As Russia masses troops and weapons along its border with Ukraine, all the traditional warning indicators are flashing red. The CIA and the Pentagon have reported that preparations for a Russian invasion are nearly complete, but the actual decision to move has not yet been made. The White House, which would much rather be focused on Asia, initiated a one-on-one virtual Biden-Putin summit. U.S. officials reported that the president gave Putin notice that a Russian invasion would trigger economic sanctions far more painful than anything yet seen. This stark warning was followed by consultations with European allies as well as Ukraine’s president. At the beginning of this week, a meeting in London of the G-7 countries produced a joint statement with its own warning. Any further Russian aggression against Ukraine “would have massive consequences and severe cost.”
The response from Moscow has been to double down on military preparations while ratcheting up a propaganda campaign that attempts to portray Ukraine as somehow posing a serious security threat to Russia. It is all quite reminiscent of the prelude to Russia’s 2014 invasion and seizure of Crimea and its semi-stealth occupation of the predominantly ethnic Russian territories of eastern Ukraine.
At one level, all of this looks surreal and even faintly ridiculous. Moscow gins up an imaginary threat from Ukraine while demanding that the U.S. “guarantee” that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. The U.S. and its NATO partners refuse to give such an assurance even though there are no active plans to offer membership to Ukraine. The Kremlin insists that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, indissolubly united by history, culture and religion. The president of Ukraine has described these familial ties as more akin to Cain and Abel than brotherly love.
It doesn’t matter that Russian claims and fears regarding Ukraine are seen by the outside observer as self-serving fabrications. What matters in strategic terms is that Putin and the echo chamber around him in the Kremlin believe their own pronouncements. Putin, himself, has been completely clear about his assumptions and intentions. In 2008, when President G.W. Bush suggested (unwisely) that Ukraine and Georgia might join NATO, Putin responded: “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state.” In a lengthy essay published in July, Putin wrote that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Ukraine is not real; it is an artificial illegitimate construct erected by disloyal Ukrainian politicians with connivance and support from the West — so the thinking goes.
Behind all of this is an ingrained belief in the Kremlin (and a significant part of the populace) that Russia, by definition, is not a mere country; it is an empire. Empires, by definition, must encompass territories outside their own core homeland. For Russia, the most valuable imperial domains lie to the west with priority to the Slavic lands of east/central Europe including Ukraine, Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia, etc. But imperial ambition will reach as far as power allows. Stalin, who murdered millions, is widely revered in Russia today because he extended Moscow’s dominion deep into the heart of Europe. Vladimir Putin is of exactly the same geopolitical lineage. He has repeatedly referred to the collapse of the Soviet empire as a historical “catastrophe.” His driving ambition is to restore Russian primacy in Eastern Europe, if not beyond. It is no longer feasible to do this with an occupying army, but Putin aspires to a dominant Russian sphere of influence built on intimidation, Russian oil and gas exports critically important to European economies, and cyberintelligence operations designed to weaken and destabilize unfriendly governments.
The supreme irony is that Putin’s policies have been self-defeating. Among Putin’s highest priorities is the weakening and rollback of NATO from Eastern Europe. Instead, the alliance has been consolidated throughout Central and Eastern Europe precisely because these countries fear and dislike the Kremlin’s agenda. Bulgaria, once the most loyal Soviet satellite, is now an active member of NATO. Ukrainian popular opinion, which just a decade ago was largely pro-Russian, is today overwhelmingly the opposite. The problem for the West is that the Ukrainian leadership and public are actively campaigning to join NATO when the U.S. and its allies see that step as just too provocative vis-a-vis Moscow.
All of this leaves the White House and European allies with the hard question of how to handle Putin’s game of brinkmanship over Ukraine. The lesson learned from the origins of World War II was that “appeasement” in response to the territorial demands of dictators is a recipe for disaster. That lesson was misapplied in the Vietnam War, but its time may have come again. It would have been easy enough for the White House to try to mollify Putin with a promise to take Ukraine membership in NATO off the table. But President Biden and his NATO counterparts did not do that; they publicly declared that Moscow’s demand was unacceptable — that Ukraine as a sovereign state had the right to make its own strategic choices. That position is at once principled, gutsy and risky. But the alternative, signaling to Putin that threats and intimidation work — would have been dangerous.
Historians of the future may record that Biden’s summit with Putin plus the G-7 marked a watershed. Putin is determined to reassert Russia’s ability to impose its will on much of Europe. The response from Biden and the G-7 is simple: those days are over. The Kremlin no longer has the power to dictate to Europe — and if it tries, the response will be to cripple the Russian economy. And that is no idle threat.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.