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Reviews |  What Putin really wants from the Ukrainian crisis

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Reviews | What Putin really wants from the Ukrainian crisis

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Graves may have been Donald Rumsfeld’s mistakes, but George W. Bush’s First Secretary of Defense had a knack for memorable sentences. One of them – “weakness is provocative” – ​​explains the difficult situation in which we find ourselves again with Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine and NATO.

Let’s recap how we got there.

■ In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and took control of two of its provinces. The Bush administration protested but did next to nothing. After Barack Obama won the White House that fall, he pursued a “reset” with Russia. In 2012, he reduced the levels of US forces in Europe to their lowest levels in postwar history and mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia the main geopolitical threat.

■ In September 2013, Obama withdrew from his red line against Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve gas in Syria, instead accepting a Russian offer of mediation that was believed to have wiped out al-Al’s chemical arsenal. -Assad. This arsenal was never completely destroyed, but Vladimir Putin took note of Obama’s palpable reluctance to get involved.

■ In February 2014, Russia used “little green men” to capture and then annex Crimea. The Obama administration protested but did next to nothing. Russia then took advantage of the unrest in eastern Ukraine to cut off two Ukrainian provinces while unleashing a war that lasted seven years and claimed more than 13,000 lives. Obama responded with weak sanctions against Russia and a persistent refusal to arm Ukraine.

■ In 2016, Donald Trump ran for office asking how willing America should be to stand up for vulnerable NATO members. In 2017, he attempted to block further sanctions against Russia, but was effectively overturned by Congress. The Trump administration eventually took a tougher stance on Russia and approved limited arms sales to Ukraine. But Trump also attempted to hold military assistance hostage to Ukraine for political favors before being exposed, which led to his first impeachment.

Which brings us to Joe Biden, who ran for office promising a tougher line on Russia. It was anything but. In May, his administration lifted sanctions on Russia’s Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline to Germany, which, when operational, will increase Moscow’s energy influence in Europe. Since coming to power, the administration has done little to increase the relatively paltry flow of military aid to Ukraine. In the face of a Russian invasion, this will be as effective as trying to put out a forest fire by peeing on it.

Then there was the fiasco of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. “In the wake of the Saigon redux,” I wrote at the time, “every enemy will learn the lesson that the United States is a reckless power. The current Ukrainian crisis is as much the child of the Biden debacle in Afghanistan as the latest Ukrainian crisis was the child of the Obama debacle in Syria.

Now the administration is doubling down on its message of weakness by threatening “massive consequences for Russia” if it invades Ukraine, almost all in the form of economic sanctions. It’s bringing a knife to the proverbial shootout.

Imagine this not so far-fetched scenario. Russian forces move to a corner of Ukraine. The United States responds by cutting Russia off from the global banking system. But the Kremlin (which has built its gold and foreign exchange reserves to record levels) is not standing still. It is responding to sanctions by cutting off gas supplies to the European Union – which gets more than 40% of its gas from Russia in the middle of winter. It demands a Russia-Europe security treaty as the price for resuming supplies. And that excludes the United States from the market, at least until Washington shows goodwill by dropping financial sanctions.

Such a move would force Washington to step up or down – and this administration would almost certainly choose the latter option. This would meet Putin’s long-standing ambition to break NATO’s backbone. This would further induce China into a mindset similar to aggression, presumably against Taiwan.

It would be to America’s world position what the Suez Crisis was to Britain. At least the Pax Britannica could, in its twilight, give way to the Pax Americana. But what does the Pax Americana yield to?

What can the United States do instead? We should end talks with Russia now: No country should expect diplomatic rewards from Washington as it threatens to destroy our friends. We should start an emergency airlift of military equipment to Ukraine, on the scale of Richard Nixon’s airlift to Israel in 1973, including small arms useful in guerrilla warfare. And we should strengthen US forces in NATO’s frontline states, especially Poland and the Baltic states.

None of this may be enough to prevent Russia from invading, which would be a tragedy for the Ukrainians. But Putin is playing for higher stakes in this crisis – another piece of Ukrainian territory is only a secondary prize.

What he really wants is to end the Western Alliance as we know it from the Atlantic Charter. As for the United States, two decades of American bipartisan weakness in the face of its aggression bring us close to geopolitical debacle. Biden must stand firm with Ukraine to save NATO.

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