First, an apology to Mitt Romney. Prior to the 2012 election, then-Presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared that Russia was our biggest geopolitical threat. During the campaign, Barack Obama blasted him for saying Russia rather than Al Qaeda. Obama mocked Romney for being mired in a Cold War mentality. Many of us chuckled dismissively along with Obama. We were wrong.
Now we are poised for what may be the most dangerous moment since the end of the second World War. Former KGB thug, now Russian President, Vladimir Putin is using his power to take back territories that became independent with the end of the Cold War. He has already seized Crimea and occupied Belarus and would dearly love to reconstitute the Russian Empire.
Now, with Russian separatists controlling eastern parts of Ukraine’s Dombas territory, Putin has declared two areas to be independent territories, and he has surrounded Ukraine on three sides with military personnel, hardware and support services including medical facilities and a plasma supply. The Russian Parliament subserviently approved using Russian military outside of Russian borders , and troops have now moved into non-separatist-controlled areas. This major increase in military provocation violates – among other things -the so-called Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for US, U.K. and Russian agreement to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Putin lied. So what else is new? For one thing, there’s President Biden’s leadership of the Western Alliance in forging a strategy to forestall Putin’s aggression. Biden’s military decisions have been clear-cut, increasing materials sent to Ukraine and U.S. personnel dispatched to our NATO allies in the immediate region. If we let Putin get away with seizing part or all of Ukraine, his next moves might be against former Soviet Union members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This incendiary situation could quickly spiral out of control.
Biden’s rhetoric has been focused, significant and robust. He leveled with the country that invasion was imminent. He made clear that Russia would face more serious sanctions than it had ever experienced. And as Putin moved armaments ever more threateningly, Biden today announced serious sanctions that were, he warned, only the first tranche.
Working effectively so far with our NATO allies, he and other leaders got Germany to call a halt to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. This had been one of the weakest points in the NATO alliance, and the cost to Germany and to our own economy will be felt. But this was an important signal to Russia about the strength of the alliance. Then Biden announced heavy financial sanctions, cutting off Russian access to some financial institutions, notably affecting the oligarchs who have profited from their closeness to Putin and to American banks and investment banks.
Following through on strong rhetoric is important in the wake of Obama’s meaningless 2012 “red line” in Syria and last year’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, which prompted boundless criticism of the United States’ readiness to keep its international commitments.
President Obama waited six months after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 to impose sanctions, and they were not as sweeping or as uniformly embraced by other NATO countries as have been President Biden’s moves thus far against Russia’s recent aggression. And, even while holding open the door to last-minute diplomatic moves, the President has made clear that, beyond today’s measures, there are more arrows in his quiver.
Having staked out targets beyond two separatist-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine, Putin is now pressing Ukraine on three sides. If he is not stopped in his militaristic impulses, one can only imagine what will be the next bright shiny country he wants to “protect” from democracy.
Today Biden validated what should be clear to everyone but Putin and his sycophants that Russia is the aggressor, and that any effort on its part to rationalize what Putin is doing is a “twisted rewrite of history.” Under the Biden Administration, there will be no Helsinki moment, that international embarrassment when Donald Trump stood next to Putin and sided with him over the warnings of the U.S. intelligence community. Let us hope that today’s President Biden will be more than a match for Putin’s lying, manipulation, aggression and long-term hegemonic aspirations.