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Opinion Biden must resist Putin’s trumped-up demands on Ukraine

The national flag of Ukraine flies over the town of Kramatorsk, Ukraine, on Nov. 25. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

In a tense two-hour video conference with President Biden on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his latest demand regarding Ukraine: “reliable, legally fixed guarantees” against the expansion of NATO to include that Russian neighbor, or the positioning of “offensive strike” weapons there. The lack of such guarantees, Mr. Putin insinuates, undermines Russian national security and obligates his country to consider stronger steps. An outright military invasion of Ukraine is a distinct possibility, which Mr. Putin has threatened implicitly, by a massive troop deployment.

“Appeasement” and the Munich analogy can be overused. Yet Mr. Putin’s trumped-up demand for security guarantees — at the point of a gun — is one that Mr. Biden cannot, indeed, dare not meet, lest he destabilize all of Europe to autocratic Russia’s advantage. The region’s actual security already rests upon “reliable, legally fixed guarantees,” the most important of which is the sanctity of international borders. Ukraine is not some wayward territorial sibling, rightfully belonging with its big Russian brother, as Mr. Putin portrays it in the propaganda he has been spreading as his legions gather in Russia’s western regions. As of 1991 — 30 years ago — Ukraine is a sovereign, independent, member state of the United Nations, fully entitled to decide its own future, up to and including joining NATO or the European Union. That is black-letter international law. In December 1994, Russia itself signed the Budapest Memorandum, pledging to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine as the latter gave up its Soviet-era nuclear deterrent.

What’s not lawful, therefore, is Mr. Putin’s purported annexation, by force, of Ukraine’s Crimea region and his de facto occupation of a slice of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas in 2014. To be sure, both have been grudgingly tolerated by the United States and its European allies, possibly leading Mr. Putin to believe he can get away with more bullying now. Nothing Mr. Biden does in the next few weeks will be more important than disabusing Mr. Putin of this idea.

The president took the right stance in the video conference on Tuesday, by spelling out the consequences — harsh new economic sanctions — of a Russian military assault. They would be much broader than the sanctions in response to the 2014 invasion, Mr. Biden said. Separately, a State Department official, Victoria Nuland, indicated that Germany could be willing to punish a Russian invasion by suspending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would otherwise bring Russia billions of dollars in new revenue. Mr. Biden’s aides have also poured cold water on the treaty-like deal Mr. Putin seeks, though the White House has appropriately said the United States is willing to talk about security issues and the two sides appear to be planning more diplomacy.

Mr. Biden’s disavowal Wednesday of a “unilateral” U.S. troop deployment to Ukraine was true and not entirely new — aides had said it before — though it might have been better left unsaid by the president just now. The United States continues to arm Ukraine with defensive weapons and, together with European allies, still has enough leverage to keep the peace and to deny Mr. Putin tangible benefit from his threats. They must make smart and forceful use of it.