A week of high-level diplomacy in Europe has ended as expected: with no indication the United States and its allies can persuade Russia to cease a military buildup and threats of aggression against Ukraine. If anything, Moscow upped the ante, in the form of a hint Thursday from a deputy foreign minister that President Vladimir Putin might try to pressure the Biden administration by sending troops to Cuba and Venezuela. With winter turning Ukraine’s flat terrain into a frozen-earth fast track for Russian tanks, the window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution is rapidly closing — if it were ever really open.
The Biden administration was wise to try dialogue, if only to make it clear to the whole world how unappeasable Mr. Putin really is. On the whole, the Biden team has handled the atmospherics skillfully, refusing to yield on core principles such as Ukraine’s sovereignty and NATO’s freedom to enroll new members, while offering to engage with Moscow on genuine issues such as nuclear and conventional arms control.
This entire crisis has been manufactured by Mr. Putin as part of his long-range effort to thwart the democratic development and growing Western orientation of Ukraine and restore Russian hegemony over the former Soviet empire. It has nothing to do with expansion by NATO, whose founding treaty authorizes only defensive military action. If we fault the Biden administration for anything, it would be for not making those points quite vociferously enough. Russia’s posture toward Ukraine amounts to prohibited conduct under Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, which specifically bars the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” President Biden should consider convening the U.N. Security Council to describe and denounce it as such — and dare Moscow to make its self-serving arguments in that forum.
What’s most urgent for the administration now is to help Europe prepare for a potential Russian energy cut-off, to impose sanctions on Moscow selectively for aggressive conduct it has engaged in already and to step up defensive aid to Ukraine. Some observers warn that Mr. Putin can exploit such Western action to justify a military strike. At this point, however, Mr. Putin will claim provocation no matter what. The Obama administration’s restraint in arming Kyiv after 2014 did not lessen Mr. Putin’s drive to destabilize the country. U.S. intelligence reports suggest Russian operatives in eastern Ukraine already might be preparing some sort of violent pretext for an invasion, which is all too plausible.
Raising the potential costs of an invasion to Russia by beefing up Ukraine’s capacity to resist it is, at this late date, the best hope to deter Mr. Putin. It is a slender hope, to be sure, given Mr. Putin’s obvious determination to establish a sphere of influence and undermine NATO. A U.S. president concerned with peace in Europe, and the vital U.S. interests that hinge on it, would nevertheless do everything possible to maximize that hope. And he would respond strongly if it failed. In the weeks ahead, Mr. Biden must show that he is such a leader.
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