How to defeat Vladimir Putin
However much Western leaders may claim that they are not at war with Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it crystal clear that Russia is at war with the West. A series of aggressive actions over the past decade leave no doubt that the Kremlin is battling Western interests and aims to expand the Russian state at the expense of its neighbors.
The arms build-up next to Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea are a continuation of the war against Russia’s most prized neighbor. An independent and successful Ukrainian state not only dents Russia’s imperial ambition; it also serves as a democratic model that can inspire Russia’s citizens to replace their kleptocratic autocracy.
In response to Moscow’s cyber and disinformation attacks on the U.S., the Biden administration has imposed new economic sanctions. U.S. financial institutions will be blocked from purchasing bonds or lending funds to Russia’s Central Bank, National Wealth Fund and Ministry of Finance. The problem is that Russian authorities have learned to live with limited financial penalties because they do not threaten the survival of the Putin regime. If Washington is to effectively deter Kremlin aggression, Putin either needs to lose a war or lose credibility.
To avoid military conflict, Washington must bolster its preparations. Putin is not a jihadist suicide bomber, and the Russian elite does not want to lose the fortunes it continues to steal from the public through a destructive war with NATO. Moscow will back down if it sees allied determination to defend its borders from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Washington must strengthen NATO’s eastern flank and demonstrate that it can rapidly deploy a substantial military force to stem any Russian incursion into NATO territory. U.S. Gen. Tod Wolters, supreme allied commander in Europe, has rightly warned that if deterrence fails, NATO is prepared to respond to aggression “with the full weight of the transatlantic alliance.”
In the case of Ukraine, which is not yet a NATO member, Russia is using a simple psychological trick — by escalating military threats, it seeks advantages from de-escalating. With Kyiv resolutely defending its sovereign right to regain all occupied territories, Moscow pushes for the revival of the Minsk agreement in order to legitimize the separatist entities in occupied Donbas. The Kremlin wants the Biden administration to extract concessions from Kyiv in order to avoid the wider war that Moscow is now threatening.
Putin will not launch a direct invasion of Ukraine if he believes that the U.S. and its NATO allies will provide equipment, intelligence, logistics and other assistance to Ukraine’s military that will prove costly for Russian forces. At the same time, Putin will lose credibility if he cannot gain any concessions from Kyiv or Washington and backs down militarily. This will not only deflate his international reputation; it can also dampen support for his policies at home.
A tough political response by Washington is essential in pressing Putin to desist from his costly foreign adventures and to confront his growing domestic problems. Putin should not receive a gift summit with President Biden in which he can present himself as a respected world leader. Nuclear arms controls or agreements on other security questions do not require a summit. The only constructive reason for a summit would be as a form of “power diplomacy” in which Biden spells out Russia’s malicious actions and asserts that the U.S. would no longer simply react but take pre-emptive steps. Putin could then be offered an agreement to cease subverting the West in return for no further sanctions.
The U.S. needs a “sanctions deterrent” to accompany NATO’s military deterrent. An extensive list of measures that would truly undermine the Russian economy and its elites can be issued. It would be triggered if Moscow engages in any other major international violations. This can include unplugging Russia from the SWIFT financial payments network, sanctioning all Kremlin-linked corporations and freezing the foreign assets of Putin’s entire inner circle and associated oligarchs.
Western politicians have long argued that they do not want to hurt Russian citizens but only to punish the elite. The problem is that in Russia’s system of power, the elite always passes the pain on to ordinary citizens and largely escapes the impact of relatively tepid sanctions. By imposing more comprehensive financial sanctions, the Russian public will finally have a chance to influence the regime when the economy deteriorates to such a point that the only solution will be to oust it. If Ukrainians can overthrow a corrupt and autocratic regime, then why not the Russians?
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is entitled “Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.”