In February 2020 I went to Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian officials. At the time, I was the Trump administration’s top human-rights diplomat, and a key goal of my trip was to demonstrate the United States’ continued support for the embattled democracy in the face of Russian aggression.
In Ukraine, that threat isn’t an abstraction. One of the stops on my trip was to a museum commemorating the Holodomor, the terror-famine unleashed by Soviet Russia against the Ukrainian people in 1932-33. Nearly 4 million people starved to death in what the U.S. Congress labeled a genocide.
Nearly a century later, Russia remains an existential threat to its neighbor, with 100,000 troops massed on the border awaiting Vladimir Putin’s order to invade.
Unfortunately, President Biden has failed to stand up to the Russian strongman – and that was before he seemingly opened the door last week to a “minor incursion” in Ukraine. Putin senses weakness, and aggression is the predictable result. Yet while the hour is late, there’s still time for the United States and our European allies to restore deterrence and prevent an attack.
Less than a week after taking office, the new administration yielded to Russian pressure and extended the New START arms control treaty without conditions. Maybe an extension made sense, but we might have gotten something for it. Instead, the White House offered up a unilateral concession. Putin pocketed it and moved on.
At their June summit in Geneva, President Biden warned Putin to crack down on hackers in Russia launching cyber attacks against America. A few weeks later, we had his answer. Russian hackers targeted the Republican National Committee and unleashed a massive ransomware attack on U.S. companies. The Kremlin surely noticed the lack of a robust public response.
Then there’s Nord Stream 2. The new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany bypasses existing lines through Ukraine, isolating Kyiv, cutting its transit revenues, and allowing Moscow to further weaponize energy against Europe. That’s why the Trump administration worked with Congress to impose crippling sanctions on the pipeline as it neared completion, stopping it in its tracks to bipartisan acclaim.
Yet in May, the White House abruptly changed course and greenlighted the project – reportedly against the advice of career diplomats at the State Department – in deference to Germany’s views. (The views of our allies in central and Eastern Europe apparently count for less.) The pipeline is now complete and only awaits certification by German authorities for the gas to start flowing.
Europe likewise has helped invite Putin’s brinkmanship. When European leaders try to reset relations and expand business ties with Russia as if it were a normal nation, at a time when Kremlin henchmen plot assassinations on European soil and illegally occupy parts of Ukraine and Georgia, Putin gets the message that Europe lacks resolve.
It’s not too late to deter an invasion. To its credit, the administration has rallied our allies to reject Moscow’s demand for what amounts to a new Soviet empire. It has threatened unprecedented sanctions that would crater the Russian economy, and given Kyiv weapons to defend itself. But we can and should do more.
First, NATO should demonstrate its commitment to Ukraine’s self-defense by providing previously withheld capabilities, including anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. American soldiers shouldn’t fight in Ukraine, but arms from NATO countries could turn Putin’s campaign into a bloody quagmire that would sap his standing at home.
Second, the administration should immediately sanction Nord Stream, dealing a death blow that stops it from ever being brought online. We should also ramp up production and delivery of U.S. natural gas to lessen Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. America’s vast natural resources are not just economic assets, they’re geopolitical ones.
Finally, we should use the threat of further sanctions to impose costs on Russia now. The White House should announce sectors of the economy and specific individuals to be sanctioned in the event of invasion, and market forces will begin to degrade the Russian economy.
We also should be clear that we will sanction Putin himself, his family, and the corrupt oligarchs who profit from his misrule and whose support helps ensure regime survival. And we should give the Russian people our evidence of how these kleptocrats have looted their country for decades, further eroding Putin’s legitimacy and boosting Russia’s pro-democracy movement – which is what Putin fears most.
The last time Putin invaded Ukraine, he at least felt compelled to lie. In 2014, the Kremlin’s story was that the “little green men” who had seized Crimea were private citizens rather than a force acting on Moscow’s orders. The fact that Putin can now be brazenly honest about his intentions shows how badly deterrence has eroded.
The White House needs to reestablish deterrence now to avert a catastrophic European war – while we still can.