The Biden administration has concluded that a new Russian military offensive against Ukraine is “much more likely,” as one senior official put it, than a diplomatic resolution and could come within days. The United States and Europe could seek to forestall this through preemptive surrender, giving Putin control over Ukraine and a measure of security control over Moscow’s former empire in Europe. This is what the Kremlin is demanding, and achieving it through intimidation may be what Putin seeks now. But can the United States and Europe prevent an escalation of Putin’s war against Ukraine without consigning tens of millions of Europeans to Kremlin control or leaving them vulnerable to future Kremlin intimidation?
Where the Crisis Stands
The United States seeks to prevent Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine without surrendering the objectives for which it fought World War II and the Cold War: a united Europe, no longer subjected to tyrannical rule or aggression. U.S. tactics in this case are based on a two-track approach: developing the “sticks” of arms to Ukraine, troops to NATO’s Eastern flank countries, and potential sanctions; and applying the “carrots” of diplomacy, including arms control and other solid risk-reduction measures. Both tracks have advanced: the United States and NATO have put offers on the table; and arms are flowing to Ukraine, American troops are on the move (not to Ukraine, but to NATO’s Eastern tier of countries), and a powerful set of sanctions and other economic tools are at advanced stages of preparation. All this is supported by Allied unity as good as existed during the Cold War (German hesitation and French style notwithstanding).
It hasn’t been enough. The Biden administration has hoped that the “sticks” would convince Putin to take the diplomatic path. That’s not happening. In a long meeting on Feb. 10 with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin put on his familiar bored boy slouch, alternating, according to French sources, with long monologues of grievance. (Those grievances are misplaced: to paraphrase France’s WWI leader Georges Clemenceau, whatever the causes of the current crisis, Ukraine did not attack Russia.) In a meeting the next day with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seemed more interested in trolling, probably because he has no mandate for serious diplomacy.
President Joe Biden’s Feb. 12 call with Putin doesn’t seem to have gone much better, according to the White House statement and some initial press backgrounding; neither did Macron’s call with Putin earlier the same day.
Next Steps for the United States and Europe
What’s the best U.S. and European play at this stage?
The United States can advance the sticks. It should accelerate arms shipments to Ukraine while it still can. If Putin decides to launch a WWII-style major military offensive against Ukraine, Ukrainian airports may not be operable for long. If there are more anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems to send to the Ukrainian military, or other equipment to support a prolonged Ukrainian resistance to possible Russian occupation, the U.S. and other allies should get them there now. The United States and NATO countries could also accelerate efforts to strengthen NATO’s force posture on its Eastern flank, either on a national basis or, if NATO members can agree now, by activating the NATO Response Force or other NATO-hatted forces.
There are good reasons not to start imposing heavy new sanctions yet; these should be launched together for maximum impact and not, as the United States and Europe did in 2014, rolled out piecemeal, slowly up an escalatory ladder. The Biden administration has already done a good job making clear that strong sanctions – financial sector and personal sanctions against Putin and his kleptocratic circle — are ready, as are powerful export-control measures. It needs to intensify this work, advising U.S., European, and Asian banks and business that the U.S. is serious and will not tolerate sanctions or export-control evasion. It needs as well to keep working to identify additional sources of oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) to compensate as much as possible for expected Kremlin cutoffs as a weapon against Europe and the United States, which buys a lot of Russian oil.
Remaining Path of Diplomacy
Despite the sullen Kremlin attitude so far, there may be more room to advance the diplomatic track. This could have two features. While the United States (and the U.K.) have leaned forward in warning Putin of the consequences if he launches a full-scale war, Germany especially could say more and should do so now. In public statements during his visit to Washington this past week, Chancellor Olaf Scholz seemed muted. The new German government is wrestling with significant internal divisions, with some Social Democrats (the Chancellor’s party and the leading one in the German coalition) still reluctant to call out Moscow’s aggression publicly. But this is an emergency. Putin would notice a strong, not nuanced, message from the German chancellor now, warning that should Russia launch a major war in Europe, Germany will no longer play a role of East-West mediator or set its sights on new versions of “Ostpolitik,” but will regard Putin’s government as a threat to peace in Europe and act accordingly. The German government needs to weigh whatever domestic backlash there may be to such a statement and the consequences of a major land war in Europe that now looms as a real possibility. Macron, having tried his best in Moscow, could make a similar statement.
At the same time, the U.S. could supplement its serious arms control and other security proposals by offering to wrap them in a larger diplomatic package, perhaps offering a major conference to update Europe’s security order, if Putin stands down from his threatened major war. It wouldn’t be hard to outline a way ahead: 2025 marks the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, a framework initially dismissed as giving the Soviet Union legitimacy in its control of Europe East of the Iron Curtain but now seen as an early step toward the dismantling of the Soviet Empire and Soviet Union itself. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has suggested such an approach. The United States (or France or Germany) could propose starting talks once Russia stands down from war, with an aim to update European security via an agreement and a major summit in Helsinki in 2025. Finland is planning a conference that year. The offer would have to make clear that a “Helsinki 2.0” would build on, not supplant, the principles and documents that ended the Cold War, including human rights, national sovereignty, and the right of all countries to determine their own security alliances.
Such an approach has risks, such as giving the Kremlin a platform to try to overturn the post-Cold War order that Moscow had already accepted. But launching a Helsinki 2.0 process would put the United States and Europe on even higher ground. And it seems a better option than simply batting back Kremlin demands for a permanent end to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO, a move that Moscow would (rightly) interpret as consigning Ukraine to its control. In addition to its substantive potential, a major diplomatic offer like a Helsinki 2.0 would have the advantage of helping rally the Europeans around a strong position should Putin refuse it.
Different Scales of Russian Aggression
A cautionary note: the Biden administration and many observers have described the current crisis in binary terms of a major war or diplomatic “off ramp.” But Putin has many options, including a neither-war-nor-peace approach that imposes sustained pressure on Ukraine, hoping to destroy its economy and undermine its resistance to Kremlin control by means other than all-out war with its consequences and risks. Instead of a full invasion, Putin could order the overt occupation of that part of Eastern Ukraine that Russia already controls, or he could seize and annex Ukraine’s Serpent Island in the Western Black Sea, enabling Russia to cut off Ukrainian access to international waters, or some other aggression designed to keep up the pressure without necessarily triggering the Western sanctions likely to damage the Russian economy.
The United States should not allow Putin to retain the initiative. If he launches “smaller” aggressions in the expectation of frustrating a strong Western response, the United States — joined by Europe and the U.K. if possible, but proceeding regardless — should hit Russia hard with sanctions and make clear in advance that such is its intention.
It’s an ugly moment. Putin either intends to launch a major war of conquest, a la WWII, or use the threat of war to subjugate Ukraine. Like Soviet leaders and other 20th century aggressors, Putin has the dictator’s tactical advantages of greater freedom of action. Democracies, even with all our current faults and awful domestic challenges, have the strategic advantage of freedom and the stronger economy and political resilience that come from it. But that doesn’t make the present dangers and tough choices any easier.