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Deterring Putin will test the mettle of the West

Russia’s strongman doesn’t care about morality or international law, only gain versus pain.

The starting point of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, in Ust-Luga, Russia.Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

During his 2008 campaign as Barack Obama’s vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden annoyed the ticket-topper by predicting that if Obama was elected, he would quickly be tested by other international actors.

“Watch, we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy,” Biden said. “As a student of history and having served with seven presidents, I guarantee you it’s going to happen. . . . And he’s going to need help.”

Almost a decade and a half later, Biden himself is president, and one of the world’s leading bad actors is testing his mettle. And he needs help.


But make no mistake here. It’s not only Biden who is being tested by Russia’s preparations to invade Ukraine.

It is also the Western world — and how that world responds matters hugely.

From the perspective of a thuggish autocrat seemingly intent on trying to reconstruct the core of the old Soviet Union, one can understand why. The Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan raised questions not just about the administration’s competence but about the unity of the West as well.

And so, like a latter-day Khrushchev demanding that the Western powers exit Berlin, Putin is issuing his Ukraine ultimatum.

As others have noted, this isn’t about out-thinking a master of geopolitical maneuver. Rather, it’s about checking the basic thuggery and cold-blooded calculation of a strongman now fixing his gimlet stare on the fifth US president to overlap his own regime. As everyone knows, neither the United States individually nor NATO will respond militarily if Russia does invade. Although that was never a mystery, Biden has made it explicit.

That raises the question of whether the threat of sanctions and other nonmilitary responses are enough to deter Putin — and if not, whether the West is unified and disciplined enough to follow through.


This week, Biden put the biggest threat yet on the table with his vow to “bring an end to” the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which is slated to deliver natural gas from Siberia over the bed of the Baltic to Germany, if Russia invades Ukraine. But it remains to be seen whether the United States and Germany, let alone the rest of NATO/European Union countries, are really united here. Sitting next to Biden, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany didn’t exactly demur, but neither did he underscore Biden’s explicit words, confining himself to declaring that “we are absolutely united and we will not be taking different steps.”

Europe, of course, is deeply dependent for energy on Russia, a place John McCain once described as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” That slights a complex and fascinating nation — but it is certainly true that Putin is little more than a brutal bully masquerading as a leader looking out for his nation’s legitimate security interests.

There are no plans for Ukraine to join NATO, nor is that likely. Further, the notion that a Western-leaning Ukraine or NATO, a defensive alliance, presents a threat to a non-expansionist Russia doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

Still, Putin won’t be deterred by niceties like international law or international reputation. Or, frankly, by anything beyond a calculus of gain versus pain. That is, the domestic pain of military casualties and economic ramifications. The calculations that matter to him aren’t related to truth but rather to consequences. As regards the West, his computation no doubt runs this way: Do the United States and European Union have the consensus, the collective will, and the long-term grit necessary to visit serious repercussions on Russia?


Let’s be honest: That’s an open question. Despite word for weeks now that a Russia sanctions bill will soon emerge from the US Senate, there’s still no agreement, and at a time when a message of national unity is sorely needed. One snag is apparently over whether some sanctions should be imposed before any invasion or only hit Russia if and when such an occupation occurs. Given that the Biden administration prefers the latter approach, the Senate should settle on that. On this one, it’s time for politics once again to stop at the water’s edge.

Meanwhile, Germany should make it crystal clear there is no open water among allies on the natural gas pipeline. The EU should do more to signal that its resolve will match its rhetoric — and that it is prepared to endure the energy pain it will take to punish Putin.

How the West responds will send a message not just to Putin but to other would-be marauders as well. Certainly China, currently contemplating swallowing up Taiwan, will take careful notice.


In other words, though Ukraine is the nation at immediate risk, in an era when fascism is on the march, much more may hang in the balance.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.