Vladimir Putin has deployed some 100,000 troops to Russia’s border with Ukraine. He has moved fighter jets and antiaircraft defenses into neighboring Belarus. He has around 6,000 soldiers, as well as air and naval assets, in Crimea, the peninsula in south Ukraine that he annexed illegally eight years ago. His insurgents have waged a “frozen conflict” in east Ukraine for close to a decade. His digital army launches routine cyberattacks against Ukrainian infrastructure. And yet, if you listen to “realist” foreign policy analysts, all this is somehow America’s fault.
It was a mistake to allow former provinces and satellites of the USSR to join NATO, we are told. It is hubris to believe that one day Ukraine might join NATO and the EU. It would be reckless to deploy U.S. troops to defend Ukraine (a policy President Joe Biden has ruled out explicitly). America is overstretched, the realists go on. It is inward-looking and uninterested in the fate of freedom in Eastern Europe. Better to provide Putin an “off-ramp” from the present crisis. Better to declare, once and for all, that Ukraine will never join the Western alliance. Putin might be satisfied with a veto over NATO membership. He might stand down. He might save face.
True, Putin might not invade Ukraine if America and NATO acquiesce to his most recent demands. But he would soon make new demands, new threats, and new incursions. History teaches as much. Appease Putin? The West has tried exactly that for over a decade. And the West has nothing to show for it. Putin hasn’t been satisfied with diplomatic overtures. He isn’t deterred by slaps on the wrist. Putin keeps asking for more.
The Russian strongman announced his turn toward bellicosity at the Munich security conference in 2007. Flush with cash from high oil prices and gloating over America’s difficulties in Iraq, Putin assailed the “unipolar model” of American global leadership as “not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world.” He called the deployment of antiballistic missile systems in Europe provocative and the “next step of what would be, in this case, an inevitable arms race.” He said that NATO expansion was “a serious provocation” intended to weaken Russia. The history of his country “spans more than a thousand years,” Putin lectured. Russia “has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy.” This wasn’t an academic lesson. It was a warning.
Message delivered. The implicit threat split Europe. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, President George W. Bush wanted the alliance to issue “Membership Action Plans,” or MAPs, to Georgia and Ukraine. He was overruled. No MAPs were offered. Instead, NATO promised that one day both countries would be members. NATO thought it could placate Russia. Ukraine and Georgia tried to make the best of a wispy, abstract pledge. They held out hope that NATO would make good on its word. They were naïve.
Putin read the situation more accurately. Europe was trying to be nice, to keep the bear happy. He could carry out his “independent foreign policy.” A few months later, Russia invaded Georgia on the slimmest of pretexts. Russian tanks approached the capital, Tbilisi, before falling back to the line of control. Georgia’s democratic government was preserved—for a while. In the years since, Putin manipulated Georgia’s politics by proxy and diminished the country’s hopes for independence, for a flourishing civil society. The Western response was light—a rush to negotiations, a few economic sanctions, a lot of “concerns” and “calls.” Not enough to reverse Putin’s gains.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was an alarm. We slept through it. One of the war’s many consequences was that Senator Barack Obama named as his running mate the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. Once in office, Obama, Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched an effort to “reset” relations with Russia. Obama canceled missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. He signed the New START Treaty limiting nuclear weapons. He involved Russia more closely in nonproliferation efforts and in diplomacy with Iran and North Korea. He aided Russia’s effort to join the World Trade Organization. According to a White House press release issued in 2010, “President Obama and his administration have sought to engage the Russian government to pursue foreign policy goals of common interest—win-win outcomes—for the American and Russian people.”
Putin doesn’t believe in win-win outcomes. He believes in win-lose outcomes: Putin wins, you lose. Obama crashed against a wall of atavism and paranoia. Putin became convinced that Hillary Clinton was behind the 2011 antigovernment protests in Moscow. He blamed U.S. officials, not native Ukrainian sentiment, for the 2014 Maidan protests that toppled the government of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. (Yanukovych fled to Russia, where he remains.) Weeks after the Maidan revolution, Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of east Ukraine. The West responded with another round of denunciations and sanctions. Putin shrugged them off. In 2015 he deployed Russian troops to Syria. In 2016 he interfered in the U.S. presidential election. Obama left office with U.S.-Russian relations at a low point. The open hand had been met with a clenched fist.
Why? Because Putin’s aims are different from our own. He wants to resurrect the Russian empire. He wants to undermine the post-Cold War settlement. American foreign policy, meanwhile, alternates between bouts of democratic idealism and episodes of sullen retrenchment. Putin is lucky: His rule coincides with a long spell of American self-doubt and withdrawal from world leadership. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, also tried to reset relations with Russia. He wanted to appeal to Putin on a personal level. It didn’t take. Putin doesn’t want a friend. He wants facts on the ground to strengthen Russia’s international position. He wants to solidify his rule. On this and other topics, the Trump era had a schizophrenic quality. Trump had nothing but nice words for Putin, yet Trump’s energy, defense, and strategic weapons policies undermined Russian interests. Neither the first nor the last man to be confused by Trump, Putin bided his time.
His moment arrived in 2021. Joe Biden is now the fourth U.S. president to take office with the desire to improve relations with Russia. Biden immediately renewed New START. He took little public action to respond to Russian cyber-offensives. He canceled the Keystone XL pipeline at home and didn’t apply sanctions to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would feed natural gas directly from Russia to Western Europe. He involved Russia in talks to resume the Iran nuclear deal. He left Afghanistan in violent chaos. When Putin built up his forces around Ukraine in the spring of 2021, Biden granted him an in-person summit in Geneva and launched a U.S.-Russian nuclear dialogue. When Putin resumed pounding the war drums, he and Biden held a remote summit last December. Biden took Putin’s phone call on December 30. He and his secretary of state maintain that there is a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. “So, there’s room to work if he wants to do that,” Biden said at his press conference the other week. “But I think, as usual, he’s going to—well, I probably shouldn’t go any further.”
No, Joe, you really shouldn’t. It’s far past time to recognize that Vladimir Putin can’t be appeased. He can only be deterred and resisted. And the moment to act, to establish facts on the ground that serve our purposes, is now. Before Putin asks for more. Before it’s too late.