For the third time in less than two years, Russia is engaged in a massive buildup of its military forces along its border with Ukraine. On Dec. 2, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov warned his nation’s parliament that Russia might invade Ukraine by the end of January.
Russia’s motivation to invade Ukraine is as complex as is its president, Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin is more than a Russian nationalist who has an abiding dislike and distrust of the West. His thinking spans both European and Asian pragmatism, and, as his personal history in the KGB confirms, his ruthlessness is professional.
Throughout Russia’s history, it has believed it could only survive as a great power, and its status depends on the extent of its empire. When Russia conquered and annexed Crimea in 2014, Mr. Putin’s popularity at home skyrocketed.
Mr. Putin believes, as he said in 2005, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe. Crimea’s Sevastopol, a part of Ukraine, is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. From Mr. Putin’s point of view, it was the priority target for annexation. After Crimea, Ukraine is at the top of Mr. Putin’s list because it might join NATO instead of being swallowed again by Russia. Moreover, Ukraine was called the “breadbasket of the Soviet Union” for its grain production, which Mr. Putin wants to keep under Russian control. Thus, his seven-year war against Ukraine.
The Biden administration apparently agrees that a Russian invasion of Ukraine may be imminent. Our intelligence community reportedly has found that the Kremlin is planning a multifront offensive that would employ 175,000 troops, along with tanks, artillery and a large number of combat aircraft.
The 2014 Ukrainian interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, told me by email that, because of Russia’s de facto control of Belarus, Russian troops could push into Ukraine from there and get behind Ukrainian troops positioned at the Russian border.
Over the past few weeks, the war of words between the Kremlin and the Biden administration has grown hotter. There has also been a conversation between President Biden and Mr. Putin, as well as a lot of diplomatic wrangling over possible sanctions on Russia, were it to invade Ukraine.
Mr. Putin said any NATO move to invite Ukraine to join it would cross a “red line.” He has said that if some sort of NATO “strike systems” were stationed in Ukraine, that would cross another “red line.” In response, Mr. Biden has said, “I won’t accept anybody’s red line,” and that only NATO’s members would decide what other nations could join.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia would face “serious consequences” if it invaded Ukraine and that the U.S. has “a strong, ironclad commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said virtually the same thing but added that any response would be through the “international community,” which effectively rules out any military response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
There are two huge problems in Mr. Biden’s approach to deterring Russia from invading Ukraine. First is that although his administration insists that “all options are on the table,” no one — not Russia, not Ukraine and not our NATO allies — believes that we would intervene militarily to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion. There is no “mailed fist inside the velvet glove” of Mr. Biden’s diplomacy.
Second, the talk of economic and political sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine has it badly wrong. Mr. Putin isn’t deterred by mere threats of sanctions — or their actuality — as his pattern of aggression around the world demonstrates.
Sanctions against Russia for its conquest of Crimea, its war in eastern Ukraine, election interference, malicious cyberattacks and use of chemical weapons in attempted assassinations, illicit trade with North Korea, and support to Syria and Venezuela have all failed to change Mr. Putin’s behavior.
Nevertheless, Mr. Biden seeks to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine by threats of sanctions. He, along with Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin, are reportedly in talks with our allies to decide what “meaningful” sanctions could be imposed.
Mr. Biden’s track record on diplomacy with Russia is very discouraging. For example, he gave Mr. Putin a five-year extension of the New START Treaty and got nothing in return. Later, after Mr. Biden thought Mr. Putin had agreed to cease ransomware attacks against US targets, there has been — according to the FBI — no diminution of those attacks.
From those experiences, from Mr. Biden’s Afghanistan debacle and by observing Mr. Biden’s political weakness, Mr. Putin learned that he can safely disregard Mr. Biden’s threats.
In a two-hour video call on Dec. 7, Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin discussed Ukraine in an effort — on Mr. Biden’s part — to deter Mr. Putin from invading Ukraine. Mr. Biden’s threats of economic sanctions won’t change Mr. Putin’s mind. Mr. Putin’s demand that the U.S. promise that Ukraine would never join NATO probably forestalled that move for years.
No matter what political or economic sanctions Mr. Biden threatened, they will be insufficient to deter Mr. Putin from ordering an invasion of Ukraine when he decides the moment is right. Mr. Biden is playing a very weak hand against a man who doesn’t bluff easily.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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