For millennia, the frontiers of territories that occupy the plains between the Baltic and the Black Seas have been drawn by force. In the past century, during the five-year course of the Russian civil war, to give one example, no fewer than 11 armies—from the forces of the independent Ukrainian Republic to the White Russians to the Bolsheviks to the Poles—fought to take and hold Ukraine.
Plus ça change. “We’re deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine,” declared Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last December at a meeting of NATO ministers in Latvia. “The plans include efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, as well as large scale military operations.” In other words, Russia may be planning a coup in Kyiv or expanding its invasion of Ukrainian territory—which it began by seizing and annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in short order. Such a gambit would not merely compromise Ukraine’s sovereignty and national self-determination. It would effectively bring down the curtain on the U.S.-led security order that has protected Europe since the end of World War II.
What motivates the Russian Federation’s desire to disrupt and ultimately destroy the post–Cold War status quo in this manner? The Kremlin contends that the source of today’s antagonism between itself and the West is to be found in the upending of Russia’s status and position in the post–Cold War world. At the top of the list of Russian grievances in this era has been the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include former members of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact.
Vladimir Putin believes that this U.S.-led march against post-Soviet Russia has impinged upon core Russian interests, leaving his country “nowhere further to retreat.” Russia’s “spheres of privileged interests,” to use former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase, must be reclaimed. Here Ukraine presents a rare acid test since Russian leaders believe, as Putin remarked to President Bush in 2008, that Ukraine “isn’t even a country”—and certainly not a member of the hallowed Atlantic alliance.
Putin has created the strange state of suspended animation in which Ukraine has existed since 2014—the sense that Europe’s largest borderland state is not quite in the clutches of the Russian bear but not at a safe remove from it, either. In a remarkable 5,000-word essay published in 2021, he laid bare his (and, if the polls are to be believed, three-quarters of the Russian people’s) deep-seated hopes—and fears—regarding Russia’s large neighbor on the Black Sea.
The subject of Putin’s missive, which was distributed to every soldier in the Russian army, was “the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” and he warned that this supposedly proud and ancient relationship was at risk. Russian-Ukrainian unity, Putin averred, has been endangered by forces within Ukraine and without, playing a “dangerous geopolitical game” by steering that nation into the Western orbit. He insisted that this disrespectful design is rupturing the natural comity between these two peoples and deploying Ukraine as a “springboard against Russia.”
In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine needs to remain in Moscow’s sphere of influence in perpetuity for Russia to reestablish itself as the principal power in Europe. From what we can tell, he has the support of the Russian people in this regard. In his book Between Two Fires, Joshua Yoffe cites polling data from 2014 according to which some 75 percent of Russians then favored a full-scale invasion of Ukraine—but Yoffe also notes that very few Russians have expressed a willingness to bear any real costs for such military adventurism. This form of doublethink, Yoffe argues, reveals the “wily” ability of rank-and-file Russian citizens to both endorse their rulers’ whims and insist that they be spared the logical and predictable consequences.
For Putin’s clique, maintaining Moscow’s grip over Ukraine is also perceived as critical to upholding the Orthodox and Slavic character of the Russian state. (After his show of force brought Crimea back into Russian hands, Putin announced to Russia’s political elite that the peninsula was properly Russian since it was the baptismal site of Vladimir the Great, the first Russian czar to adopt Orthodoxy.) The Russian Orthodox Church has repaid the compliment, offering vociferous rhetorical succor to the Putin regime. This has led Sergei Chapnin, editor of the official journal of the patriarchate, to lament that the Russian Orthodox Church is now a “Church of Empire”—“a post-Soviet civil religion providing ideological support for the Russian state.”
The notion of an independent Ukraine going its own way in spiritual affairs and even aligning with the godless West is thus anathema. But it is Ukraine’s status as a democracy—an imperfect but competitive multiparty system—that makes it a personal affront to those in the Kremlin. Putin and his ilk fear, not unjustifiably, that the external forces of liberalism will serve, explicitly and implicitly, to undercut authoritarian rule in Russia.
The Russian regime has been manifestly on guard against democratic revolutions in neighboring states since the uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004. The alarm was aggravated in 2011 by the disastrous Russian parliamentary elections, which spawned widespread protests against a fraudulent democracy that merely existed to enshrine Putin on the throne. The presence of a flawed but thriving democratic nation (nearly a third of which are native Russian speakers) along the Russian frontier cannot help but present a rebuke to the pretensions of the Putin regime. Hence Putin’s letter—reminiscent of one penned by a jilted lover—alternating between cloying proclamations of affection and thinly veiled threats of violence.
