Arabian: Flipping the Script on Russia

Although the Kremlin has issued a difficult ultimatum regarding Ukraine, Biden still has a third option.

by Kami Arabian | 1/1/22 3:17pm

Months after its catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States faces another major challenge to its unipolarity: a belligerent Russia.

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that his country will pursue “appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures” if the West maintains its “obviously aggressive stance.” To back this threatening statement, Russia has amassed an estimated 100,000 soldiers — supported by an assortment of tanks, supply lines and field hospitals — along its border with Ukraine and in Belarus and Crimea. Putin has demanded an American commitment to exclude Ukraine from NATO on a permanent basis and refrain from deploying short-range missiles and certain other weapons in the region before he calls off his troops. Essentially, Putin has pushed the following ultimatum on the West: surrender Ukraine or face war with Russia. Neither of these options are particularly appealing, but fortunately, U.S. President Joe Biden still has a third way out. 

Putin’s geopolitical posturing is particularly — if not, primarily — intended for domestic consumption. The autocrat has been using this stand-off to distract Russians from the plethora of problems they face at home, such as surging inflation, a lackluster response to COVID-19, rampant corruption, widespread unemployment, political unrest and declining oil prices. From this perspective, Ukraine is the perfect card to play; in addition to being a post-Soviet state and having cultural and linguistic ties to Russia, Ukraine has long been a “boogeyman” for the country. From the Russian perspective, Ukraine is an essential cornerstone of the post-Cold War regional order; after all, the threat of a NATO partner on the Russian doorstep is enough to keep any Moscow general up at night. And it’s not just the generals either. So far, Putin’s plans seem to be working — as many as 66% of Russians blame either the West or Ukraine for escalating tensions, while only 4% blame Russia, according to one survey cited in the Moscow Times.

Apart from distracting Russians from internal problems, Putin aims to demonstrate that Russia, despite its troubles, still possesses significant influence in the post-Soviet world and can hold its own against the West. The logic is this, according to chief Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiseolyov: “if you put a gun to our head, we’ll do the same to you … we have the capability for that.” For Putin, it’s a win-win. If the West capitulates, he scores a major moral and strategic victory; if it doesn’t, he gets to demonstrate the might of his military by overwhelming Western-backed Ukraine. For the West, of course, it’s a lose-lose. While the Ukrainian military has seen much development since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, most analysts agree that the country is not yet capable of defending against an invasion without intervention from the West. But the West cannot possibly risk full-scale intervention against nuclear-armed Russia because, as Kiseolyov so elegantly put it, “everyone will be turned to radioactive ash,” and Putin knows this. 

The U.S. can, however, flip the script by opting for a third option: changing the calculus. By raising the cost of an invasion, the West can deter Russia and ensure the sovereignty of Ukraine without the need for direct military intervention. 

To begin, the U.S. should accept that there is nothing it can do — with the exception of a nuclear strike, which clearly would not be wise — that would prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. Despite its post-Soviet decline, Russia continues to possess top-notch ground and cyber-warfare capabilities, nuclear weapons, an abundance of resources and a canny leader at its helm. It has also demonstrated that it’s no pushover; the country has performed solidly in Syria and Libya, and it’s questionable at best whether the U.S. can say the same. 

However, as the U.S. learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, occupying a country is much more difficult than invading it. While the U.S. cannot prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, perhaps it can help raise the costs of occupation to such an extent that Russia would choose not to. Of course, this would require the U.S. to increase the amount of logistical and technical support that it grants Ukraine, which should only be doled out with great restraint. Any support that is not purely defensive would — perhaps rightfully — anger Russia and contribute to the security dilemma. To this end, the U.S. must publicly define the exact conditions under which it will provide or deny assistance; by adding a degree of certainty to the situation, this approach would alleviate Russian paranoia without endangering Ukraine. For instance, the U.S. may commit itself to arming Ukraine with surface-to-air missiles to intercept Russian aircraft, while refusing to sell any such aircraft of its own. This approach would deny Putin the victory — either in the capitulation of the West or the annihilation of Ukraine — he so desperately needs and benefits both the U.S. and Ukraine.

While sanctions are another way to raise the costs for Putin, this approach is doomed to fail. The Kremlin has time and time again demonstrated its ability to endure sanctions by instead dealing with other autocracies — including China — and its own Eurasian Economic Union. Some have proposed that Russia be blacklisted from SWIFT — a global electronic payment-processing system — but there are two major problems with this approach. First, as one analyst correctly points out, SWIFT “doesn’t actually have to listen to the United States.” Second, Russia is still the 11th strongest economy in terms of GDP, and removing it from financial institutions may be too big a price for many of our allies to accept. Russia still has significant leverage over Europe thanks to energy exports, and some EU players have lobbied against sanctions against its Nord Stream 2 pipeline, for instance. Blocking Russian institutions could indirectly harm American allies and risk turning some of its traditional partners toward a more autocratic state.

By refusing to accept Putin’s ultimatum, Biden can demonstrate that he has learned from his errors in Afghanistan and will not end a war without preconditions or guarantees for American safety and that of its partners. The U.S. should not settle for a “Peace in Our Time” agreement, but it also shouldn’t drag itself into another costly war that is not immediately a matter of national security. For Biden, the only way to win Putin’s game is not to play.

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