America can still stop Putin from swallowing all of Ukraine

President Biden’s ability to hold NATO together in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine certainly deserves to be commended. Nevertheless, diplomacy is meaningful only if it is backed up by the threat of force. When Biden completely removed that threat, he left an open field for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who simply employed his own diplomatic strategy, backed by the very real use of force, to see how many concessions he could pry out of the West. And when he did not receive the concessions he demanded, he attacked Ukraine. By taking any military response off the table, Biden made a costly mistake that played into Putin’s hands.

Biden’s strategy was to threaten sanctions against Russia, and to have the European Union and other states join the United States in implementing that threat. Putin knew that sanctions were coming; he even knew what the initial rounds of sanctions would look like, because Biden and his team had signaled as much to the Kremlin. But Putin appears to have bet that he could withstand at least the first round of sanctions, and a second round as well. Once again, he may be right.

The EU continues to be reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas production, because of its dependence on those resources. Moreover, some EU states are lobbying for their own exemptions. For example, Italy reportedly wants an exemption to enable it to continue to sell luxury goods to Russia. Ordinary people are unlikely to be the customers that Rome has in mind; the average Russian cannot afford Italian luxury. Instead, it is the very oligarchs who constitute Putin’s circle who might be termed Italy’s “addressable market.” Such behavior on the part of EU members is unlikely to deter Putin from implementing whatever his current operational plan against Ukraine might be.

It is noteworthy that when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the Bush administration did not preemptively rule out military action. Indeed, the National Security Council debated the option of surgical strikes in support of Georgia before deciding against a direct military response. Nevertheless, the Bush team chose to commit American forces, rather than civilian units, to provide humanitarian aid to the embattled country. In essence, Bush dared Moscow to shoot at the Air Force C-17s and C-130 airlifters, the Navy’s C-9 and C-40 aircraft and the destroyer USS McFaul, among other units that delivered over 2 million pounds of humanitarian supplies to Georgia, and committed these units to its support even as America was deeply embroiled in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first C-17 landed in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, on Aug. 13. On that day, Russian forces were still pushing further toward the Georgian capital and had bombed it. Russia could have sought to shoot down the C-17 or bombed the runway on which it landed. Moscow flinched.

American supplies kept pouring into Georgia by land and sea. Russia did not dare to attack the American military units. Instead, within three days Russia and Georgia agreed to a ceasefire. In committing military forces inside Georgia while Russian operations were ongoing, Washington no doubt deterred Putin from pushing further into the country or swallowing it up entirely.

Having taken active military operations off the table, Biden can still copy Bush’s playbook — and then some. He should immediately mount an airlift of not only humanitarian supplies, but also additional anti-aircraft systems, communications systems and armored vehicles that Ukraine long has requested and are equally long overdue. In doing so, he should not hesitate to draw down on the military’s own stocks, much as the United States did not only in support of Georgia in 2008 but also when it backed Britain during the Falklands War 40 years ago.

Russia is unlikely to withdraw from the territory it has seized. But Putin can be stopped from pressing on. Sanctions will not stop him, but American forces bringing supplies to Ukraine will raise the stakes for the Kremlin.

The West does not want to risk a war with Russia, but despite his bluster, Putin is unlikely to risk a wider war either, especially since so many of his most capable combat-ready forces are fully committed to his Ukrainian adventure. Washington can continue simply to react as Russia expands the scope of its military incursion, perhaps to gobble up all of Ukraine. Or, America can at last take the initiative and, as Bush did over a decade ago, significantly up the ante — and the cost — of further Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory. The choice is Biden’s.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Humanitarian aid Joe Biden Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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