Whoever tries to hinder us, or threaten our country or our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history.
–Vladimir Putin, Speech, February 24, 2022
Only actions, not words, will stop Putin
Condemnations by world leaders are not likely to stop Russia’s ongoing major invasion of Ukraine. The condemnations could have an impact in the future, however, particularly if they are couched in the specific language of international law and the U.N. Charter.
Legal arguments are not likely to persuade Putin directly, but they could have a major impact in the future in rallying support for a broad coalition of countries to oppose Russian aggression, and to support the imposition of severe–and perhaps crippling–sanctions.
To slow or stop the current Russian advance, however, active measures involving the use of force, and/or the use of active cyber warfare measures will be required.
Given the size and nature of Putin’s challenge to the entire international legal order, the U.S. and NATO will need to reconsider Biden’s decision to take force off the table in responding to Russian aggression. The sooner they understand that fact and take resolute action, the sooner the fighting in Ukraine is likely to come to a halt.
Right now, the U.S. and its allies should begin the deployment of active cyberwar measures to defend Ukraine from the Russian attack. They can disrupt Russian military communications, which actions under international law would be viewed as lawful measures of collective self-defense, in accordance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. The predicate for such actions in self-defense, an “armed attack” by Russia, has certainly occurred.
The U.S., NATO and the freedom-loving nations and peoples of the world cannot sit idly by while a lawless state seeks to conquer an independent nation, and to take down the United Nations Charter, international law, and the Charter-based international legal order.
The decision whether to oppose Russia, by force if necessary, is far to big to be taken by a timid U.S. president on his own. All nations must decide, independently of the U.S., whether they want to come to the collective self-defense of Ukraine, by the use of force and/or cyberwar actions if necessary.
Ideally, and to ensure the best coordination of such actions, the anti-Russian coalition should be led by the U.S., as a similar coalition was led by the U.S. in 1990 after Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. Kuwait was not a NATO member. But the world came to its collective self-defense, and expelled the Iraqi troops.
History–It all matters
In the Ukraine War, we can see how past strategic mistakes shaped the factors which led Vladimir Putin to believe he could conduct a large-scale invasion of Ukraine and get away with it.
George Bush failed to lead strong opposition to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
In 2009, Barack Obama decided to pursue a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations while invading Russian troops remained in Georgia. In effect, he said to Putin that the U.S. would overlook Russia’s violation of the basic norms of the U.N. Charter and international law, and that the U.S. was open for business as usual.
In 2014, when Russia invaded and “annexed” the Crimea, Obama hardly reacted. The sanctions imposed were a “joke” which only emboldened Putin to invade the Donbas with regular troops beginning in August, 2014.
Putin indirectly threatened the use of nuclear weapons, and Obama blinked.
In 2015, Russia intervened in Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and both supported him and joined him in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.S. engaged in military cooperation with Russia in the war to defeat ISIS (the Islamic State), and looked the other way at Russia’s actions to aid al-Assad militarily. Putin got his way, and Obama essentially acquiesced.
Under Trump, Putin had a Trojan horse who never, not once, criticized him. Trump, with his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, weakened some sanctions imposed on Russia, and tried to ease others but was thwarted by Congress.
Trump also signed the disastrous surrender and withdrawal agreement with tbe Taliban in February, 2020.
After Biden came to office in January 2021, he immediately relaxed some of the sanctions on the Nordstream II gas pipeline. In April he announced he would implement Trump’s deal with the Taliban, and in the summer executed one of the greatest foreign policy catastrophes in U.S. history.
Putin met with Biden in Geneva in June, 2021, and was not impressed. As tensions built over Ukraine, Biden announced that he was taking force off the table.
All of these antecedents gave Putin the impression that he didn’t need to worry about Biden. His nuclear tbreats were quite effective, as they had been with Obama. Biden even started repeating Russian talking points, to the effect that if the U.S. became involved in a military conflict with Russia, that would mean World War III. This belief on Biden’s part undoubtedly contributed to his decision to take force off the table in responding to potential Russian aggression against Ukraine, and to publicly announce his decision.
Russia has invaded Ukraine. What are U.S. and its allies’ conditions for a cease-fire? How can the war be stopped?
How can the war be stopped? Let’s hope Biden’s teams have given half as much thought to this question as they have to the fine intellectual distinctions used in designing graduated sanctions. If the so-called “Tiger Team” has been working on this, other senior officials should independently evaluate their recommendations before they are implemented.
The long war with Russia (cold and maybe hot) that lies ahead
We are entering a long war with Russia which may be cold, but which could also become hot. We need to develop a new “containment” policy, and would do well to start by reading George F. Kennan’s famous article published in 1947 under the pseudonym “X” in Foreign Affairs.
To retain some leverage over Russia, the U.S. should moderate its general hostility toward China and Xi Jinping, and instead focus its opposition on specific areas and policies. There should be no repeat of Anthony Blinken’s public confrontation with China’s foreign minister, performed mainly for a domestic political audience, at the first meeting of ministerial delegations in Anchorage, Alaska in March 1921.
In Anchorage, Blinken demonstrated, above all, how unprofessional it is to try to embarrass a foreign opponent, especially a Chinese counterpart who might be particularly sensitive to a public loss of face. A good personal and professional relationship between the two ministers could be useful in the future in dealing with Russia.
The failure of U.S. and NATO strategy
During the presnt crisis, it has appeared that the U.S. has not developed a strategy for dealing with a military conflict in which Russia, a nuclear superpower and Permanent Member of the U.N. Security Council, is on the other side.
In particular, the U.S. and NATO need to come up with a strategy that deals with Russian aggression against a non-NATO member country.
There has to be more to the policy than simple appeasement whenever Russia brandishes its nuclear weapons.
Perhaps we have a policy, but one which can’t be used against a madman. If that is the case, we need to develop a new strategy that takes the possibility of a madman into account.
Roger Cohen, a longtime and distinguished columnist of the New York Times and currently the paper’s Paris Bureau Chief, wrote in an interesting column today, “Nuclear Armageddon is not on the table.”
Roger Cohen, “The Limits of a Europe Whole and Free; Vladimir Putin sets down a marker in Ukraine. Does the West have the means to stop him?” New York Times, February 22, 2022.
However, this is far from clear. Looking at Putin’s nuclear threats and both Obama’s and Biden’s responses to them, it would appear that Armageddon is still very much on the table.
If there were any doubt, Putin erased it in a speech today in which set out his justification for the war with Ukraine, and made a hardly-veiled nuclear threat.
Al Jazeera Staff, “‘No other option’: Excerpts of Putin’s speech declaring war
Before launching the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II, Putin addressed his nation,” Al Jazeera, February 24, 2022.
Excerpts from speech:
“As for the military sphere, today, modern Russia, even after the collapse of the USSR and the loss of a significant part of its capacity, is one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the world and possesses certain advantages in some of the newest types of weaponry. In this regard, no one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to defeat and horrible consequences for any potential aggressor.”
“Now a few important, very important words for those who may be tempted to intervene in the ongoing events. Whoever tries to hinder us, or threaten our country or our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any turn of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.”
In this speech, Putin sets out his justification for launching a war against Ukraine. In a sense, this is the short version of his speech the previous evening. It provides interesting insights into his warped thinking.
What is our current nuclear deterrence doctrine, and how does it apply to a major ground war in Europe started by Russian aggression? Is our doctrine up-to-date, taking the conditions of modern military and cyber warfare into account, or does it need to be reexamined and updated? We should discuss this publicly.
The Trenchant Observer