The U.S. and Europe should target his political control at home in Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine early Thursday marks the failure of Western deterrence and a return to the age of authoritarian conquest. Now we’ll see if Europe and the U.S. awaken from their illusions of eternal post-Cold War peace and security to address the new world disorder.
The first step is admitting the colossal Western misjudgment that Mr. Putin could be appeased. He snatched part of Georgia in 2008, and the world did little. He grabbed Crimea in 2014, and Barack Obama said there would be “costs” and Russia was “isolated.” But Western sanctions were weak. Europe watched this aggression and still made itself hostage to Russian energy supplies and blackmail. Europeans, of all people, forgot their own history of the 1930s.
Mr. Putin also meddled in U.S. elections and sanctioned cyberattacks on the U.S. homeland, but the U.S. tore itself up with the false Russia collusion narrative. No wonder Mr. Putin thinks that adding Ukraine back into Greater Russia is worth the risks. He is betting on more appeasement after the fall of Kyiv and the installation of a puppet government.
What to do now? The first and overriding priority is to make Mr. Putin pay a severe price for launching this war. This means helping Ukraine resist the initial invasion and to assist an insurgency if Russia attempts an occupation. Mr. Obama refused to give Ukraine lethal weapons after the Crimea and Donbas invasions of 2014. Donald Trump sent Javelin antitank weapons, but the U.S. failure to do more for the Ukrainian military before this invasion has been shameful.
READ MORE OPINION COVERAGE OF THE RUSSIAN INVASION OF UKRAINE
- Walter Russell Mead: A Rogue Russia Tries to Reset the World Order
- Peggy Noonan: Where Putin Goes From Here
- Joseph C. Sternberg: Europe Stays in Bed After Its Ukraine Wake-Up Call
- Kimberley A. Strassel: Biden’s Time for Choosing
- O’Brien and Gray: A Hardheaded Guide to Deterring Russia and China
NATO should give the Zelensky government in Ukraine whatever it needs for self-defense. Conventional weapons to destroy tanks, helicopters and ships will help as long as Ukraine’s military keeps fighting. Communications equipment to show the world what’s happening is critical in the digital age.
An insurgency will be harder to sustain than many in the West think given Russia’s brutal methods. But the West should help whoever is willing to fight with intelligence, explosives and other weapons. An occupation with steady Russian casualties would erode Mr. Putin’s support at home.
President Biden has promised the toughest sanctions ever, and they had better be. Not targeting Russia’s access to the Swift financial clearing system is a blunder, but Russian banks and companies should find it impossible to do business in financial markets. Export controls, particularly of high-tech components, are necessary. Nord Stream 2 should be killed with no chance of revival.
The new sanctions should also target Mr. Putin and his Kremlin mafia personally. This means finally disclosing to the world—and to the Russian people—the wealth of Kremlin officials and oligarchs. The U.K. has a special obligation here given Russian assets in London. These assets can be showcased and seized.
Mr. Putin’s bet is that a “shock and awe” attack will result in a quick military victory, decapitate Ukraine’s leadership, and mute any resistance. Then he will promote calls for a cease-fire on his terms, and he will try to exploit Western divisions to mute sanctions. The false hope will return that Mr. Putin can be lured to join the West to counter China.
The U.S. doesn’t need to declare war on Russia or send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine. But the Ukraine invasion proves beyond doubt that Mr. Putin’s goal is to restore Greater Russia, blow up NATO, and create trouble for the U.S. around the world. For the sake of global peace and stability, the U.S. and Europe need to put Mr. Putin’s political control in Russia at risk. The enemy isn’t Russia. It is Mr. Putin and his mafia coterie.
The larger meaning of Russia’s Ukraine invasion is that the world has entered a dangerous new era. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the world has returned to its pre-World War II state in which the strong take advantage of the weak, and authoritarians are on the march.
The post-Cold War order has depended on U.S. economic and military power, not on the illusion that the “international community” can enforce world order. Could there be a better display of United Nations impotence than Russia presiding on Wednesday over a Security Council session on Russia’s invasion?
Mr. Biden and his advisers continue to believe in this community of nations fantasy, but this is a time for sturdier alliances of conviction and interests. If Mr. Putin consolidates control in Kyiv, he will surely increase the threats against NATO’s border countries. The alliance will have to fortify its eastern front, and Europe in particular will have to rearm. The political war on fossil fuels needs to end.
Some Americans will want to concede Russia this sphere of influence and say it’s Europe’s problem. But a world in which Russia dominates Eastern and Central Europe, Iran dominates the Middle East, and China dominates East Asia will not be safe for U.S. interests. Regional powers have a habit of becoming global threats, especially when they work in concert—as Russia, China and Iran are already doing.
We can debate if Mr. Biden’s weakness on Afghanistan caused Mr. Putin to believe he could invade Ukraine, but you fight a new Cold War with the President you have. Mr. Biden now has to rally the world and the American public to understand the stakes in Ukraine and counter the rapidly increasing threats to America.
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Appeared in the February 25, 2022, print edition.