The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin aims beyond Ukraine. Checking him right now is crucial.

The U.S. can deliver military equipment, apply legal pressure and announce step-by-step sanctions to have a chance at deterring Russia

Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces take part in a military exercise near Kyiv on Christmas Day. The trainees are part of reservist battalions set up to protect a district in Kyiv in the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine's largest city. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent months. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

A week of talks in Geneva between the United States and Russia ended in an impasse. The United States stood firm on its principles, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat of a major invasion of Ukraine remained.

But the United States need not wait for a return to the table before strengthening its deterrence against Russian military action to match the full scope of what is at stake. This crisis is about Putin’s aim to regain Russia’s grip on the territories of the former Soviet Union and control the states of Eastern Europe; it is about his intent to overturn the entire system of rules-based international order that the United States helped create after World War II. The risks of not doing more now are greater than the risks of ratcheting up deterrence.

The Russian forces staging or available to be used against Ukraine — perhaps as many as 175,000 — are wholly modernized and capable of dominating Ukraine’s defenses using a combination of overwhelming air attacks, long-range rocket fires and rapid maneuvers by specially organized teams with tanks, infantry, mobile artillery, air defense, engineers and electronic-warfare capabilities. Mounting assaults from multiple directions, including through the difficult terrain of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, these forces could threaten Kyiv in a few days, seize Ukraine’s coastline and drive Ukrainians into the forests or urban areas to fight a guerrilla-warfare type defense. Sleeper cells of Russian assassins and terrorists are probably already staged and ready to assist in undermining Ukraine’s defenses.

Most important, from the Russian perspective, has been their modernization of nuclear and chemical weapons. Putin says his hypersonic missiles and underwater long-range nuclear torpedoes will deter any serious NATO intervention, but in their war games, they practice using theater-range nuclear weapons should NATO nevertheless intervene. Despite its ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia has developed and used new chemical weapons such as Novichok, and he could be expected to employ these against Ukraine, either for assassinations or perhaps against Ukrainian strong points or stubbornly defended urban areas.

With this kind of power, an all-out assault on Ukraine could have a devastating psychological impact on NATO nations, inducing fear and defeatism, even as the United States would be trying to lead in imposing economic sanctions as punishment. The challenges of the aftermath — the reprioritizing of budgets, the anguish of rearmaments and redeployments, and dealing with Europe’s dependence on Russian energy — are themselves daunting and best avoided. Any meaningful sanctions on Russia — cutting off payments, investments, credit and technology — are sure to have significant blowback on our own economies as well, and making these permanent would have consequences which we would also like to avoid. From a purely military perspective, actual defense against a hostile Russia along a NATO “front line” running from the Balkans to the Black Sea would require virtual wartime mobilization and would result in re-dividing Europe.

Russia planning potential sabotage operations in Ukraine, U.S. says

An alternative scenario could be a cagey, piecemeal start-stop Russian attack, following a false-flag incident, with Russia then seizing the land bridge to Crimea, supported by cyberattacks on the electricity grid and communications, combined with Russian-supported revolution in the streets of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Dnipro. Russia could claim a responsibility to intervene for “peace-making” or, pausing to weigh NATO reaction, move to a larger second phase of military action. This would present even more challenges in developing the appropriate U.S. and NATO responses.

Much is made of the potential Ukrainian resistance to a Russian invasion, relying on the courage of the Ukrainian people. They will resist; they have been hardened by eight years of successful resistance to Putin. Moreover, the quiet efforts of the United States and our allies to raise the potential of such resistance are helpful. But we have limited ourselves to training and otherwise minimal assistance for now, with the possibility of more if Russia invades. Putin knows very well that we could do more, and he probably sees in our initial efforts a certain timidity. He has learned from Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 example. Soviet forces crushed the brave Hungarian resistance while Khrushchev’s threat of nuclear war deterred American interference; it was over in a few weeks. If there are concerns now not to provoke a crisis before Russia acts, how much greater will be our reluctance to send in weapons and supplies in the face of a Russian assault?

Here are three additional measures we could take to dissuade Russian military action: First, use the full range of legal tools available to bring pressure to bear against Russia; second, expedite the delivery of additional required defensive military equipment to Ukraine and bring forward a precautionary deployment of NATO air assets; third, announce the initiation of a gradual escalation of sanctions until Russia begins its military de-escalation of the crisis.

To the first point: It is a breach of international law, and the 1994 Budapest memorandum that Russia signed, to use force to threaten Ukraine. Especially in Europe, appeals to international law are powerful. In the case of former Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic, his indictment for war crimes finally doomed his ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s. If we are working to strengthen a rules-based international system, we should bring this leverage to bear against Russia now; it will harden Western resolve and cohesion and provide a solid basis for stronger action should deterrence fail.

History reveals what Putin really wants to do in Ukraine

As to the second point, the military aspect, we have already funded and organized additional military assistance for Ukraine; withholding such equipment provides no incentive for the Russians to defer military action: send it now. If we delay we will lose both its deterrent and defensive impact. Of course, delivering more assistance will be seized on by Russian propaganda and disinformation in the West. We must be strong enough to take this risk. Russian forces greatly outmatch Ukraine’s military in air and naval power. Nations have a legitimate right to self-defense, and the United States and our allies have every right to provide such means now. We should expedite the delivery of defensive means and insist that our NATO allies do likewise. No other act now can show more resolve to Putin.

In addition, we can deploy a composite NATO air expeditionary force to Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. This force would reassure these allies and contain any spillover of Russian military action. The time for this is now, before any action begins, rather than rushing forward in the face of Russian action, when the risks of accidental hostile encounters would be much higher. If these precautionary deployments cause Russia some added concerns about the potential risks of Russian conflict directly with NATO, so much the better.

Finally, as Russia continues to mobilize militarily, we can announce new graduated financial sanctions — and start them — unless Russia begins de-escalation. The first steps of the next round of financial sanctions could be reversed readily, and we can emphasize this when they are implemented. Commencing these sanctions now would demonstrate Western resolve to make the more difficult economic and financial sanctions later and encourage Russia to begin de-escalation.

The better way to deal with the Russian threat to Ukraine and the international system is to deter it now, rather than punish it later. It is a challenge to U.S. leadership, but surely risking charges of overreaction or provocation beat having to deal with the aftermath of Russian military action in Ukraine.