As the West Putters and Ponders, Putin Pounces

No one who has been paying attention can honestly say they were surprised the Russians invaded Ukraine. Oh, it’s possible to have been shocked by the timing or because what is currently unfolding is on a larger scale than most people predicted but surprised? No.

What it does suggest is that too many Washington policymakers have been using the Russia issue as a football in a partisan political game that’s gone well into overtime. It’s all well and good to argue about who is to blame – and President Joe Biden, who was also the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine is at the top of the list – and to point fingers but that’s little better than quibbling about who forgot to lock the barn door before the cow was stolen, ground into hamburger, and eaten. The question now, as an influential New York investor of my acquittance liked to say in times of crisis, “Not what are they going to do but what are we going to do?

Finding the right answer is more challenging than some believe it to be. Before we decide what action the freedom-loving democratic nations of the West should take, it is necessary to determine Putin’s intentions. He wants, as many have suggested, to be the one who put the band back together, to consolidate the disparate parts of the former Soviet Union into Muscovite “Greater Russia” that holds sway over two continents if not the entire world.

Putin’s intermediate end game is a matter of conjecture. Is the invasion the first step toward making Ukraine a Russian province? Or will he use pacification (he’s used the word “demilitarization”) and the installation of a puppet government as an excuse to pull his troops back behind the borders as they were before the start of the current conflict?

It’s hard to tell but presume for the moment the former is, at this moment at least, a more likely outcome than the latter. Neither is acceptable, especially if coupled with a move by the Chinese against Taiwan. It would be 1941 all over again, only this time America would be facing a two-front war against Russia and China instead of Germany and Japan, neither of whom could have incinerated the nation’s heartland in under an hour.

America’s victory in that war came only because we had the time to rebuild. Over the succeeding decades, however, we’ve outsourced much of our industrial might to our enemies. The time to rebuild starts now, meaning Congress and the Biden administration must develop and enact a plan to revitalize our manufacturing sector to bring jobs and facilities home.

We must also confront Putin where he’s most vulnerable. Russia has taken steps to insulate its modern-day “nomenklatura” – including its leader and minister of foreign affairs – from the kind of sanctions imposed by President Biden in the hours and days after the invasion began. America must resolve to do more and, in consort with the British, who oversee many of the international financial holdings of Putin and those who influence them, freeze them out and block access to their holdings until such time as Russia’s troops are out of Ukraine.

President Biden must also allow the U.S. energy sector to deviate from the course he set out for them. In the just about 13 months of his presidency, the United States has gone from being a net energy exporter to an energy importer, reliant on nations in the conflict zone – including Russia – to meet its energy needs.

This is unacceptable. The spike in oil prices sparked by Putin’s invasion has been to his country’s financial benefit. Oil and natural gas are among the few things produced in or by Russia that anyone else around the globe wants. America must take the lead in blocking Moscow’s ability to sell energy in the global marketplace directly and through client states like Belarus. That would show Putin we are serious.

Other steps to be taken include the rebuilding of the post-COVID American economy through the continuation of the reforms implemented under his predecessor to reduce marginal tax rates, flatten the tax code, and deregulate industry to make the United States an attractive place for American industry to do business.

By reopening the nation to oil and gas exploration and by pulling back on new regulations that impede fracking, we would lower the price of oil and natural gas on the world market – something that would be to our betterment and Putin’s detriment – until Russia’s capacity to economically support the occupation of Ukraine evaporates. When Ronald Reagan did something similar in the 1980s, the Soviet Union broke into pieces. By most accounts, this was a good thing. One of the few people who didn’t like it was Putin – who is now doing his best to reverse that outcome.

America won the Cold War when it decided to approach it from a position of strength rather than seeking equality and spheres of influence. Putin will not stop with Ukraine. The Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – will be the next to go if something is not done. This will require the forward placement of significant U.S. forces in NATO countries including the aforementioned three so that the Russian leadership knows we are standing by our Article V obligations.

Putin’s ambitions, as revealed by the invasion of Ukraine, bring him into direct conflict with those of the United States. The recognition of that fact should be enough to reunite the internationalist and isolation wings of the American GOP under one banner – a necessary step if we are to confront the threat before us. That must happen before we can move to rebuild the U.S. military, send lethal assistance to Ukraine, develop an energy sector that can meet Europe’s need without having to rely on Moscow’s beneficence, and arm Taiwan with the support it needs to make President Xi Jinping think long and hard about repeating Putin’s mistake.

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