Russia’s autocratic strongman, President Vladimir Putin, finds himself in an unenviable position. He is deeply unpopular at home. An old political rival, Alexei Navalny, has returned home from abroad in an attempt to overturn Putin’s increasingly unpopular regime.
Moreover, it appears to Putin as though US President Joe Biden is leading NATO and the European Union (EU) in a renewed encirclement strategy meant to break Russian power in Europe and ultimately push Putin himself from power.
Whether or not the West is stoking the flames of resentment and regime change in Russia, the fact remains that Putin clearly believes the West is responsible—which further threatens regional security at a time when American power is being stretched to its breaking point all throughout Eurasia.
Meanwhile, Putin endures what he believes are endless personal slights from the West. For example, in a bizarre interview with ABC News, Biden (correctly) labeled Putin a “killer.” While true, it is hardly helpful in defusing a geopolitical crisis that could easily devolve into a world war.
In March 2021, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted, “[The Ukrainian government] has approved the Strategy for Deoccupation & Reintegration of Crimea, a historic document needed since 2014. The signal is crystal clear: we don’t just call on the world to help us return Crimea, Ukraine makes own dedicated & systemic efforts.”
To be clear, even without all of the political turmoil within Russia threatening Putin’s continued rule, the Kremlin views any attempt by Ukraine to reclaim Crimea as a casus belli. Despite whatever notions of Ukrainian military might that Kiev’s leaders may harbor, without considerable Western, spelled American, support, Ukraine’s military would be crushed by the hulking Russian military force just beyond their contested eastern borders.
The Russian military buildup did not begin in earnest until the Ukrainian government officially declared their intent to reclaim Crimea at all costs. While it is completely understandable that Kiev would want territory that was stolen from them by Russia in 2014, Biden must tell Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that Eastern Ukraine isn’t worth the bones of a single American GI.
What’s more, it’s unlikely that the West would go to war for Ukraine. Ukraine is not a NATO member. And there is a stunning lack of consensus among NATO’s European members about the severity of the Russian threat.
Without this much-needed consensus, any attempt to deploy military force in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty will not succeed and only make NATO look bad.
While it is easy to blame Moscow for the hostilities (in part, Russia is responsible), the fact is that the Biden administration entered the White House thumping its chest at Russia. It comes after four years of the previous Trump administration doing everything in its power to mitigate the risk of higher tensions with Moscow.
Although Russo-American relations did not return to the highs they reached in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Trump’s policy toward Russia did allow for Washington to fixate on the far more severe threats of China and Iran.
We are, sadly, witnessing the exact same pattern that led to Russia’s victory over Georgia in 2008. The pattern repeated again in 2014, during the Euromaidan Protests in Ukraine. In each example, Washington encouraged these protean democracies along Russia’s border to act boldly against perceived Russian aggression… while the West never intended to militarily intervene on behalf of those weaker allies against an irate Russian bear.
Putin does not need to take all of Ukraine to defeat the West, either. Nor did Putin need to take all of Georgia in 2008. All that Moscow needs to take is another small slice of Ukraine.
Putin’s salami slice strategy has worked thus far throughout what Russia considers its “Near-Abroad”, so why assume Moscow won’t repeat these actions? Why would anyone believe that the Biden administration will do anything other than balk at an actual Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, as previous American administrations have done?
Looking at Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, American guarantees don’t appear to be worth very much. And why does any American leader want to be committed to a world war with nuclear-armed Russia for Ukraine?
If war did erupt between Russia and the US, America’s victory is not assured. This is especially true given that every wargame the US military has played in which this same scenario is depicted, America “gets its ass handed to it by Russia.”
Already, Moscow is effectively challenging the US in the Arctic. Russian forces are running roughshod over the Middle East and Africa. Recently, Russia has also engaged in shockingly reckless behavior in space.
More gallingly, Moscow was responsible for the worst sustained cyber-espionage campaign in American history last year. All Washington has done is issue stern diplomatic demarches and encourage their allies to act irresponsibly (while Washington can do little to deter Russia).
Unless Biden acts now to restore direct diplomacy with Russia over Ukraine, Putin will take Eastern Ukraine. At that point, Ukraine will be a defunct state and the West will have to either accept the new paradigm or blunder into another world war on the European continent—all while trying to respond to China’s challenge in the Indo-Pacific.
The next four weeks are going to be instrumental in determining what happens next. The US cannot afford a world war with Russia. President Biden must choose peace.