Russia’s Ukraine gambit is an opportunity to steel US resolve
After amassing more than 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, Russian strongman President Vladimir Putin revealed the breadth of his ambition in an unusual list of demands.
Not only must the NATO alliance shut its “open door” policy on Ukraine and guarantee to halt all future enlargement, but it must also withdraw all troops and weapons from member states that joined the alliance after 1997. In fact, NATO placed tripwire combat forces in those new member states only after Russia annexed Crimea by military force and launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
What Putin is actually demanding is the dismantlement of the rules-based international order and a return to a pre-World War II, Hobbesian world where the mighty prey on their weaker neighbors with impunity.
Putin judges that the West is weak and lacks the resolve necessary to push back on this aggression. The world is now watching the United States’ and allies’ responses as a test of that proposition. Nowhere is that attention more relevant than in China, another authoritarian regime with designs to subjugate its neighbors with economic and military coercion.
Yet as Albert Einstein once observed, in the midst of every crisis lies opportunity.
The United States should use Russia’s threats to unify Western alliances, heal divisions in transatlantic and transpacific partnerships and restore bipartisanship in a national security establishment in Washington, D.C. increasingly beset by division.
Rising to the threat will require a methodical U.S.-led campaign that includes rallying around an escalating menu of potent sanctions, military support for Ukraine to greatly increase the costs of Russian aggression, and the display of historic resolve to marginalize Putin’s array of economic support and influence.
Coordinated sanctions targeting a wider range of Putin’s cronies could begin to ratchet up the pressure and show joint resolve. Billions of dollars in ill-gotten assets could be frozen. Individuals connected with cyber and organized crime syndicates and network hacking organizations like the Internet Research Agency could be targeted, particularly by covert digital means through a resolute “14 Eyes” intelligence community in coordination with others. The exposure of Kremlin and other pro-Putin states’ corrupt activities in global social media could bring about a new wave of domestic public pressure.
A successful strategy would include a multimedia public communication campaign suited to the modern information age, as Radio Free Europe was to the Cold War era. A hard-hitting “You’re Next” campaign aimed at citizens of Russia’s Eurasian neighbors, could degrade tolerance for Russian aggression, while a “Go-Home” campaign, enflamed by further Russian threats and acts against Ukrainian civilians, could come to symbolize not just a call for Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, but an “unwelcome” sign hung on the walls of the world’s capitals aimed at Russia’s elite.
While Putin continues to manipulate gas supplies to Europe, behind-the-scenes realignment and a robust reorchestration of multiyear contracted shipments of gas to Europe would be a strong deterrent signal as Russia contemplated losing future gas leverage. Turkish financial troubles could further weaken Turkey’s ability to pay for Russian gas at a critical moment, creating additional pressure on Moscow.
To blunt Russian economic power, a broad American-led coalition could create an agile Trade Response Fund that is swiftly able to purchase and redistribute goods disrupted by Russian efforts to pressure countries to fall in line, thus blunting the coercive power of cutting off Moldovan wine or Polish apples. Extensive collaboration on investment prohibitions from Russian state-owned enterprises and wealth funds could hamper Russia’s ability to invest across the globe and a new Rapid Transparent Match Investment Program could leverage private sector investors to outcompete Russian attempts to build corrupt and coercive economic deals.
A resolute allied response to another Russian invasion of Ukraine should also contemplate expulsion from the G-20, a profound setback for Russian influence and prestige on the world stage. If the U.S. and others organized a core of 18 members, China would have little choice but to participate in a new G-19. Russia could similarly be blocked out from the Bretton Woods institutions that help underwrite economic growth, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. While unilateral use of SWIFT (the global dollar payment system) as a policy instrument could otherwise be damaging to the long-term use of the dollar, a full allied endorsement of the use of SWIFT as a retaliatory mechanism for an unprovoked invasion would increase the financial squeeze, sending shock waves through Russian dollar-linked interests.
Moscow’s threatening behavior has already galvanized the United States and many NATO countries to ship armaments to Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Support for Ukrainian defenses will certainly raise the pain for an invasion force, but relying solely on limited military deterrence would be an unfortunate oversimplification of the dynamic. It is time for many more geopolitical chess pieces to be put on the board.
Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine is a challenging stress test on NATO and the world’s resolve to coalesce around a potent array of powerful levers. It is also an opportunity to prove the United States still has the skill and will to lead a response that will set the tone for future great power moves from Eurasia to the Indo-Pacific.
Lenin declared the best test of an adversary’s resolve was “probing with bayonets. If you find mush, proceed. If you find steel, withdraw.” As Putin employs this test, a creative and coordinated allied response to his provocation could be just the right kind of steel.
Mike Rogers is a former Republican representative in Congress who was chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
Glenn Nye is a former Democratic representative in Congress. He is now President & CEO at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
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