From the Cold War to a hard freeze
On Tuesday, in a Cold War-style summit, President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin spoke for two hours about Russian military exercises and troop deployments near Russia’s border with Ukraine. Russia claims NATO expansion destabilizes the region and American military support for Ukraine foments “anti-Russian hysteria.” While Putin downplays suggestions Russia will invade Ukraine, Ukraine joining NATO would be crossing a redline.
In response, NATO has trained Ukrainian troops, conducted naval exercises in the Black Sea, and stepped up air patrols over the Baltics. NATO member Turkey supplied Ukraine with drones and other equipment. Ukraine has also conducted its own military drills near the border with Belarus, a client state of Russia.
Why is Russia doing this now? First, Ukraine is not in NATO, which means it does not not benefit from NATO’s core collective defense principle if Ukrainian territorial integrity is breached again. When Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas in 2014, NATO did not come to Ukraine’s defense. Ironically, Russian aggression has pushed Ukraine toward NATO. Ukrainian public support for NATO membership increased from 28% in 2012 to 69% in 2017. Subduing Ukraine is central to keeping it away from NATO’s orbit and to restoring post-Soviet Russia’s sphere of influence.
Second, current events play to Putin’s advantage. Energy prices are higher, French President Emmanuel Macron is running for reelection, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel left office. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is also now complete, giving Russia control over energy supplies to Europe.
Third, Putin has allies to help him distract the West so Russia can expand its post-Soviet imperial agenda. Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko manufactured a humanitarian crisis with Poland, weaponizing migrants to pressure the E.U. Serbian President Alexander Vucic foments nationalism to threaten Kosovo, pushing it closer to Albania. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik met with Putin and advanced a separatist agenda, threatening to return Bosnia to the ethnic wars of the 1990s. None of this would be happening without Russian support or Putin’s endorsement.
Fourth, Russia has been embarrassed by several events. The 30th year anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event Putin described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, is approaching. Also, it has been eight years since the Maidan Revolution overthrew a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Furthermore, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent crackdown on corrupt oligarchs, high-profile meeting with Biden at the White House, and his intentions to join NATO show that Ukraine is slipping away from Russia.
Fifth, Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to NATO. Putin is tapping into the nationalist idea of Novorossiya or “New Russia” to make territorial claims on Ukraine. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it was celebrated among those who viewed the peninsula as inseparable from Russian identity. Putin has argued Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians share a common history and culture, viewing Ukraine and Belarus as fake countries. Russia has shown it can persist by sanction-proofing its economy and appealing to intense nationalism.
Still, a Russian invasion is doubtful. Unlike Donbas and Crimea, Russian troops may struggle to subjugate hostile Ukrainian territories. Furthermore, the West would sanction Russia’s sovereign debt and disconnect it from the Swift global financial payments system. Also, the Biden administration would supply the Ukrainian military with weapons and training. Additionally, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would shut down and NATO might reposition forces further east.
We can expect Russia to boost gray-zone operations and coercive diplomacy. Russian intelligence and intermediaries will increase disinformation and cyberattacks against Ukrainian institutions and infrastructure. In 2018, the NotPetya cyberattacks devastated the Ukrainian economy. Russia could formally recognize Donetsk and Luhansk the same way it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which diminished Georgia’s borders. And with European NATO members reliant on Russian energy, they may think twice about assisting Ukraine.
Consistent with former President George H.W. Bush’s vision of a “Eruope, whole and free,” Biden must affirm U.S. support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Biden should flatly reject Putin’s demand that NATO not expand further east by defending NATO’s open-door membership policy. Biden cannot agree to Russian attempts to again redraw Ukraine’s borders by force.
Biden cannot repeat mistakes made by former President Obama who overstated Russian decline or make concessions as that would be similar to former President Trump praising Putin. Russia is attempting to dominate Europe and alter the balance of power in its favor, the same way China is exerting control in the Indo-Pacific. Biden must view Russia and China as major power adversaries seeking to roll back American influence in these vital regions.
Chris J. Dolan is Professor of Political Science and Director of the M.S. Program in Intelligence and Security Studies at Lebanon Valley College.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.