The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin is testing Biden on Ukraine. Here’s what will keep him in check.

New U.S. sanctions are coming, and they are a good start.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the seventh anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in March. (Sputnik/Via Reuters)
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Russia’s moves in recent days to amass troops at the border and deploy navy landing ships and gunboats to the Black Sea have sparked debate among experts about whether Vladimir Putin is truly preparing to escalate his country’s seven-year conflict against Ukraine or simply mounting a defiant show — for his own people, or for the new U.S. administration, which is preparing to enact harsh new sanctions.

Either way, preventing the Russian leader from pursuing a reckless course as he did in 2014, when his military forces illegally seized Crimea and started a war in another part of eastern Ukraine that continues today, will require decisive action from President Biden. Allowing a new Russian incursion would not only strike another blow to the fledgling democracy, it would destabilize the global order at a time when the world is facing the twin disasters of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. It would also send a dangerous message to other countries that land grabs will be tolerated and democracies will not be protected.

Why does Putin want to control Ukraine? Ask Stalin.

Biden has already taken a good first step by shipping additional military assistance to Ukraine, and Turkey has said the United States is planning to deploy U.S. naval forces to the Black Sea, according to Reuters. Biden has also clearly stated that the United States stands by Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

And sanctions are no doubt coming. Officials have been conducting intelligence assessments of specific instances of the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy and international lawbreaking, already issuing new sanctions over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. More reviews centering on its interference in the 2020 elections, the massive SolarWinds cyberattack and the bounties placed on U.S. troops in Afghanistan are reportedly finished or nearly completed.

But there is more Biden can do using military assistance and the threat of additional sanctions.

On Ukraine’s doorstep, Russia boosts military and sends message of regional clout to Biden

Starting in 2014, the United States and its NATO allies began a program of military assistance to Ukraine. When I was at the Pentagon, my office developed options for President Barack Obama focusing primarily on helping the Ukrainian armed forces defend their land borders with equipment and training. Later, in the aftermath of a dramatic blockade and kidnapping of Ukrainian naval forces, the United States also gave some attention to bolstering Ukraine’s maritime defense capability. Now, the U.S. government can turn its attention to improving Ukraine’s air force, which was already outdated before Russian attacks on Ukrainian aircraft.

Sanctions so far have been targeted and gradual, wary of harming the Russian people and Western business interests. Yet cutting off access to new capital for Russian state-owned funds and entities — or even more extreme, blocking Russia from using SWIFT, an international banking system used to transfer money among about 200 countries — would immediately cause economic and political distress to Putin and his cronies. Just threatening to do so would probably cause Putin to stay his hand in Ukraine.

Putin has domestic reasons to feint or actually restart fighting with Ukraine. It’s a perennial tactic to distract his people from their stagnant economic situation, the pandemic, the unpopularity of his political party and his rule, and of course, Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent imprisonment. But Putin should know that a full-scale war with Ukraine could also backfire on Russia. The Russian people do not want to go to war with Ukrainians, and any attempt to frame military action as against Western-backed fascists would probably not hold up if enough Russian lives were lost. If a new offensive brought a united front of democracies and serious sanctions, it could spell the beginning of the end for Putin’s rule.

Putin’s new war on the opposition suggests he sees it as a real threat

If Russia gets its way despite the will of the Ukrainian people and international law, Putin will be emboldened to seek to continue spreading his corrupt political, military and economic influence to former Soviet countries and beyond. He will undoubtedly test NATO resolve, most likely in the Baltics. An attack or incursion into a NATO state requires a collective military response according to the alliance’s founding treaty. We must avoid such a situation, one where we would face a far greater danger of escalation than the one we face in Ukraine today.

It’s also clear that Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang are watching. Indeed, China is simultaneously ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan, the Philippines and all of its neighbors and nations across the South China Sea. There will be nothing to deter other states from exercising might-makes-right territorial grabs. The international order will devolve into a pre-World War II sphere-of-influence dynamic, with competition fueling warfare.

This will be happening in the midst of a pandemic and a climate crisis — while our Earth is on fire and melting, humans scattering and desperate. Now more than ever we need rules and red lines to prevent world wars, so that we can focus on solving our immediate global crises with every country on Earth, even our adversaries who threaten our national interests. American military deterrence that extends to allies and partners will provide the strength we need to reassert diplomacy, so that we can sit at international tables again and reaffirm and renegotiate the rules of international relations. It’s fair to call Putin a killer, and some have called him the devil, but we can’t wait until hell freezes over.