As the Ukrainian crisis deepens, there is only one option that would stop a Russian invasion—and that is the one that all the serious players in Washington say is off the table: dispatching an American and coalition force to defend Ukraine.
is not ready for war with the U.S.; informing his gamble is a well-grounded conviction that America is not committed enough to Ukraine to defend it by force.
History may look back on this as a failure of nerve equal to the appeasement of the 1930s. Britain and France thought war was unthinkable until it became unavoidable. With troops off the table, the
administration hopes to whip up a mass of economic sanctions and political repercussions (up to arming Ukrainian insurgents) grave enough to warn Mr. Putin away from his intended prey.
“Hopes” is the operative word. In Washington, where trying to guess Mr. Putin’s intentions has become a bigger indoor sport than Wordle, even administration insiders doubt this approach will work. A worst-case scenario, in which Russia seizes much of Ukraine and the West invokes sanctions that fail to reverse the invasion, seems likely.
America’s Indo-Pacific allies in particular are watching with horror. A Russian occupation would expose the fragile underpinnings of world order and encourage China and North Korea to probe for weakness. And if America responds to Russian aggression by building up North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces and entering a prolonged confrontation with Moscow, what becomes of the U.S. focus on the Pacific?
Caught in this ugly predicament, Team Biden must improve the odds of deterring a Russian invasion and plan for the possibility—some think it’s a probability—that deterrence fails and Mr. Putin attacks. To do that, it must plan consequences that Mr. Putin will find serious, challenge his calculations about American weakness, and, without appeasement, make the peaceful option look more attractive.
When it comes to threats, Democrats and Republicans alike tend to overvalue the effect of economic sanctions and underestimate their cost. Europe depends so heavily on Russian oil and gas that sanctions are necessarily limited in their scope. Even very small, poor countries like Cuba and North Korea have been undeterred by sanctions more severe than any Russia is likely to face. Formal defense ties uniting Sweden, Finland and the U.S. with a commitment to defending the Baltic states, or the restoration of close defense relations between the U.S. and Turkey (which has sold Ukraine drones and has much to fear from a resurgent Russia), would impress Mr. Putin more.
Beyond that, President Biden must do more to restore U.S. credibility than saying “America is back.” Mr. Putin believes the American polarization he has helped promote is so bitter that our foreign policy is doomed to be erratic, changing with every presidential election, and ineffective, because our domestic disputes leave little energy or political capital for foreign affairs. As tensions with Russia mounted, Mr. Biden flew to Atlanta to make the most divisive speech of his presidency, confirming Mr. Putin’s dismissive ideas about American paralysis at the worst possible time.
To defend peace abroad, President Biden needs to make some peace at home. Resistance to Russia unites both progressive and conservative senators. A bipartisan Senate delegation arrived in Kyiv over the weekend. The administration can and should develop a Russia policy with bipartisan support and put that unity prominently on display.
Mr. Biden then needs to use all the considerable tools at his disposal to educate the American people about the new and dangerous world we inhabit. The holiday from history is over. Between China and Russia, America faces adversaries as powerful and relentless as any we faced in the Cold War. It is President Biden’s mission to get this message across.
Finally, he needs to open an effective back channel to explore a way forward. Mr. Putin isn’t wrong that Washington and Moscow need a relationship that acknowledges Russia’s new power. Quiet conversations between senior people on both sides are likely to be more effective than official exchanges.
These steps can improve the odds of a better outcome in Ukraine, and position the U.S. better should deterrence fail, but the final decision is out of our hands. American policy makers should reread their
His 1946 Long Telegram provides an analytical framework that explains why the U.S.-Russia relationship is so volatile, why attempted resets with Mr. Putin have failed, and how best to manage an important relationship that will never be easy.
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