The unprovoked Russian invasion of democratic Ukraine last week has set off a geopolitical earthquake, rearranging in just a few days assumptions and policies that have held for decades. In the weeks ahead, the challenge for the Biden administration will be to remain nimble in this rapidly changing world, and to harness the enormous global outrage against Russian President Vladimir Putin into building a new new world order that promotes peace and democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere.
How much has the ground shifted under the world’s feet? In just the last few days:
▪ Germany, which for years has rebuffed requests from Democratic and Republican US presidents to meets its spending obligations in the NATO alliance, abruptly increased defense spending by more than $100 billion. Chancellor Olaf Scholz even said Germany would send rockets and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine, breaking with its post-World War II policies.
▪ Writing off billions in losses, Shell, BP, and other Western oil companies dropped their investments in Russia, which counts on oil and gas revenues to fund its government.
▪ The United Kingdom said it would crack down on Russian oligarchs who stash their wealth in London, a step anti-corruption activists have demanded for years and a hopeful sign that the crisis may result in a deeper commitment to fight international money laundering.
▪ The United States and its allies reached agreements on previously unheard-of sanctions against Russia’s central bank, a step likely to crater Russia’s economy.
▪ Switzerland, whose neutrality dates back centuries and is even written into its constitution, joined sanctions against Putin, citing “the unprecedented military attack by Russia on a sovereign European state.”
▪ For the first time, a majority of Finns say they want their country, which borders Russia, to join NATO. Finland announced Monday it would help arm Ukraine.
▪ Sweden, which is not a NATO member and stayed neutral even against Adolf Hitler, said it would send 5,000 anti-tank launchers to Ukraine.
Such a strong, united reaction was not a given five days ago; Russia has deep economic ties to Germany and other European countries, and Putin has invested heavily in propaganda and support for anti-NATO politicians in Western countries. These momentous shifts are in no small part due to the leadership of two presidents. President Biden has effectively kept the NATO alliance united. He also avoided the trap Putin set for him when Russia put its nuclear forces on high alert over the weekend, which seemed to be a ploy to draw a reaction from the West.
But the hero of the week has clearly been President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who has stayed in Kyiv amid the Russian attack to marshal his country’s defense, all while cajoling (and sometimes shaming) the rest of the world to stand against Putin and for the democratic freedoms too many in the West have taken for granted. It’s no wonder the Russians reportedly want Zelensky dead. Merely by his existence, a Jewish Ukrainian president puts the lie to the absurd Russian fiction that its invasion was needed to “denazify” Ukraine, and his ability to use social media to rally international support for his country has almost single-handedly overwhelmed the Kremlin’s global disinformation machine.
In the immediate future, of course, what matters most is ending the violence and helping the wave of more than 500,000 Ukrainian refugees who have flooded neighboring countries. To help refugees, the United States can start by extending the visas of any Ukrainians currently in the United States; it would be unthinkable to deport them back to a war zone. The Biden administration should also speed up settlement of all refugees in the United States; only 4,362 have been settled, well under the refugee cap of 125,000 for the current fiscal year.
Ending the fighting will be a taller order. According to military analysts, the Russian advance on Ukrainian cities has stalled amid logistical problems and because the resistance from Ukraine was stronger than Russia anticipated. But that may lead Russia to escalate to more indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, as seems to be occurring already.
By now, Putin should realize that the threat of sanctions is not a bluff. The West should make clear that as tough as the existing sanctions are, it still has more to impose if he continues the war. For instance, it could complete the removal of Russian entities from SWIFT, the global platform for banking transactions (some exceptions were made for energy transactions). The United States could also sanction individual Russian lawmakers, as some European countries have already done.
However the Ukraine invasion ends, the world will look much different afterward, with a stronger NATO and a renewed appreciation for its value. And a reminder of democracy’s fragility should reinvigorate America’s willingness to defend it — both at home and overseas.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.