• May 24, 2024

Putin in the driver’s seat

 Putin in the driver’s seat

The United States and Europe are at a tipping point, with each deciding how to respond to Russian resurgence, bellicosity, and aggression. If they do not move decisively to stop Russia from taking over Ukraine, they will send a dangerous message to China vis-a-vis Taiwan, position Russia to coerce more former Soviet satellite states, and further ruin their international reputation, which is already in tatters after the betrayal of Afghanistan and failed diplomatic overtures to Iran. The window is closing to deter Russia from instigating major war or from conquering Ukraine by intensifying its current campaign of paramilitary assaults, disinformation, energy blackmail, and threats backed by escalation.

It is nearly past time to alter Vladimir Putin’s shrewd calculus and deny Russia crucial geopolitical territory and a defining anti-democratic victory. The West should immediately impose tough sanctions on Russia, provide serious defense assistance to Ukraine, demonstrate unambivalent support for Ukrainian sovereignty, and project moral and strategic resolve. Unfortunately, current trends and past behavior provide little cause for optimism that the “free world” will rise to the challenge.

Even though Russia emerged from the Cold War debilitated and divided, the U.S. and its allies have failed so far to arrest or contain Putin’s relentless military buildup and geopolitical advances, escalating hostilities and atrocities, and ever-evolving use of subterfuge and propaganda to destabilize democracies and fortify dictatorships. Russia has seized the day, while the West has struggled to know what it really stands for — and how much it is willing to do to defend freedom and what remains of the post-World War II order. At critical times, it has failed to muster strength, cohesion, and commitment to principles.

In the face of Russia’s alarming advances and brazen disregard for international norms, Western leaders have hesitated to impose serious costs. They’ve issued “expressions of concern,” agreed to treaties that give Russia an advantage, failed to enforce those treaties, haltingly imposed weak sanctions, and generally exhibited inertia that contrasts with Putin’s drive. Although Russian air forces and militias helped Assad assault Syrians with bombs, starvation sieges, mass displacement, disappearances, and torture, the West legitimized Putin’s self-ascribed role as facilitator of the Syrian “peace process.” Although Russia accelerated efforts to destabilize neighboring democracies such as Poland and cultivate authoritarians such as Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, Russia was in 2019 reintegrated into the Council of Europe — an organization meant to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Although Putin uses energy distribution to force neighboring countries toward pro-Russian policies, and although the Nord Stream 2 pipeline gives Putin a powerful vehicle for energy blackmail and a further mechanism for undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine, Germany refused to back away from the disastrous project, while the Biden administration waived sanctions on it that the Trump administration had imposed.

Rather than penalize the Putin regime for ceasefire violations in Ukraine’s Donbas region, “malicious weaponization” of cyber capabilities, or material breach of the INF and other treaties, the West too often makes concessions to Russia for future promises or warns of future sanctions for continued aggression. But future-oriented attempts at leverage fail because they lack credibility. What incentive does Putin have to keep promises and reduce hostility when he has incurred few potent consequences so far? Russia has repeatedly gotten away with violating or exploiting the very agreements the West relies on, from Budapest to Geneva to Minsk to Astana to the New START. We’ve indulged wishful thinking that believes something is true because we wish it were true: namely, that Putin can be a “responsible participant” in the international order or a “partner” in the war on terror. Surely, by now, we know that Putin uses diplomacy to buy time and cover for further aggression.

Yet, even now, in the face of a major Russian military threat, Western politicians and politicos search for a “diplomatic off-ramp.” Thus, as Russia mobilized along the Ukraine border — then mobilized more, backing every move with vicious threats and anti-NATO propaganda — the West did little other than express deep concern and call for a return to the Minsk process, which Russia already violates and which works in Putin’s favor by accepting de facto Russian gains-through-force.

The Biden administration and Western European compatriots are turning from moral and strategic apathy toward outright appeasement. Biden opened his Dec. 7 meeting with Putin with a broad smile, big wave, and warm words, to which Putin responded with a smirk and a nod. The exchange appeared on Russian TV, surely in order to portray Putin as Biden’s puppet master. As if to confirm that image, Biden followed the meeting with steps that amounted to more pressure on Ukraine than on Russia. Effectively accepting a Russian fait accompli that allows it to consolidate current illicit gains, Biden threatened to reimpose the Nord Stream 2 sanctions he had waived, or close Russia out of SWIFT (the worldwide interbank transaction network) only if Russia further invades Ukraine, rather than in response to Putin’s bellicosity and escalation. Biden thus ignored the plea of nine eastern flank NATO allies and 22 members of Congress who signed a letter urging him to sanction Nord Stream 2 now. Making matters worse, after the Biden-Putin call, in an opaque process that apparently included executive branch pressure on Democrats who had supported the sanctions, Congress removed sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and Russian sovereign debt from the National Defense Authorization Act.

