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Biden and NATO should do what it takes to stop Putin in Ukraine

Madeline Monroe/Valeriy Sharifulin-Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP/Associated Press-Andrew Harnik

Putin’s expected spring offensive has begun in Ukraine. If Russia conquers, U.S. efforts will be viewed as another defeat in a string of lost wars. NATO will have allowed Russia to subjugate a European neighbor, slaughter thousands of its civilians, decimate its infrastructure, and establish a sinister presence on the continent. Europe will live in fear of further Russian incursions powered by Putin’s nuclear threats. NATO will be blamed for prolonging Ukraine’s agony by doing too little for too long. The U.S. will be blamed for failing to protect its European allies. The grudge will not easily heal.

Views differ as to the outcome of the war, whether Russia wins, losescompromises or persists indefinitely. But there’s plenty to worry about.

While Russia’s military hardware is aging, it’s still plentiful. While Ukraine has superior materiel and competent, motivated fighters, Russia’s expected call-up of 500,000 troops can negate those advantages. Meanwhile the pipeline of advanced weapons to Ukraine is slowing. The U.S. won’t send F-16 fighters or missiles and jets that can reach Russian territory.

Continued U.S. support of Ukraine is not certain. Some Republican lawmakers oppose it. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said he doesn’t much care what happens to Ukraine. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) voted against another $40 billion in aid, saying, “we have no business getting involved in another war.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) insisted, “not another penny will go to Ukraine.” Other Republicans question the amount of proposed aid.

A majority of Republican voters (53 percent) don’t see Ukraine as America’s responsibility and worry we’re doing too much. Opposition will grow as the predicted long war unfolds, spending increases, and Ukraine’s chances of victory fade.

By contrast, a credible international polling firm found 82 percent of Russians support Putin, and most support his war in Ukraine (U.S.-based FiveThirtyEight put the number at 58 percent). The poll factored in fear of reprisals and Putin’s massive disinformation campaign.

The results are consistent with prior invasions. Putin’s ratings rose to 84 percent during the second war in Chechnya and to 88 percent after he annexed Crimea. He has convinced his supporters that Russia is under siege, that the West is to blame for shortages, inflation, and the war’s escalation, and that he’s liberating Ukraine from “neo-Nazis.”

So, Russians stick with Putin despite their considerable economic pain.

Russia’s deficit hit nearly $25 Billion, 14 times higher than a year ago. Russians are experiencing shortages of goods and hobbled services, from slower internet speeds to shuttered crematoriums. A thousand companies have reportedly closed or left Russia, taking with them capital, technology, and expertise, leaving office and retail vacancies behind. Price caps imposed by the West sent oil prices plummeting 40 percent below the global benchmark of $80 a barrel to around $50. Slowing imports of parts has decimated Russian rail and auto production. Auto production fell by 67 percent, the lowest on record. Car and passenger train wagon exports declined by 96.7 percent and 59.8 percent respectively.

But Russians are more able than Westerners to endure the hardships of a long war. They’ve had worse, tolerating perpetual repression and suffering going back to Stalin, and more recently the 1998 and 2008 financial crises and the COVID pandemic. None of it unraveled Russia’s political structure.

The “Crimean consensus” holds that Russians are willing to endure hardship to recreate a Russian-led Eurasian empire. To counter it, the West needs to be more aggressive, even if it means testing Putin’s nuclear threat.

Opinions differ as to how seriously to take that threat. Putin has made them before. Some believe he won’t push the button for fear of provoking World War III. If he used nuclear weapons, he and his oligarchs would lose their 300 billion euros in foreign accounts, access to the international banking system, and their lives of luxury. Putin’s political support would disintegrate as radioactive fallout spread across Russia.

Leon Panetta wrote last October that the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons rose from 1 or 5 percent at the start of the Ukraine invasion to 20 or 25 percent. Could it go yet higher as the war drags on? Volodymyr Zelensky’s office rates the likelihood as “very high.” Biden has worried openly that Russia using tactical nukes in Ukraine could lead to “Armageddon.” Putin has said Russia would use nuclear weapons only to respond to a first strike by another country, yet he has also warned if Russia’s “territorial integrity” is threatened, “we will certainly use all the means at our disposal” to protect Russia and referred to his vast nuclear arsenal.

This certainly explains Biden’s reluctance to provide Ukraine with weapons that could reach Russian territory. But perhaps he has taken Putin’s threat too seriously and given him the result he wanted.

Former Military Director for European Affairs Alexander Vindman urges that Ukraine can and should recapture strategically important Crimea. But it’s doubtful that Biden or NATO would supply the hundreds of military vehicles or the troops needed, for fear of “heading down the road toward a third world war.” An analyst with the American Enterprise Institute called this fear “almost pathological.”

If Russia prevails in Ukraine without having to confront the West’s full military might, troops included, it could embolden Putin to invade NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Like Ukraine, they were formerly part of the Soviet Union and are home to many ethnic Russians. All three fear an invasion is likely.

Biden assured them that the U.S. would “deploy additional forces to defend them.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised them “The U.S. commitment to NATO’s mutual defense pact is sacrosanct.” Not honoring that commitment would be reputationally disastrous for the U.S.

Honoring it comes with the risks of heightening nuclear tensions and will face voter opposition: 60 percent of Americans generally support sending troops to defend NATO members, but support varies depending on which member is attacked. Only 35 percent support using military force to defend Latvia and Croatia. Less than half support a direct military confrontation in all other NATO members except the Germany, France and Great Britain.

But as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned, “to avoid confrontation with Russia in the future is to help Ukraine push back the invader now … If this lesson is ignored and Ukraine is defeated, Russia will almost certainly … attack NATO member countries.”

And that would mean U.S. troops on the ground, fighting Russians — somewhere.

To prevent this, Biden should change his mind and send the necessary weapons and troops to defeat Russia in Ukraine.

Neil Baron advised the Securities and Exchange Commission and congressional staff on rating agency reform. He represented Standard & Poor’s from 1968 to 1989 and was vice chairman and general counsel of Fitch Ratings from 1989 to 1998. He also served on the board of Assured Guaranty for a decade.

Tags Alexander Vindman American troops Antony Blinken Condoleezza Rice Congressional Republicans Crimea Donald Trump Estonia House Republicans J.D. Vance Joe Biden Latvia Leon Panetta Lithuania MAGA Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene military aid to Ukraine mutual defense NATO Paul Gosar Public opinion putin popularity Republican House Majority Robert Gates Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irridentism Russian nuclear threats Russian offensive Russian sanctions Russian war in Ukraine U.S. military aid to Ukraine Ukrainian aid Ukrainian military Ukrainian resistance Ukrainian victory Ukrainians US military aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Western military aid to Ukraine

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