The news from Eastern Europe is grim.
On Friday night, the Washington Post revealed that U.S. intelligence estimates suggest that Moscow is preparing for a massive invasion of Ukraine. As early as January, upwards of 175,000 soldiers, “along with armor, artillery, and equipment,” could stream across the Ukrainian border to finish what Moscow began in 2014 and crush the Westward-oriented government in Kyiv.
This dispatch dovetails with reporting in German media, which forecasts a rapid Russian advance across the Caspian Steppe to the Dnieper River, culminating in the sacking of the Ukrainian capital. Such capabilities are consistent with what American lawmakers have told reporters they believe Russia is doing. Worse, quite unlike the crisis Moscow provoked in March and April amid a similar buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border, the only way Russia claims it would deescalate this crisis should be considered unacceptable to the West.
The Kremlin is demanding that Washington (and, presumably, other NATO-aligned nations) guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to ascend to NATO membership and will “refrain from certain military activities in and around Ukrainian territory,” according to the Post. But Ukraine has not been on a realistic path to NATO ascension for more than a decade. The 2014 invasion of Crimea and the Donbas region functionally reduced nearly to zero the likelihood that NATO would take ownership of an ongoing military conflict with Russia and its proxies.
And yet, Kyiv is a vital NATO partner. Ukraine has provided active military support to the American-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. To sacrifice Ukrainians so soon after Biden’s disastrous abandonment of its commitments in Afghanistan would ignite a crisis of Western credibility that would destabilize the existing geopolitical order and invite serious challenges to American hegemony, with potentially catastrophic potential for miscalculation and broader conflict.
So, what does the Biden administration plan to do to deter Russian aggression? So far, the White House seems to be relying on Joe Biden’s skills as a diplomat. If that fails, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, the administration is preparing a raft of new sanctions that would augment all the other sanctions this and previous administrations have imposed on Moscow, none of which so far have done much to change the Kremlin’s behavior.
“We have put together a pretty damn aggressive package,” one Biden official told CNN. Among the new actions envisioned are economic and travel sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s associates and the Russian energy sector. The White House is also contemplating what it calls the “nuclear option,” cutting of Russian access to the SWIFT international payment system. This, the mother of all sanctions, is unlikely to deter the Putin regime if the Kremlin has already resolved to risk pariah status by deploying forces to secure an Eastward-oriented Ukraine. Indeed, Russian representatives insist that the Kremlin has already priced retaliatory measures like disconnection from the SWIFT system into their calculations. Although the costs of such a Western response to Russian aggression may prove harder to absorb than Moscow anticipates, Moscow has anticipated it. And it doesn’t seem at all deterred.
It is hard to contemplate the extent of the damage to the American-led global order if Washington were to abandon two critical partners to violent, rapacious, autocratic regimes in the space of a single year. But that is the prospect the Biden administration now faces. Sanctions are no substitute for deterrence—the classic sort involving the deployment of military assets to a region in crisis backed by the credible threat that they will be used to defend American investments. And America has plenty of investments in a stable Europe whole and at peace. If the Biden administration cannot see to the preservation of those interests, they will be lost. And many more will follow.