Of course, such threats are hardly idle. In February 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in a popular uprising—the “Maidan Revolution”—after rejecting an economic agreement with the European Union, in fealty to his masters in Moscow. His successors opted for closer economic and political relations with the EU, culminating in an agreement that expressed joint support for Ukraine becoming a fully fledged member of the EU one day. In retaliation, Putin decided to flout the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty—which Russia signed in exchange for the surrender of Ukraine’s vast nuclear arsenal. Putin seized Crimea and fomented a civil conflict in the country’s southeastern region known as the Donbass that continues to this day. Little has been done by Western powers to punish this bellicosity, which in one fell swoop changed Europe’s borders by force for the first time since the end of the Second World War.
President Obama warned Putin in March 2014 not to move Russian troops against Ukraine. Then, within a fortnight of that warning, Russian troops launched a hybrid war and paid scarcely any penalty that might have made it regret or reverse its decision. Today, with Russian forces now massed on Ukraine’s borders, Putin stands ready to continue his depredations at a moment of his choosing—or extract nontrivial concessions from the West before standing down.
Russia’s apologists, seeking to justify Putin’s past and future aggressions, have advanced the Kremlin line that NATO’s “encircling” of Russia is evidence of a Cold War mentality. In this view, the West’s sanctions against the Kremlin and its unceasing interference in Russia’s internal affairs somehow leave Putin no choice but to harass and invade his neighbors. According to the neo-isolationists at the Quincy Institute, a new think tank lavishly funded both by the libertarian Koch Foundation and the leftist Open Society Foundation, the West could simply resolve this prolonged standoff by treating Putin as a nuisance instead of a great-power adversary. But the truth is a good deal more complicated. Putin operates on a long-standing conviction that Russia’s chief adversary has been and remains the U.S.-led liberal order, and he will not relent until he has damaged that order beyond repair.
For more than two decades, Putin’s revanchist regime has been intent on reconstituting the Soviet Empire under the fig leaf of its vaunted “Eurasian Union.” He has made no secret of his belief that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a national tragedy, and he openly aspires to the restoration of a Greater Russia. (Even the Russian hockey team recently donned Soviet jerseys.) In the project to bring Soviet republics back under Russian sway, Ukraine seems to occupy a special position. Closely linked to Russia historically and culturally, Ukraine has nonetheless resisted the tide of authoritarianism that has swept over other former vassal states in Russia’s near-abroad. Despite endemic corruption and political dysfunction in Kyiv, Ukrainians have maintained their commitment to a free and fair electoral system. Everything we know about Putin suggests he fears that the seeds of this democratic example will spread unless it’s promptly stamped out.
The Kremlin clearly fears it will not be able to see that through without incurring steep costs, on the battlefield and in global public opinion. A costly military campaign could incite domestic dissent in Russia as well as increased support in the West for harsher sanctions against Russia and higher contributions to NATO military spending. But how costly that campaign might prove to be depends chiefly on Ukrainians and their foreign patrons. So far, Putin has not been put on notice in any way save some strong rhetoric. The Biden administration’s decisions to forgo sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which ships Russian oil directly to Western Europe, and hold multiple summits with Putin have sent the opposite signal. Such feebleness has had the perverse effect of emboldening the Kremlin to seek more concessions from the West. The White House is compounding the error by lobbying against bipartisan legislation to amend the National Defense Authorization Act to reimpose sanctions against Nord Stream 2 and to expand the number of Russian officials listed in the Global Magnitsky Act.
Ukraine is the biggest conceivable prize for Putin—something akin to what Taiwan represents for the People’s Republic of China. However many sweet words Putin may scribble or speak on behalf of Russo-Ukrainian brotherhood, his intention to reduce Ukraine’s independence and incorporate it as a satellite dictatorship in the manner of Belarus is unmistakable. It’s the prerequisite for summoning the rebirth of “historical Russia” that suffered lethal blows with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
There are two stumbling blocks standing in the way of that objective, however: one internal and one external. The first is that most Ukrainians have taken the measure of their truculent autocratic neighbor. Since the outbreak of hostilities, public opinion has turned swiftly against the Russian regime, and not just in western Ukraine. Across the country, young Ukrainians have been given an indelible image of Russian menace that no disinformation campaign will efface. Clear majorities of Ukrainians abhor the prospect of a Russian-dominated future, and a large number have shown themselves willing to fight to prevent it.
The second factor working against Russia’s imperial designs, of course, is the strength and coherence of the West. If it ever managed to close ranks against Russian authoritarianism at home and aggression abroad, the democratic world would almost certainly present an insurmountable obstacle to Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine and beyond. Alas, he clearly senses that the democratic world is profoundly divided on the question of using its immense power. As Lenin put it: “Probe with bayonets: if you encounter mush, proceed. If you encounter steel, withdraw.”
With the West’s deterrent capacity patently diminishing since Russia’s aggression in 2014, Putin surely feels he should act boldly once he is convinced the costs of his salami tactics will not be prohibitively high. As part of the calculation of the Russian interest, the Kremlin knows well that the West is bereft of competent, let alone spirited, leadership. The Biden administration has offered little indication that it takes military power seriously. Germany, which some deluded observers imagine to be the leader of the free world, has a new leader in Olaf Scholz who is decidedly soft on Russia and governs a country that—to borrow a line from Lee Kuan Yew—tends to bend before the wind blows. By these paltry standards, only France has (belatedly) shown a pulse of determination to check Russian ambitions and foreclose the option of a new agreement along the lines of the Yalta deal with Stalin in 1945.
