Somebody’s Got to Stand Up to Vladimir Putin

President Biden and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin arrive for the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021.
(Saul Loeb/Reuters)

MBD probably gets me to stop and rethink what I think more than any other writer around here, and today I think he lays out the case for being not-so-hawkish on Russia and Ukraine as well as anyone could.

It is probably accurate to say that American attitudes towards Ukraine fall into two categories. (Three, if you count, “what’s a U-crane?”) There are Americans who don’t care if Russia invades Ukraine. And there are Americans who don’t want Russia to invade Ukraine, but who aren’t willing to fight a war against Russia to defend Ukraine. The Americans who do want to fight a war against Russia to defend Ukraine can probably hold their meetings in a Toyota Corolla.

Michael’s not pro-Putin, and he doesn’t contend Ukraine has it coming. He makes solid points that simply because of geography, language, culture and geopolitics, Ukraine will always be more important to Russia than it is to the United States. NATO membership for Ukraine was always probably an unrealistic scenario.

But I’m still not convinced that the U.S. shouldn’t take a relatively hawkish stance on this potential conflict.

Authoritarian powers tend to see territorial conquests the way most of us see potato chips: it’s very hard to eat just one. The satisfaction of the first increases the craving for the second, The satisfaction of the second increases the craving for the third, and so on.

Under Vladimir Putin, the Russia military has helped establish pro-Russian breakaway states on its border with Georgia, annexed Crimea, and occupied the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. And this is separate from Russia’s cyber-warfare, hacking, meddling in U.S. elections, assassinations of dissidents on United Kingdom soil, irradiation of British passenger airliners while carrying out those assassinations, arming idiotic separatists who shoot down passenger airliners…

When you’re Vladimir Putin, life is pretty sweet. You take territory, arm separatist groups who agree to set up client states, and the leaders of the West usually respond with an angry letter and some economic sanctions that don’t really hurt you personally. And it’s been this way for four presidents! You’ve got a former German chancellor serving on the board of a Russian gas companies, the same man who called you a “flawless Democrat.” Germany’s eager to finish a pipeline that will make them more dependent upon your energy supplies. Stand up to you? Most Western leaders are either easily bribed into arrangements that make their countries more dependent upon you, or they desperately want to avoid a conflict with you.

Everybody seems to be willing to bend over backwards to keep Vladimir Putin happy – and I don’t just mean the gymnast.

But you may have noticed that for a stern-faced authoritarian associated with order and ruling with an iron fist, Vladimir Putin spreads a lot of chaos. Annexations, assassinations with nerve gas, hacking, disinformation and propaganda, arming separatist groups, using energy supplies as a weapon… Putin’s preferred way of getting what he wants is to make life dangerous and miserable for everybody else, and to force people to bend to his will. They guy’s former KGB, so the words “we can’t do that because it’s wrong” just aren’t in his vocabulary.

Xi Jinping might be the most powerful person on the face of the earth, but Vladimir Putin is probably in the top five. Considering his track record in running Russia since 1999, we don’t want Putin getting any more powerful than he is. The more powerful Putin gets, the more problems he creates.

It would be nice if the problems in far-off lands stayed there, and we could rest assured that the divisions, aggression, brutality and cruelty of far-off leaders and tin-pot dictators would never affect the daily lives of Americans. And sometimes they don’t; most Americans didn’t hear about, notice, or could tell you much about ethnic cleansing in Rwanda or Srebrenica or Sudan or massacres of the Yazidis or the Rohinga in Myanmar. The West didn’t exactly run to the ramparts when Putin was absolutely crushing Chechnya and massacring civilians.

But sometimes those far-off problems do end up at America’s doorstep, and one morning we wake up and Pearl Harbor is burning, or passenger airliners are crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers, or angry mobs are overrunning our embassies and killing American diplomats.

Vladimir Putin talks a good game about stability and diplomacy, but his actions indicate he relishes the opportunity to make Americans’ lives miserable. If he wanted to shut down the hackers who mess with our pipelines, he could do it. If he wanted to shut down the troll farms and disinformation efforts, he could do it. Putin wants us divided, weak, paralyzed, helpless and humiliated. Upon taking office, President Biden clearly communicated his near-desperate yearning for “a stable, predictable relationship,” and dropped America’s opposition to the NordStream 2 pipeline, trying to reduce tensions. In response, Putin more or less flipped the bird at Biden, gave him a wedgie, and took his lunch money.

Why should Americans not want to see Russia conquering larger chunks of Ukraine? Because Vladimir Putin is just a plain old evil SOB and a bully, and the more a bully succeeds, the worse he gets. This doesn’t mean we have to go to war with him. But it does mean we should be pulling out all the stops to ensure that a Russian invasion would be a long, painful, bloody and unpopular fiasco for Moscow. (In a way, that’s what has kept the peace between China and Taiwan for generations. China has the military strength to conquer Taiwan anytime it wants, but the process of conquering Taiwan come at a cost in blood and treasure that Beijing isn’t willing to pay, at least for now.) If Putin wants to take Ukraine, we ought to make sure that action is as militarily, economically, geopolitically, financially and socially painful as possible – and that much like Afghanistan, the locals will never welcome the occupiers, and will take shots at the occupying forces for years to come.

If we’re lucky, communicating the exceptionally high cost of taking Ukraine will be a deterrent. And if it doesn’t, it at least sends a warning to the next autocrat with dreams of territorial expansion through military conquest.