As Vladimir Putin rattles Russia’s sabers at Ukraine, the United States and its NATO allies must make clear to the region’s most relentless bully that an invasion of Eastern Europe’s largest democracy is not an option.
It will take a combination of diplomacy, deterrence, and probably new defense systems to keep the former Soviet Republic out of the covetous grasp of the man who would like nothing better than to resurrect the old empire. But it is the obligation of free nations to stand up for other free nations.
And while Putin has always been a master of political theater, there is a growing body of evidence that this time the threats of a possible invasion are real. Having bitten off Crimea in 2014 with the international community hardly stirring beyond a handful of sanctions, and having waged a proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern region, Putin has given every indication he covets the rest of Ukraine. He telegraphed that last summer in a lengthy article that insisted the Russian and Ukrainian populations are “one people.”
An overwhelming percentage of Ukraine’s 43.5 million population might beg to differ. A poll by the National Democratic Institute taken last August found 76 percent of Ukrainians want a “fully functioning democracy.”
Putin followed up his dissertation this fall amassing what are now believed to be close to 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. There are already Russian field hospitals in place and reports that Russia has called up its reserves.
If this is a bluff, it is already a rather expensive one.
The US intelligence establishment and the State Department are certainly taking this combination of words and deeds seriously. CIA director William J. Burns made a quick trip to Moscow last month in an effort to head off any precipitous move by Putin. But the Russian troops remain firmly in place.
This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with NATO allies in Latvia, itself a former Soviet Republic, and then in Stockholm with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
“We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we have refrained from using in the past,” Blinken said, adding that there was “tremendous solidarity” within the NATO alliance to respond with strong measures if Russia invades Ukraine.
“Should Russia reject diplomacy and reinvade Ukraine, we will be prepared to act,” he added.
Following his meeting with Lavrov and seated beside him for the usual post-meeting press conference, Blinken said, “The best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy,” but, he added, “if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences.”
On the diplomatic front, the United States has held out the possibility of a second Biden-Putin summit before the end of the year. That could buy some time — time that could be used to de-escalate an increasingly volatile situation in eastern Ukraine, where the most likely scenario is that Putin would use some incident — any incident — as a pretext for an invasion.
While Blinken and NATO allies have not been specific about what those “high-impact” sanctions might be, they are believed to include the newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea, through which Russia is preparing to start pumping gas to Germany. As vital as that is to German interests, that nation recently announced it is pausing the certification process. Germany is in the midst of a political transition, with Olaf Scholz set to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor next week; hopefully, Scholz will be more resolute in responding to Russian aggression in the region.
The only other path to demonstrate the seriousness of US and international concern is to make certain Ukraine is able to adequately defend itself. Since Kyiv lost the eastern region to Russian-backed separatists in 2014, it has put some 250,000 soldiers in uniform (and has some 900,000 in the reserves). Joint training exercises with NATO forces have helped make those troops combat-ready — although NATO membership for Ukraine remains a long way off.
The United States has provided anti-tank Javelin missiles. Turkey, a NATO member, has sold Ukraine combat-capable drones.
Ukrainian officials have been pleading in Washington and, most recently, during the Latvia meeting for missile defense systems — the US-built Patriot system more specifically. Some in Congress have called for the transfer of a limited Iron Dome battery to Ukraine.
Putin needs to know that all of those options are on the table and that United States resolve to preserve the independence of a sovereign nation is unshakeable. That is the only way to deter a bully — and the only way to halt Putin’s territorial ambitions.
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