Since the Biden administration sees the threat of future sanctions as a primary deterrent, it must convince Putin that they will be harsh — and that they will be enforced. That’s going to be difficult given the weak sanctions and enforcement so far. Because Nord Stream 2 gives Russia a way to subvert Ukraine even without taking more territory, the U.S. position of waiving sanctions unless Russia takes more territory delivers Ukraine a terrible blow.

Additionally, and stunningly, Biden proposed a meeting with major NATO allies and Russia to discuss Russian “concerns” about NATO. He thereby lent credence to Russian propaganda that claims NATO might attack Russia while marginalizing other countries’ legitimate concerns that Russia might attack them and supporting a process wherein big powers push smaller powers toward self-destructive concessions. The suggested meeting implies indefinite delays to a path that would allow Ukraine to join NATO, thus further compromising Ukraine’s position with the Russian bear that longs to devour it. The threat Putin does see in NATO is its very existence as a defensive military alliance of democracies that appeals to former Soviet satellite states. As such, it interferes with Putin’s resurgent, anti-democratic designs and with his determination to recreate a Soviet-style sphere of influence with Ukraine a most coveted prize.

In a further unnecessary public display of weakness, Defense Secretary Llyod Austin and Biden NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg each pronounced that the military option (of NATO troops defending Ukraine) was off the table given the Biden-Putin meeting. Explained Austin, “Our goal … is to lead with diplomacy and address these [Taiwan and Ukraine] issues in a way that we don’t get into conflict.” Again, U.S. credibility descends along with U.S. leverage. If diplomacy is the key to stopping conquests of bad actors, why wouldn’t the U.S. insist Russia abide by the terms of the Budapest Memorandum, a pivotal accomplishment of post-Cold War diplomacy? In the 1994 agreement, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Russia committed to respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.

Even worse than all this is the Biden administration’s unwillingness to provide Ukraine with crucial military weaponry to defend itself. In a little-noted but significant move in May, after Putin said he would draw down troops Russia had amassed near Ukraine and agreed to a summit with Biden, the National Security Council “temporarily halted” $100 million in military aid that included short-range air-defense systems and more anti-tank weapons. In spite of Ukraine telling Washington that Russia was ignoring its commitment, that 100,000 Russian troops were still near its border, the hold “held.” In response to the recent, more massive mobilization of Russian military assets at the Ukrainian border, the Biden administration prepared $200 million in military aid. But that aid, too, was “held back” for the sake of the diplomatic process and another meeting between Biden and Putin.

No wonder Putin responded to his meeting with Biden by, on the one hand, vowing to continue “dialogue” with the U.S. and send “proposals” while, on the other hand, elevating tensions with Ukraine yet more. Russia used the false pretext of a “threat” from a Ukrainian ship in international waters to demand that all ships in the Kerch Strait notify Russian authorities and, according to the Ukrainian navy, blocked 70% of the Sea of Azov. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv rightly condemned these “illegal restrictions.” Clearly, as the West takes care not to “provoke” Ukraine, Russia doesn’t worry about provoking the West: These are the same international waters where, in 2019, Russia took Ukrainian navy members hostage after ramming their ship. Incurring no cost for the latest provocation, on Dec. 17, Putin published “conditions” for negotiating with the U.S. and NATO, among them that NATO give up all military activity in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Showing how advantageous Biden’s “diplomatic process” is for him, Putin then demanded direct dialogue with the United States, a written guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO, and immediate talks with NATO to address the alliance’s supposedly “confrontational” behavior. In keeping with their reliance on diplomacy, the U.S. and NATO did indeed agree to more dialogue, setting the stage for another phone call between Biden and Putin on Dec. 30, U.S-Russia security talks on Jan. 10, and NATO-Russia Council talks on Jan. 12. Nevertheless, emboldened Russia intensified its threats and propaganda, warning among other things that any eastward “expansion” of NATO would result in large-scale military confrontation.