To ensure the continued peace of Europe—since Putin’s aggression will certainly not stop in the Donbass—greater American activism will be required. The alternative to America fulfilling its responsibilities would be a bullying behemoth acting confidently to subvert and pick off its neighbors one by one. A parade of horribles would likely follow any serious example of American retrenchment. An emboldened Russian regime vigorously pressing its claims in the borderlands of Europe would beget the disruption of critical supply chains, including energy resources and food imports to the EU. It would trigger an exodus from east to west, putting further strain on prosperous European states that have still not recovered from the refugee crisis of the last decade. Worst of all, it would unleash frightening new security dilemmas throughout Europe and in other theaters of potential conflict.
This can happen even if Ukraine is not actually dismembered by a wider Russian occupation. If Western powers conspire to prevent armed conflict by giving Russia an effective veto over Ukraine’s accession to the European Union or NATO, or if Putin is permitted to dictate the defensive capabilities of its neighbors already under the NATO umbrella, the principle of collective security and the linchpin of European order since 1945 would be nullified. That Ukraine isn’t a NATO partner will be of no more consolation than the fact that Kuwait wasn’t part of the Atlantic community when Saddam Hussein sought to annex it into a Greater Iraq in 1990. If armed force can be employed with impunity to alter borders on the continent that provides the fulcrum of the liberal world order, the perception will naturally arise that the liberal order has gone the way of the snows of yesteryear.
It is not the Kremlin’s martial restraint and liberal spirit that have kept Europe’s postmodern paradise peaceful since the end of the cold war. As implausible as it may sound, the only thing keeping Russian tanks out of nearby foreign capitals at this very moment is the reliability of the American security guarantee. But if Putin can make a reality out of his outrageous and oxymoronic claim that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” he will come to doubt the meaning of that guarantee. Undeterred and unchecked, he will perceive a much wider opportunity to assail the Baltic states and test the founding tenet of NATO—which is that none of its members will be molested without a devastating collective response. At which point, the Atlantic alliance will be faced with a terrible choice: to defend, say, Estonia against a ferocious Russian onslaught, or to show before the entire world that its security guarantees have ceased to be reliable, if they ever were.
In this grim scenario, Putin’s potent combination of force and guile will have forged a “New Yalta”—demarcating an expansive Russian sphere of influence. It will also have reclaimed a kind of imperial grandeur that makes less preposterous its aspiration to become a strategic equal of the United States. Worse still, it will leave a series of disturbing questions in the minds of tyrants and forces of menace everywhere: In what cause will a postmodern Europe take up arms? Is America’s famed martial culture a thing of the past? And most unnerving of all: Are there any redlines left at all?
What kind of actions can arrest the descent into that kind of world? For starters, a robust diplo-matic push will be necessary to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty. The U.S. should coordinate immediately with its strongest partners in Europe to impose more punitive sanctions than have heretofore been imposed against Russian oligarchs. Nord Stream 2 should be scrapped at once. Russia’s state-owned banks and energy firms are particularly vulnerable for financial squeezing if Europe—which in this case means largely Germany—and America muster the will.
However critical these economic measures are to deterring the next bout of Russian adventurism, they will prove woefully insufficient unless supplemented by what Theodore Roosevelt called the “big stick.” To the dismay of observers who bemoan the abiding necessity of power in our world, Washington needs to provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance. Without it, Ukrainian forces stand little chance of deterring, let alone defeating, Russian-backed separatists and, potentially, Russian forces on the battlefield.
Ukraine is no pygmy. It fields one of the strongest ground forces in Europe, including 400,000 combat-ready soldiers. Nonetheless, Russia outguns it across numerous dimensions with its advanced airpower, naval power, and rocket systems. This formidable and versatile arsenal can wreak havoc on Ukrainian forces and even Ukrainian infrastructure. To mitigate these threats, Kyiv needs an arsenal of its own strong enough to deter Russian hostile action. According to Ukraine’s ministry of defense, it is deficient in enhanced anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and anti-missile defense (including Patriot anti-aircraft and missile-defense systems) as well as electronic and anti-drone weaponry, along with artillery and mortar systems, reconnaissance and medical equipment, ships and boats. If its sovereignty is to mean anything, Ukraine must be provided these capabilities without delay.
This kind of assertive American leadership will draw criticism from the usual suspects who claim that any support for Ukraine is “provocative” and that President Biden would thereby be inviting war. But it’s bizarre to believe that ensuring a high price for aggression will somehow make Putin more likely to commit it. Whatever the Kremlin and the Quincy Institute might say, concerted and credible policies to deter aggression in Ukraine are not risking a war. At this hour, they may be the only means of preventing one.
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