Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 17 March 2022


Putin’s Failure Is Biden’s Opportunity

Forget about ‘off-ramps’ for Russian aggression against Ukraine. As Clausewitz observed, a key to success is to pursue a retreating enemy.


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a teleconference with members of the government in Moscow, March 10.


Joe Biden, as I wrote earlier this week, has a genuine crisis on his hands. But thanks to Vladimir Putin’s historic blunder in Ukraine, Mr. Biden has something else: a once-in-a-decade opportunity to score a historic victory that reshapes the global playing field to America’s advantage. To capitalize on Mr. Putin’s blunder is the most important job Team Biden has. 

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This requires a psychological shift. Earlier in the crisis we heard of American and European diplomats offering Mr. Putin “off-ramps.” Some still seek compromise solutions that would allow Mr. Putin to save face. The time for such thinking may come again, but for now the objective should be clear. Mr. Putin must pay—and be seen to pay—such a heavy price for his miscalculation that leaders around the world will think twice before taking on the U.S. and its global alliance system. 

Carl von Clausewitz noted long ago that a key to success is to pursue a retreating enemy. When an enemy is in retreat, it is possible to inflict the greatest damage on his forces, disorganized and disheartened. 

Mr. Putin’s armies may not yet be retreating in Ukraine, but the failure of his initial campaign—and the atrocious methods to which he must now resort to salvage his military position—have put him on the political and psychological defensive. The U.S. must do everything possible to exploit this unexpected opportunity for a decisive victory against a dangerous opponent. 

The past two weeks have changed the world. Mr. Putin’s Russia turns out to be weaker, and Ukraine stronger, than many Westerners thought. And there is more. As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, “It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Given what we know about who Mr. Putin is and what he does, preventing him from building an empire on the doorstep of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization must now be considered a major Western interest. 

Making Mr. Putin pay for his war of aggression is not a distraction from America’s focus on the Indo-Pacific. Xi Jinping has also miscalculated by putting his full prestige behind the Russian alliance just as Mr. Putin stepped into the abyss. Thanks to that misstep, any setbacks Mr. Putin encounters in Ukraine are setbacks for Mr. Xi as well. They reduce his prestige in China and abroad by showing, first, that he is capable of major miscalculations in world politics and, second, that he is unable to prevent the U.S. and its allies from humiliating Beijing’s most important ally. 

Nothing matters more right now to the peace of the world and the security of the U.S. than crippling Mr. Putin’s drive to rebuild an aggressive and despotic empire by waging a criminal war. The Biden administration, often after prodding from a hawkish Congress, has taken important steps in this direction, but three more things remain to be done. 

First, we must support Ukraine’s ability to fight. The extraordinary early performance of the Ukrainian army, combined with the comprehensive failure of Russian military preparation, turned Mr. Putin’s gambit into a disaster. Keeping the Ukrainian military in the field is now a major strategic interest of the U.S. This is, or soon will be, not only about weapons and intelligence. Ukraine’s economy was never strong; it now faces collapse. In every domain, the burden of proof must shift from those who wish to send aid to those who wish to deny it. 

Second, the sanctions on Russia, especially the energy sanctions, need to become more effective. The League of Nations failed its first test when oil was excluded from the sanctions imposed on Italy following its 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Europe remains addicted to Russian energy, which means NATO is funding Mr. Putin’s war. If NATO is serious, this must stop. 

Finally, the administration must, for now, make opposition to Mr. Putin the core of its global foreign policy. Russia’s presence in places like Syria, Libya and, increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa will be harder to sustain as economic and military pressure on Moscow grows. Team Biden must look creatively and act boldly to hit Russian interests all over the world. Other goals must, when necessary, be set aside. Greening the world’s energy supply is, for now, less important than weaning Europe from Russian hydrocarbons. Denying Russia revenue from nuclear trade with Iran is, for now, more important than a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program. 

This won’t be easy. Despite his misstep in Ukraine, Mr. Putin remains a resourceful practitioner of ruthless realpolitik, and he still has some cards to play. Team Biden is for the most part a collection of foxes, who pursue many goals and have a hard time focusing on one objective. To take full advantage of the opportunity Mr. Putin has offered, Mr. Biden must get in touch with his inner hedgehog and focus his foreign policy on one thing and one thing only: making Mr. Putin pay.

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