Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.
NPR’s Nick Schifrin reports that the Biden administration believes “Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, and has communicated that decision to the Russian military.”
President Joe Biden implicitly highlighted the urgency of the situation on February 15 by delivering a speech that was, according to CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Phil Mattingly, scheduled only a few hours beforehand. Biden’s comments, containing both warnings and assurances, were largely directed to Putin. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, immediately after the remarks, called this “the Crescendo Moment.”
So how can America, at this late date, deter Russia?
There should be no surprise why the situation looks grave. Biden did not on February 15 remind Putin about the Budapest Memorandum, in which Washington and Moscow in December 1994 guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders. On January 19, Biden admitted NATO might tolerate a “minor incursion.” He has ruled out military force. And as Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told Strategika, “the Biden administration for months has been in appeasement-mode.”
Biden’s appeasement, unfortunately, is nothing new. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, American policy has been to support the Russian state. “Yes, there’s a new more assertive, maybe even more aggressive Russia, but fundamentally Russia is a state in decline,” said Douglas Lute in 2016, when he was America’s ambassador to NATO. “If you accept the premises that we’ve heard here about Russia’s internal weakness and perhaps steady decline and so forth, it may not make sense to push further now and maybe even—and maybe accelerate or destabilize that decline.”
Those sensible-sounding words have led to indulgent and misguided policies—fecklessness—and Putin, taking advantage of the situation, has been able to redraw the map of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region with bluster, intimidation, subterfuge, and force.
“Remember the folks who brought us the Russian Reset?” Waldron asked. “They’re back in power, and they learned nothing the first time.” The foreign policy team that let Putin annex Crimea in 2014 and take over the Donbas is at it again. Putin is counting on continued feeble responses from the Atlantic Alliance.
It is in this context that Putin heard Biden’s most recent words. On the 12th of February, the American president told his Russian counterpart during their phone call that the U.S. and its allies and partners will “respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs” if there is an invasion. On the 15th, Biden repeated the warning, outlining costs Russia would bear.
Unfortunately, as Waldron points out, Biden’s periodically issued threats “have so far been vague and unpersuasive.”
The solution for Biden is simple: become persuasive. Putin knows the power of the United States but undoubtedly thinks that, as Lute has intimated, America and NATO will do nothing to undermine the Russian state. Biden in his remarks on Tuesday made that clear, stating “We do not seek to destabilize Russia.”
The best way to deter the Russian strongman, however, is to immediately impose crippling sanctions and show him the U.S. is willing to see his regime fail.
Are severe sanctions risky? Of course, but three decades of misguided policy have left America and the West with only exceedingly dangerous options. If the history of 1930s Europe has taught us anything, it is that the failure of democracies to take resolute actions at an early stage only makes the situation worse. This is no time for nuance.
There is one more benefit from sanctioning Putin before he invades: China can be deterred from aggressive acts against neighbors, most notably Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and India.
Almost every analyst thinks that Beijing and Moscow are stronger because they have teamed up—on February 4 they announced their “no limits” partnership and declared that their tie-up is “superior” to an alliance—but the reverse could also be true. China may be easier to contain now that it has tied itself to the Kremlin.
How so? Russia is far weaker, and the disparity gives American policymakers an opportunity to make an example of the more vulnerable of the pair. Chinese ruler Xi Jinping, for all his appearance of strength, is unlikely to take on an America driving his partner into the ground.
For five decades, Washington policymakers thought that the strengthening of the Chinese Communist Party was in America’s interests. As China grew stronger, the reasoning went, Beijing would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, as then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said in a now-infamous 2005 speech. Zoellick was applying Ambassador Lute’s generous approach to a rising state, not a declining one.
Applying this wrong view with ideological fervor, American policymakers continually ignored, forgave, and explained away unacceptable Chinese behavior, thereby empowering the most hostile elements in Beijing by showing everyone else that belligerence worked.
In short, America has supported aggressors and, unwittingly, encouraged aggression at both ends of the Eurasian landmass.
Ronald Reagan did not accept the 1970s Nixon-Kissinger consensus that the world had to live with the USSR and through determined policies engineered the end of Soviet communism. Americans then forgot this powerful lesson and supported two states that now threaten to take down the international order.
As Kabul was falling last August—thanks in part to China’s support to the Taliban—Beijing was pushing the point that the U.S. was incapable. The Communist Party’s Global Times, hours after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital, asked how could America stand up to mighty China when it could not even deal with insurgents. The semi-official tabloid also stated this, referring to the U.S.: “It cannot win a war anymore.”
Moreover, Chinese propaganda talked about Taiwan as Kabul fell. In an editorial, the Global Times said that once a war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait “the island’s defense will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won’t come to help.”
It is now time for Washington to reestablish deterrence, and the place to first do that is Ukraine.