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Did Biden miss his Kennedy moment on Ukraine?

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In the spring of 1991, at a reception celebrating the completion of our negotiations on the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in Geneva, Switzerland, I spoke with a senior member of the Soviet delegation who was also a senior KGB officer. In responding to my query about what changes lay ahead for the Soviet Union, he made a point to tell me that, “the West needs to understand that for only a brief time in history have we been Soviets; we have, and always will be Russian.”

This statement from 32 years ago seems to encapsulate the motive behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions over the past week. On March 25, Putin announced his intention to forward-deploy tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus. 

On March 29, Putin announced that Russia would no longer abide by the notification requirements prescribed by the 2010 “New START” agreement. And on March 30, the Russians announced the arrest of a Wall Street Journal reporter for espionage. It’s unclear whether these events are in response to the increasing U.S./NATO support of Ukraine. What is clear is that if left unchecked, Putin will be emboldened to continue such destabilizing actions.

Russian history is replete with strong-minded and bullying leaders whose need for power projection and territorial expansion seemed to be practically in their DNA. Most of these leaders engaged in diplomacy but only respected strength. Anything short of an outward show of strength was seen as weakness, and their bullying nature allowed them to rationalize actions that others saw as reckless.

Consider the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev deployed strategic missiles in Cuba under the belief that President Kennedy was a young, weak, inexperienced and ineffective leader. 

Instead, Kennedy chose strength and resolve by not only publicly calling Khrushchev out but imposing a naval blockade on Cuba. As a result, the bully backed down. 

Without strong actions backing up strong rhetoric, Khrushchev likely would have continued with his plan and would have sought additional advantages because he saw an opportunity to exploit what he perceived as weakness.

Similarly, Putin sees the U.S. as weak. In 2014, he calculated that President Obama would be too weak to prevent his incursion and subsequent annexation of Crimea. He likely calculated that Trump’s comments on pulling back from the NATO alliance meant he was unwilling to stand up to the Russian bully. President Biden, who Putin probably assessed as old, weak and inheriting a distracted and divided country, provided a window of opportunity.

President Biden should be given credit for predicting the 2022 Russian military invasion of Ukraine, and for pulling together and strengthening the NATO alliance. There was not, however, any strong showing of force prior to the Feb. 24 invasion that would have given Putin pause. The U.S. missed an opportunity to prevent the invasion. 

Biden missed his Kennedy moment. There was no scenario whereby economic or diplomatic sanctions could dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine. And though we can debate the effectiveness of what is the most stringent sanctions packages ever placed on a country, we must recognize that, for the bully Putin, these are seen as weak responses to his belligerence. 

Consequently, Putin is emboldened in his belief that introducing instability will garner, at most, more sanctions and harsh rhetoric. But it may eventually fracture NATO countries’ political cohesion and resolve. If not stopped, Putin will continue to take such actions, as he likely believes that time is on his side.

So, this past week Putin has created another Kennedy moment for Biden. If the West responds only with more sanctions and strong language, we will no doubt see the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and additional destabilizing actions going forward. 

Rhetoric and financial consequences won’t be enough. Putin will only reconsider his intentions if our reactions are visible and show a willingness to counter his forces should he continue down this path.

For Congress, it is time to understand that our fractious debates and extreme statements on Ukraine are seen by Putin as weakness to be exploited. Whether or not a new Cold War is emerging, it is time to heed the lessons from the Cold War trenches.

Timothy R. Sample was the deputy START negotiator at the signing of the treaty and served for nine years in Congress as a staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, becoming staff director of that committee from 2000-2003. 

Tags China Cold War Cuban Missile Crisis Joe Biden John F. Kennedy NATO Nikita Khrushchev Nikita Khrushchev President Joe Biden Russia Russia-Ukraine war United States Vladimir Putin

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