Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday, 26 February 2022

 ‘Hope Putin stops’ is apparently a strategy

President Biden speaks on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the White House on Feb. 24. (Al Drago/Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

When President Biden began his remarks on Thursday, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolding, he made a strong and necessary statement that “every inch” of NATO territory would be defended. This welcome clarity included the president’s invocation of the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty: Every NATO country is bound to come to the defense of any member that is attacked. This principle is the spine of Western resolve to hang together rather than hang separately.

Encouraging as the president’s speech might have been, it tailed off, and the question-and-answer session was, well, not inspiring. So far, the actions of the United States and its allies have not sent the sort of strong message required to get the attention of a leader whose rising instability is a danger to the world.

Immediately after Biden’s remarks, another 7,000 U.S. troops got word of their dispatch to Europe, following other recent moves to buttress NATO allies all too near Russia. What these sudden deployments mean is difficult for nonmilitary families to fully comprehend, but once again a small percentage of Americans are obliged to carry the biggest lift.

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What these young men and women face, especially as they fly into the three Baltic states and Poland, is unknown, but it’s potentially “kinetic.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unhinged speech that preceded his order to strike Ukraine stirred concerns about his mental state. His rambling and grievance-filled demands, and his theories of history unlinked to actual history, included unsubtle hints that he wouldn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons if impeded by NATO.

The British were sounding alarms on Friday. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told BBC Radio, “I have said continually for a long time, as has Britain, and the prime minister has supported this position, that Putin is not rational.” Wallace added that Putin “won’t stop” with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, James Heappey, Britain’s armed forces minister, told the House of Commons, “We must all be clear what the risk of miscalculation could be and how existential that could very quickly become if people miscalculate and things escalate unnecessarily.”

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The Brits are explicitly warning their citizens what is at stake as Putin mows down soldiers and civilians alike in Ukraine. Yet many Americans still seem comfortable taking a Putin-wouldn’t-dare attitude — even though he has already dared to invade one democratic nation, and his contempt for NATO is boundless.

Putin might be concluding that the lack of comprehensive sanctions for his attack on Ukraine might mean the United States and its allies are not willing to pay the sort of price that would back up their words with action.

What should the president do? Back the immediate exile of every Russian bank from the SWIFT messaging system that knits together international finance. Ban travel to and from Russia, including by cruise ship. Call for NATO nations to expel every wealthy Putin crony. Expropriate Russian assets for the settlement of Ukrainian claims. Go on the cyber offensive; don’t wait to be hit.

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The West’s countermeasures so far may have struck Putin as merely half-measures. He may well interpret the dispatching of a few thousand troops, some planes and a few tanks to Eastern Europe as evidence of an unwillingness to stand up to him. Germany’s cessation of the permitting process for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing gas from Russia probably looks more like a gesture than a permanent ban.

Government officials who proclaim that “everything is on the table” when it comes to fighting back against Putin are sending a message so cliched nowadays that there might as well be nothing on the table. Putin sees a United States that won’t fund its military adequately even as it spent trillions of dollars in a one-time pandemic stimulus. He knows the Democrats controlling every lever of power are the party of the “peace dividend.”

Mostly Putin sees a West that avoids doing difficult things if they result in inconvenience. He must just calculate and calculate. Would a paranoid sociopath conclude that NATO’s Article 5 is real, or suspect that it might evaporate if tested — another embarrassment the West would have to swallow.

Biden needs to return to the microphone, this time with the specifics that Americans — and Putin — cannot miss. And his “every inch” talk, welcome as it was, needs explaining. Does he really mean we would go to war with Russia, sink its ships, take its grid down, kill and be killed on the battlefield? Putin seemed to threaten that nuclear weapons were in play. If the West blinks at such mumbling, they will be. Again and again.

“Graduated pressure” was the term then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara used to describe his “strategy” in the Vietnam War. But it wasn’t a strategy. It was a political tactic to satisfy a variety of domestic constituencies. Now is not the time for Biden to recall the Democrats of his youth, such as McNamara and his boss, Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s time to take a page from Ronald Reagan if Russia crosses a NATO line: “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.”

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