Troops massing on Russia’s western border may be a ploy to deter U.S. sanctions — or they may signal the world’s next geopolitical crisis.
Russia is massing troops — reportedly as many as 20,000 — along its border with Ukraine. Is President Vladimir Putin simply testing Washington, seeking leverage to push back on sanctions that are about to be announced for the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the hack of SolarWinds Corp.?
Or is he actually preparing again to invade a sovereign state and carve another chunk or two out of its territory? How can President Joe Biden’s administration deter yet another violation of international law?
While Ukraine is not a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, when I visited it as supreme allied commander in 2013, I found a very willing partner in the Ukrainian armed forces. After high-level meetings in Kyiv, I headed south to the best part of the trip — a visit hosted by the chief of the Ukrainian navy at their premier naval base, on the strategically vital Crimean Peninsula.
We drove down in a convoy of black SUVs, but had time to stop at several of the Crimean War battlefields, including the “Valley of Death,” where the British Light Brigade famously charged, immortalized in the poem by Lord Tennyson. I remember thinking at the time how small the peninsula seemed and how ironic it was that the great powers of the day — the British, French, Ottoman and Russian Empires — had once been locked in a bloody and ultimately frustrating war over that small slice of territory jutting into the Black Sea.
Ukraine in 2013 was a strong partner with NATO. It sent troops to our missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans, and was considering deploying a warship on the NATO counter-piracy mission off East Africa. Yet the next year, Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. He also destabilized the entire nation by funding rebels in the Donbas region, flooding the country with Russian passports, and using a witch’s brew of Special Forces in unmarked uniforms; clandestine attacks; weaponized social media, and a naval blockade.
On that 2013 visit, I remember the naval chief, a pleasant and thoughtful admiral, lamenting the presence of Russian warships in the port of Sevastopol. He said: “One day, the Russians will simply take over our base. We’ll be lucky if they don’t just take the whole country.”
I thought he was being alarmist. Now I realize we didn’t do enough to deter Putin, and the lesson for me is that we need to do more now if we don’t want a repeat of the 2014 invasion.
Putin wants a menu of delights: another slice of Ukraine that would directly connect the Crimean Peninsula with Russia’s landmass; a Russian-speaking vassal state in the Donbas region; a Ukraine that is frightened out of pursuing membership in NATO; a demonstration to his own population that he pushes Russian nationalism around what they call their “near abroad”; and a signal to the West that further sanctions will only lead to more trouble in the neighborhood.
Will Putin actually invade again? The good news is that it seems less likely than in 2014. The Ukrainian armed forces are better armed and trained, largely with U.S. assistance. But with Putin, you never know — and he may believe the U.S. domestic turbulence and division, coupled with the obvious challenges of the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic, are sufficient distractions. He’s made similar bets before — in Syria and Georgia as well as Crimea — and is willing to take a chance and deal with the consequences later.
The best course for the Biden team is to look into of the eyes of the man the U.S. president correctly called a “killer” — and call his bluff.
That means providing Ukraine more offensive weapons, especially antitank and anti-armor surface-to-surface missiles, and commensurate training for the Ukrainian armed forces directly by the U.S. European Command. It also means sending U.S. naval warships to operate in the Black Sea (the Pentagon is moving a couple of destroyers up from the Mediterranean through the Bosporus this week); placing additional sanctions on Russia in general and Putin’s cronies in particular in response to the SolarWinds hack and the Navalny poisoning; and continuing NATO engagement with Ukraine, including placing it in a Membership Action Plan, a precursor to joining the alliance. (It was good news that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on Tuesday that 500 additional troops will be stationed in Germany from the fall, reversing the Donald Trump administration’s planned drawdown.)
This is not just about Ukraine — there are bigger stakes at play in the international system. China, surely, is watching how the West responds in Eastern Europe as the U.S. simultaneously seeks to maintain Taiwan’s independence.
America and its allies need to stand firm in the face of a Russian mobilization on the Ukrainian border. It is never a good idea to give in when a bully starts posturing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.