Let’s see how reassurances to Russia that NATO would not expand, nor deploy its forces, worked out in the recent past. As Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba observes in Foreign Affairs, in 2014, Ukraine was neutral and had put an end to its ambitions for NATO membership, yet that did not stop Putin from instigating war. At its 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO refused to give Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan, fearing that would provoke Russia. But as former Lithuanian Minister of Defense and of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius noted, this concession “provoked” Russia into that same year invading South Ossetia, ultimately occupying 20% of Georgian territory. As Russia moved to annex Crimea in 2014, Obama picked that time to showcase American aversion to “boots on the ground,” saying, “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” In 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. assured Russia there would be no NATO expansion for years. But Russian military aggression, cyberwar, and subterfuge, from Europe to the Americas to the Middle East, only increased after that.

An Associated Press article following the Biden-Putin meeting reported that Biden even planned to advise Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to cede territory to Russia. Although White House press secretary Jen Psaki disputed the report, according to CNN’s Jim Sciutto and Natasha Bertrand, the administration is pressuring Ukraine to make compromises in keeping with the 2015 Minsk agreement which, as the Washington Examiner’s Tom Rogan wrote, was agreed to “only amid Russian-directed rebel military action and simultaneous pressure from Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President Francois Hollande” and that would “turn southeastern Ukraine into a satellite state.” If this is true, then the Biden administration is returning to policies that were unnecessarily favorable to Russia even before Putin was so brazen as to threaten all-out war in Eastern Europe. Biden did stress U.S. commitment to Ukrainian security in a call with Zelensky after these reports. But such commitment remains to be seen, and the concessions to Putin draw it into question. In the call, Zelensky requested preemptive, rather than retroactive, sanctions and urgent transfers of military equipment. Neither are in the works.

Unerring U.S. and European sanctions on Nord Stream 2, on the Russian regime’s corrupt oligarchs and illicit means of financing hostile activities, and on Putin’s expansive human rights abuses, along with major military assistance to Ukraine and a significant increase in NATO military spending and exercises, are necessary now and should be accompanied by expressions of resolve rather than “concern.” Instead, the West is counting on warnings and dialogue.

Let’s think, though, about the Russia we’re now dealing with and whether this approach makes sense. Russia has made great advances in hybrid, conventional, strategic, and nonstrategic nuclear capabilities, has fielded hypersonic weapons, and has installed offensive missiles in Kaliningrad. Russia aggressively targets Poland and the Baltics with propaganda and cyber operations, has turned Belarus into a front in the war against Ukraine, influences Georgia through the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, uses “peacekeeping” forces to exploit tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, conducts hybrid warfare in the Western Balkans, targets the U.S. in a variety of ways, and continues to support murderous dictators, including ones close to the U.S.

Russia has enhanced its power and its anti-American hubris by expanding its strategic and military partnerships with China and Iran. The three countries benefit from weapons and technology transfers, and present, in the words of one analyst, an “anti-Western global front.” General Charles Q. Brown said China and Russia have upgraded their militaries “in menacing ways — building new technologies in space, on land, at sea, and in the air.” Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, retired Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, retired Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten, and current Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier have all described the Russian threat to the U.S. and its allies as “existential.”

As others have observed, recent Western responses to Russian aggression resemble the Munich peace process. In hopes of satisfying Adolf Hitler from wanting more, the West buried its head in the sand about Hitler’s vast ambitions and escalating atrocities and forced Czechoslovakia into concessions that facilitated German occupation. History, and the failure of generous compromise to stop Putin so far, tells us where all this is likely to lead. Highly concerning are indications that the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz might be even softer on Russia than former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to the Financial Times, Ukraine “blames Germany” for blocking NATO weapons supply, with Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov telling the publication, “The strategy of not provoking Russia won’t work.”

It is true that the G-7 issued a statement strongly condemning Russia’s threats and military buildup, that the EU has agreed that new Russian aggression will trigger economic penalties, and that Stoltenberg has warned of “serious consequences.” But even combined with the U.S. commitment to impose sanctions and supply lethal assistance if Russia invades Ukraine, is this nearly enough? With its latest gambit, the Kremlin has set the stage for more destabilization and control of Europe and proved the free world no longer has the will it had after World War II to resist and contain anti-democratic Russia.

Anne R. Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of A Perilous Path: The Misguided Foreign Policy of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry and other works. Twitter:  @AnneRPierce .

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