West’s weakness led Putin into Ukraine — and other enemies are looking for similar signs

Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations in Ukraine are hard to exaggerate. From believing that his forces were dramatically more capable than they actually are, to believing his own mythologies about Ukraine not being a real country, his misperceptions helped convince him to launch a disastrous war.     

While his misperceptions about Ukraine are profound, his miscalculations about the West, ironically, should not be so surprising. Did Germany and others really give him a reason to think there would be a terrible blow-back if he invaded Ukraine? Similarly, were American actions over time credible enough to convince him of the Biden administration warnings about the price Russia would pay if he invaded?

Consider that, in the case of Germany, there was ambiguity on the fate of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline right up until the invasion. Moreover, for years Germany and others in Europe were unwilling to modernize their forces or to meet the NATO goal of members spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.  

As for the United States, look at the track record: Putin began to demonstrate he would not respect the territorial integrity and inviolability of borders with the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and with the separation of Ossetia and Abkhazia from it — and the American response was very limited.  

So, too, was the U.S. and European response to the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 — yes, we applied limited sanctions, but they had little effect on the Russian economy. The unmistakable Russian involvement in fighting in Eastern Ukraine, with Putin denying Russian military involvement and then later acknowledging that Russian soldiers had gone there on their holidays, again drew a minimal reaction. President Obama made the decision not to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine, believing this would be provocative and trigger Russian escalation of the conflict.  

When Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to rescue the Assad regime, neither the U.S. nor Europe responded, with many believing that if Putin wanted to sink in the quagmire of Syria, let him pay the price. But Putin changed the balance of forces there at low cost and with no regard for the killing of civilians — indeed, using the deliberate bombing of civilians to terrorize the local populations and to de-populate areas. (The United Nations gave the Russians the coordinates of where hospitals and clinics were located, and, as a New York Times investigation pointed out, the Russians used that information not to avoid bombing those areas but to hit them.)   

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Certainly, not acting on the Obama “red line” at that time stands out as another example of U.S. hesitancy, but is it any more important in the Putin calculus than the fact that he broke every promise he made on Syria with both the Obama and Trump administrations? Recall that Trump, in meetings with Putin in 2017, twice announced understandings, initially on a ceasefire and, later, on the creation of de-escalation areas in Syria — neither of which the Russians fulfilled. And, as with the Obama administration, there was no cost. 

Unlike President Obama, President Trump may have approved lethal equipment for Ukraine — but did not allow Javelin anti-tank missiles to be deployed. Worse, Trump raised questions about Article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all) of NATO’s charter, constantly berated NATO members, and created the impression that he might withdraw from the alliance in a second term. As if this were not enough, the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan seemingly confirmed that the U.S. was retrenching and not looking to act on obligations abroad — and, of course, we had no security obligation to Ukraine.   

None of this justifies Putin’s unconscionable war on the people of Ukraine. But it reminds us that he saw a pattern of limited or no response to all his actions that challenged basic international norms.  

The Biden administration’s effective mobilization of the Europeans to raise the costs to Russia following its invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that we can lead others when there are fundamental challenges to the rules that we want to guide international behavior. That we are imposing certain limits on what we provide to Ukraine is understandable — it is not wise to put someone with 6,000 nuclear warheads into a corner. But it also is a reminder that we remain extremely careful when it comes to the use of force — again, no doubt, for good reasons. 

Still, if we want others who are prepared to challenge international or regional norms to know they will pay a price that matters to them, they must know they risk triggering American hard power against them. In the Middle East — where Iran directly and through its proxies has been attacking bases where Americans are present in Iraq and Syria, striking Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and promoting terrorism against Israel — our responses have been very limited, and Iran shows little fear of us. To change that, we must retaliate when hit — imposing a cost higher than the one inflicted on us — and work with our partners actively to counter attacks on them.   

It was not provocation that led Putin to invade Ukraine. It was his reading of Ukrainian and Western weakness. 

Others — whether China’s President Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — watch, as Putin did, for signs of U.S. strength, not weakness. The former makes them careful; the latter, aggressive. 

Putin has provided us with a wake-up call; it is important to heed it.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

Tags Ali Khamenei Barack Obama Crimea annexation Donald Trump Eastern Ukraine offensive Joe Biden Kim Jong Un military aid to Ukraine NATO Nord Stream 2 Obama Red Line Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine show of strength signs of weakness Syria Vladimir Putin Western hesitancy Western inaction Xi Jinping

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