Russian President Vladimir Putin has assembled a massive Russian military force on Ukraine’s border. We don’t know Putin’s ultimate plans; he remains his usual unpredictable self. But his recent threatening statements about Ukraine — including a claim that Ukrainians and Russians are actually one nation — have rattled leaders in Kyiv, Brussels and Washington. Since 1939, the specter of an all-out conventional war in Europe between two major militaries has never been greater.
During Putin’s last military buildup on Ukraine’s border, President Biden coined a new phrase to describe the kind of partnership he hoped to establish with his Russian counterpart — a “stable and predictable relationship.” Biden and his team repeated this hope for U.S.-Russia relations before and during Biden’s meeting with Putin in Geneva last June.
It is no sin in diplomacy to articulate ambitious objectives. We, too, would like to see a stable and predictable relationship with Russia. But aspiring toward lofty goals without a realistic strategy to achieve them is ineffective diplomacy, especially when the pursuit of such objectives involves sacrificing other important security objectives. Instead of continuing to pursue an unrealistic goal with Russia, the Biden administration should now devote more time and resources to a more achievable foreign policy objective — a stable and predictable relationship with Ukraine.
Putin clearly does not want a stable and predictable relationship with Biden. He considers the United States to be Russia’s greatest enemy. In his view, the Biden administration seeks to weaken Russia and overthrow his regime. With such a country, as Putin sees it, there can never be stable, predictable cooperation, only perpetual conflict.
Moreover, Putin already has won tangible gains from his unpredictable behavior earlier this year. When Putin staged an earlier military buildup on Ukraine’s border in the spring, Biden responded by requesting a high-profile meeting in Geneva, with all the pageantry of Cold War superpower summits. Putin loved it. Putin also won U.S. acquiescence for his Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project to Germany, without giving up anything in return. The desire to freeze into place U.S.-Russian tensions also has translated into shallow ambitions for deepening U.S. ties to Ukraine. So why is anyone surprised that Putin is running this same play again now?
If Plan A fails, you must pivot to Plan B. It’s time for a new U.S. strategy toward both Russia and Ukraine.
Toward Russia, Biden must embrace more coercive diplomacy. Gestures of cooperation must be accompanied by credible commitments to coercive action should cooperation fail. Regarding the current crisis on Ukraine’s border created by Putin, Biden should state publicly his desire to reinvigorate diplomacy to end the war in eastern Ukraine, including naming a senior envoy to represent the United States in these negotiations and insisting that the United States formally join Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France to reinvigorate the now moribund Normandy talks tasked with ending the war in eastern Ukraine. Such an announcement would dispel the absurd Russian claim that Washington and Kyiv are scheming to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over Donbas by military force and also end the dangerous Russian pursuit of a U.S.-Russian bilateral negotiation track to determine Ukraine’s fate without Ukrainians in the room.
At the same time, Biden, Congress and our European allies and partners should spell out publicly and now — not after another Russian military intervention — a package of serious comprehensive sanctions to be implemented in response to new Russian aggression. Doing so would tie the West’s hands and compel immediate action if Russia launched a new military strike.
The current sanctions regime will not change Kremlin behavior. A new model — cascade sanctions — should be adopted to ratchet up new sanctions every year that Russia continues to sustain the war in eastern Ukraine. This approach turns time against the aggressor. Think of it like parking tickets. You get a new one every day you are parked illegally.
Toward Ukraine, Biden needs a more comprehensive strategy of engagement. The first, obvious and overdue step is to name a high-profile U.S. ambassador to Ukraine with personal ties to Biden.
Second, the Biden administration and NATO allies must deepen military-to-military ties with Kyiv, including an expanded military new assistance package to create greater capabilities to protect critical infrastructure and defend against aerial and naval threats, and tacit support for new Ukrainian purchases of armed drones from Turkey. The United States will not defend Ukraine from a Russian attack, so Ukrainians must be given the best means to defend themselves.
Third, Biden’s team, together with European allies, must articulate a more sophisticated, comprehensive and long-term strategy for consolidating democracy and spurring economic growth in Ukraine, including more creative policies for protecting Ukraine’s energy, infrastructure, finance and media spheres from Russian influence. With so many democratic rollbacks around the world in recent years, Biden’s team must double down on strengthening Ukraine’s still-fragile democratic experiment. Nothing would please Putin more than democratic breakdown in Ukraine.
Fourth, Biden and his democratic allies should create a Donbas Development Fund — a Marshall Plan for eastern Ukraine — whose resources would be released after the war’s end. The mere creation of this fund would convey hope to the region’s people, who currently suffer under terrible occupation, as well as those now displaced, that a better future is possible if the war ends.
Biden also needs a new grand strategy for engaging and containing Russia well beyond Ukraine. But nurturing a rich, free and sovereign Ukraine must be a central component of that bigger strategy. A more effective U.S. policy toward Russia begins with a more stable, predictable, robust and effective policy toward Ukraine.