A Rogue Russia Tries to Reset the World Order
If the U.S. response to the invasion of Ukraine is purposeful, creative and wise, Putin’s campaign will ultimately fail.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has claimed his place in history. Not since Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 has a European leader committed an act of aggression as brutal or as nakedly cynical as Mr. Putin’s utterly unprovoked attack on Ukraine. He has made himself an international outlaw and turned the great nation of Russia into a rogue state.
This is a criminal war of premeditated and unjustified aggression, and Mr. Putin’s Western allies and enablers should probably check with their lawyers. The Nuremberg trials punished economic collaborators who enabled Hitler’s wars of aggression.
For good or ill, Mr. Putin’s gamble will shape the future of Europe and the fate of world order. Western leaders have failed to frustrate his campaign to rebuild an illiberal empire on the haunted ruins of the Soviet state. Like their predecessors at the beginning of World War II, their own place in history depends on how they respond to a challenge that wiser, more resolute leadership would have nipped in the bud. It would have been easy to stop Mr. Putin 20 years or even a decade ago. Today it will require a much greater effort in a much darker world.
One must at this moment pause to think of the long-suffering people of Ukraine. An independent Ukrainian state briefly emerged from World War I only to be plunged into the horrors of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war. The scars had scarcely begun to heal when Stalin’s genocidal policies inflicted new rounds of mass death through deliberately engineered starvation and systemic repression. Then came Hitler’s invasion with all the atrocities and brutalities that Nazi occupation could bring—followed by the harsh reimposition of Soviet rule and decades of stagnation under a dictatorship of lies culminating in the Chernobyl disaster. Post-Soviet Ukraine was never a model of good governance or economic success, but after their tragic history the Ukrainian people had, and have, an incontestable moral right to determine their own future in their own way.
As for the future of American foreign policy, we should not underestimate the difficulties ahead. This is not only about Ukraine, and Mr. Putin will not rest on his laurels if his gamble succeeds. Like any comic-book supervillain, he makes no secret of his goals. He aims to topple the U.S. from its global position, break the post-Cold War world order, cripple the European Union and defeat the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia, even with the addition of Ukraine, does not have China’s superpower potential. But given the incompatibility of its goals with American interests and its demonstrated ability to punch above its economic weight, Russia poses threats that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore.
It would have been better to deal with Mr. Putin’s challenge in 2008, when he invaded Georgia, or 2014, at the time of his first invasions of Ukraine. Russia was weaker, China was less challenging, and the U.S. was in a stronger international position. But the American political system elected to kick the can down the road, and here we are. We will have to face an empowered Russia and a resurgent China at the same time, and this complex and dangerous task will require better and more-focused political leadership than Americans have known in this century.
President Biden must use the shock and horror of Russian aggression in Ukraine to build an allied and domestic consensus for a reinvigorated foreign policy. Many of the strategies come from Ronald Reagan’s playbook. We can massively outspend Russia on defense and cyber capabilities. We can marginalize Russia diplomatically while attacking its oil income and limiting its access to technology. We must solidify our alliances while degrading Russian influence everywhere from Syria and Libya to Venezuela, Cuba and beyond.
Mr. Putin is a gifted leader, and we must expect more surprises. But even with the addition of Ukraine, Russia is weaker than the Soviet Union was. If the American response is purposeful, creative and wise, Mr. Putin’s campaign against the world order will ultimately fail.
Nothing less can be our goal. “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic,” Reagan told his foreign-policy adviser Richard Allen in 1977. “We win and they lose.” Mr. Putin has sought to return the world to an era of zero-sum international competition under the law of the jungle; he and the acolytes and imitators inspired by his example must be taught why that’s bad.