those penalties are proving to be devastating — even if their true impact hasn’t yet been realized.

“While Russia’s economic data appears to be better than many expected early in the conflict, our actions are forcing the Kremlin to use its limited resources to prop up their economy at a time where they would rather be investing every dollar in their war machine,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in an address.

Indeed, while Ukraine’s military has outpaced expectations, so, too, has Russia’s economy. While many economists anticipated it would contract by double digits at the outset of the invasion, it only shrunk by two percent.

“Many did not anticipate is the effectiveness of the Russian central bank in taking emergency measures to stabilize the financial system,” said Charap. “Long term, the sanctions are obviously going to have a significant impact on the Russian economy. I think that short term squeeze is what wasn’t achieved.”

Bergmann says if it weren’t for the restrictions imposed, Moscow could have seen unbridled growth thanks to sky high energy costs. The greater problem, he says, is not the effectiveness of the set of sanctions imposed by the U.S and its allies, but rather the limited role any sanctions can play in ending a conflict.

“Banks don’t stop wars. An economic lever can cause pain, but it’s not going to substantially impact the leader’s decision making such as Putin, who is hell bent on trying to reclaim Ukraine for a nationalist reason,” he said.

Still, that economic leverage could still prove to be more effective in the long run, Bergmann predicts.

“What we’ve seen is that sanctions do work at strangling an economy. And the thing about strangulation is it can take time,” he said. “If we’re in a long war, battle of attrition, I think the sanctions really have an impact on Russia, in on Putin, who’s very sensitive to the whims of Russian public opinion.”

While implementing sanctions is one thing, enforcing them is a taller hurdle. The Treasury Department says it will escalate its crackdown on entities that help Russia subvert its policies — something Bowman says is crucial.

“Sanctions require constant maintenance because the whack-a-mole nature–you’ll sanction one entity and then they’ll just pop up under a new name somewhere else,” he said.

Bowman said that while Russia is currently able to rely on partners like Iran to prop up its military production, if Russian President Vladimir Putin is able to draw a much more powerful ally into its war effort, that could render the U.S. strategy on this front largely ineffective.

“If you have China starting to send weapons, then that’s really going to undermine really anything we’re doing on the sanctions front,” he said.

Prospects for peace?

If there’s one thing that every direct and indirect party to the conflict can seemingly agree on, it’s that a negotiated resolution doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.

But there may be some daylight between Kyiv and Washington as to the ultimate objective. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy has vowed he aims to reclaim all of Ukraine, including Crimea, a peninsula Russia has occupied since 2014. The U.S. has maintained that Crimea is rightfully Ukrainian territory, but the administration has not explicitly said whether it will support any efforts to retake the land.

“Our job is to make sure that, for example, if it does come to a negotiation, they’re in the strongest possible positioning from which to negotiate, which is why we are maximizing the efforts that we’re making now to help them regain territory that has been taken from them, whether it’s since February or since 2014,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday.

“Politicians are going to say certain things,” said Bergmann. “How the war unfolds will really determine what Ukraine is willing to accept or not, and I don’t think that’s really going to be up to folks in Washington or other European capitals.”

“I think the ultimate end goal for Ukraine is territorial borders that are recognized and that they can live with so that it can shift its westward toward the Europe Union and NATO,” he added.

While American officials readily say Ukraine must determine the terms of any peace agreement, Bowman says perhaps the most decisive thing the U.S. can do to strengthen Kyiv’s position at any negotiating table that emerges is sustaining public support.

“As we’ve seen throughout recent history, Europeans follow Washington’s lead. So if we get squishy, we should expect a lot of European capitals get squishy,” he said.

“The history books about this haven’t been written yet,” Bowman said. “If they say the we put up a good showing for a year, but in the end, Putin wore down the West he was able to grab territory by force, essentially giving a green light for him and other autocrats to do more of the same — that’s not something I want my kids reading.”

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