Today's WorldView • Analysis
History haunts the global elites at Davos
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On Ukraine, Biden is channeling his inner Neville Chamberlain

President Biden, pictured Dec. 9 in the Oval Office, can do more to push back on Russia's aggressive tactics against Ukraine. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)
Placeholder while article actions load

When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008, and sent forces up the country’s main highway just miles from Tbilisi, President George W. Bush responded with a show of strength.

“With echoes of the 1948 Berlin Airlift,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, Bush dispatched U.S. Navy ships and sent U.S. Air Force C-130s to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Georgian capital. The move sent Putin a clear message: If Russian forces marched on Tbilisi and tried to overthrow the democratically-elected government, they risked running into the U.S. military. The Journal called it an exercise in “Cold War-style brinkmanship” that “put U.S. and Russian military forces in close proximity amid an ongoing conflict — a rare event even in the decades when the U.S. faced off against the Soviet Union around the world.”

It worked. Within days, Putin signed a cease fire and began withdrawing Russian forces into breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — where they have unfortunately remained. But Georgia’s young democracy was saved. “This is no longer 1968,” then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. “We support Georgia’s sovereignty. We support its independence.” Why did Putin back down? Because he understood Vladimir Lenin’s maxim: “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.”

With Bush, Putin found steel; with Joe Biden, he finds mush. Where is the Berlin airlift for Ukraine today? Instead, Biden appears to be channeling his inner Neville Chamberlain, searching for ways to appease Putin as he amasses Russian forces on the Ukrainian border. The Associated Press reports that “Administration officials have suggested that the U.S. will press Ukraine to formally cede a measure of autonomy within its eastern Donbas region, which is now under de facto control by Russia-backed separatists who rose up against Kyiv in 2014.” (The White House denies this). And Biden has reportedly infuriated our eastern European NATO allies by pushing for an in-person summit with Putin to see “whether or not we can work out any accommodation.” Accommodation? Pushing Ukraine to “accommodate” Moscow under threat of invasion would reward Putin’s aggression — and invite more of it.

History shows that Putin is emboldened by weakness. The last time he threatened Ukraine was after President Barack Obama drew a red line with Syria on its use chemical weapons and then failed to enforce it. A few months later, Putin annexed Crimea. He believed his aggression would go unopposed, because Obama did not have the intestinal fortitude to impose any real costs on Russia. He was right.

Now he has taken a measure of Biden’s intestinal fortitude, and found it wanting. It’s no coincidence that he is threatening Ukraine just months after Biden’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, “I believe that after the pullout from Afghanistan, the situation in NATO is tense, it’s difficult and … Russia is … taking advantage of the situation.”

Putin was also emboldened by Biden’s capitulation on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which allows Putin to squeeze Kyiv without cutting off Western Europe. Biden’s decision to lift U.S. sanctions on the project was a gift to Putin — and a blow to Ukraine. Worse still, Biden reportedly tried to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by conditioning a White House visit on his acceptance of Russian energy dominance over his country.

That’s not all. National security adviser Jake Sullivan announced this week Biden had warned Putin he will provide more lethal aid to Ukraine if Putin invades. While that may sound tough, it also sends a signal of weakness. What Putin hears is that we’re offering to not provide that lethal aid Ukraine if he does not invade. The lesson is that he can use troop deployments to manipulate Biden’s decisions on arms for Kyiv.

Instead, Biden should send a new package of lethal aid to Ukraine now. He should send U.S. aircraft with supplies to Kyiv now. And he should also announce he is reversing his decision to greenlight Nord Stream 2 now. He can say that Putin’s threats and intimidation against Ukraine show why he must never be given the power to use energy to hold Ukraine hostage. This would impose immediate costs on Putin for his saber rattling.

Putin respects strength and disdains weakness. Biden is projecting weakness — and weakness is provocative. The good news is: It’s never too late for an American president to project strength. Cancel the summit, Mr. President, and punish Putin’s aggression — or you will see more of it.