Biden vs. Putin: Round One
President Biden has landed the first punch in an escalating contest between a reviving America and a revisionist Russia by publicly affirming that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer. Biden could have gone even further by naming Putin as a terrorist for his complicity in the bombing of apartment blocks in Russia in 1999 and a war criminal for the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians during Moscow’s attack on Chechnya that same year. Regardless of such charges, words have to be followed with deeds or Putin will not take the new U.S. administration seriously.
Moscow’s interventions in U.S. elections and periodic cyberattacks, most notably the Solar Winds hack, must be viewed in a broader context. The Kremlin is engaged in a multi-pronged campaign to weaken Western institutions and America’s security role. It persistently threatens its neighbors, escalates its military presence along NATO’s borders and interferes in the internal politics of almost all European states. This week is the seventh anniversary of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its proxy war in eastern Ukraine designed to neutralize the country’s democratic aspirations. Putin seeks to enforce the allegiance or steal the territory of all former Soviet republics in rebuilding a new Russo-centric dominion.
If words are to have teeth, Biden needs to prioritize a number of objectives that will not simply push back on Moscow’s aggression but deter it from engaging in further assaults. A major early achievement would be to finally terminate the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) natural gas pipeline project to Germany by imposing sanctions on NS2 AD, the company that owns the pipeline, all Russian ships involved in its construction and Western companies that have not withdrawn from the project. If completed, NS2 would increase Europe’s dependence on Russian supplies, intensify pressure on Ukraine by reducing its transit capacity and revenues, and divide the NATO alliance.
The White House cannot rebuild relations with Germany by undermining the energy security of NATO partners and threatening NATO’s entire eastern flank, where every state opposes the Nord Stream sellout to Russia. Instead of taking the lead in ensuring European security, German businesses and political leaders seek “normalization” with Putin regardless of the damage that Russia inflicts on its neighbors. This simply encourages further Kremlin inroads against trans-Atlantic interests.
Biden has an opportunity to craft a more assertive U.S. policy that moves beyond selective sanctions on Putin’s oligarchs and security chiefs, which have little ultimate impact on their behavior. Washington can work more closely with the most exposed NATO allies in enhancing all aspects of their national defense, including Poland, Romania and three Baltic States. It must also convince the more complacent states, such as Germany and France, that their national interests are better served by having secure countries to their east that are protected from foreign subversion.
NATO’s Defender-Europe 2021 exercises, currently being launched in Europe’s east, are an important reminder to Putin that the alliance is ready and able to defend its members and generate security throughout Europe. This year’s exercises, to be held between March and June, will involve 28,000 multinational forces from 27 states, including over 2,000 U.S. troops, and range across 12 countries. For too long Moscow has been flexing its muscles without a concerted and robust response from the world’s strongest military union. The NATO drills enable Biden to underscore Washington’s commitments and send a strong signal to countries aspiring for NATO membership, especially Ukraine and Georgia. Even though they do not benefit from NATO’s security guarantees, they will not be left at the mercy of a predatory neighbor seeking to partition their territory.
The Biden administration’s decision at the beginning of March to provide $125 million in military aid for Ukraine is essential but insufficient. The package includes patrol boats, counter-artillery radars and tactical equipment. An additional $150 million in military assistance is due under the 2021 Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. However, there is a sense of urgency in Kyiv that as winter turns to spring Russian forces may launch a new assault on Ukrainian territory to gain control over several strategic targets, including water resources that traditionally supplied Crimea.
Putin may deliberately try to test Biden’s resolve through a deeper military incursion. Ukrainian officials are calling for more high-level contacts with U.S. commanders, joint military exercises with a U.S. battalion or brigade dispatched to Ukraine for a few months, and more impactful equipment including air and anti-missile defenses.
Paralyzing Russia’s energy offensives, punishing its cyberattacks, uncovering its influence operations, freezing its financial corruption in Western capitals and enabling allies and partners to better defend themselves would spotlight Biden’s determination to prevail at the onset of his global struggle with Putin.
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.”
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