It’s Biden’s Turn to Face Putin’s Ukraine Test


Barack Obama


Vladimir Putin

in March 2014 not to move Russian troops against Ukraine and told him that his country would face painful economic countermeasures if he ignored the warning. Mr. Putin ordered his special forces to seize the Crimean Peninsula two weeks later and soon claimed it as Russian territory.

Now it is President Biden’s turn to be tested by the Russian leader, and the stakes are even higher. Russia’s troops are massed at the Ukrainian border, and they appear ready to invade as soon as the order is given.

Mr. Putin has put his cards on the table. To eliminate the threat of armed conflict, he insists, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must pledge never to admit Ukraine as a full member, and NATO must roll back the military assets it has deployed in Poland and the Baltics and in other nearby countries that don’t border Russia.

Mr. Putin is no fool. He knows that the U.S. and NATO cannot agree to his demands. This leaves two possibilities: Either he will use the West’s refusal as a pretext for invasion, or he will use the threat of invasion as leverage for diplomatic concessions he couldn’t otherwise obtain.

The odds are that the Russian leader doesn’t really want to invade. His troops would probably defeat Ukraine’s armed forces in a matter of weeks or even days. But that wouldn’t be the end of it. Controlling Ukraine after the invasion would require the continued deployment of Russian troops, and outraged Ukrainians would mount a guerrilla war. Soldiers returning to Russia in body bags would erode Mr. Putin’s popularity. Opinion would also harden against Russia throughout Europe, strengthening support for harsh economic sanctions and higher contributions to NATO military spending.

Nevertheless, if Mr. Putin paints himself into a corner, he may decide to invade rather than back down with nothing to show for his threats. To minimize the chances this will happen, Mr. Biden must do everything in his power to make the costs of invasion prohibitively high, and he must make it clear to both Russia and our allies that all negotiations will occur within strict limits.

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To raise the costs Russia would pay for an invasion, the Biden administration should announce—as soon as possible—a robust package of countermeasures. On the economic front, measures would include suspending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, cutting Russia’s ties with the international banking system, and imposing sanctions on the oligarchs close to Mr. Putin through whom he reportedly channels his own holdings.

On the military front, the U.S. should increase and accelerate the delivery of defensive weaponry to Ukraine, including helicopters, mobile antitank and antiaircraft missiles, and missiles effective against the ships Russia would use to move troops and equipment to Ukraine’s coast. These steps should be taken immediately; they would have little effect once an invasion is under way. In addition, the Biden administration should make it clear that it is prepared to arm and equip a Ukrainian resistance to Russian occupation. The president has ruled out the use of American troops, and NATO has also forsworn direct military intervention.

As my Brookings colleague

Constanze Stelzenmuller

has observed, Germany is the linchpin of efforts to deter a Russian invasion through economic punishment. Every significant step—sanctions on Russian oligarchs and financial entities, cutting Russia’s ties to the global financial system, and especially suspending or canceling Nord Stream 2—would be “financially and politically costly” for the new German government, she says. But if the Biden administration cannot persuade Chancellor

Olaf Scholz

to announce Germany’s support for these measures before an invasion, the West’s effort to deter it will lose credibility.

If deterrence succeeds, the action will shift to the diplomatic front. The appropriate parameters for discussions with Russia are clear, and the Biden administration should make sure that Mr. Putin understands them. NATO cannot offer a formal guarantee that Ukraine will never be admitted; nor will it remove bases and equipment from current members.

The U.S. won’t recognize borders changed by force, and the Soviet Union agreed not to do so in the Helsinki Final Act. Although Russia and the U.S. may conduct bilateral discussions, Ukraine must be at the table, not on the table, whenever matters involving its security and governance are discussed; and no outside country or consortium of countries will impose its decisions on the duly elected Ukrainian government.

In February 1945, an agreement at Yalta among the “Big Three” resulted in Poland’s subjugation to the Soviet Union. After Crimea, Mr. Putin sought a “new Yalta” to define a 21st-century sphere of influence for his country. The Biden administration must make sure that he doesn’t get one now.

Journal Editorial Report: After the Afghan debacle, Xi and Putin are on the move. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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