Lenin’s apocryphal dictum—namely, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”—has been making rounds on Twitter this week, and no wonder. The collective response to the Ukraine crisis by the United States and its European and other partners has been stunning in its force and decisiveness.
Where even to begin? From freezing the Russian Central Bank’s foreign exchange reserves to Germany’s decision to become a real military power to the European Union’s brokering fighter jet deliveries to Ukraine, the week has been a whiplash of policy steps that were unimaginable ten days ago. When even Switzerland—Switzerland!—is sanctioning Russia, we are resident in a different world. All the policy eruptions, furthermore, have been punctuated by massive, spontaneous outbursts of popular support for Ukraine, from Sydney to Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
Yet, just as Vladimir Putin’s calculation that the takeover of Ukraine would be quick and relatively costless was proven wrong, it would be a mistake to assume that the decisiveness of the West’s actions and the near-unanimity of today’s global public opinion will guarantee a swift resolution to the crisis.
The notion that Russia’s impending financial ruin and Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling will precipitate his downfall, through a popular uprising or a palace coup, is wishful thinking. And the hope that Russia’s heavy casualties or the economic damage inflicted by sanctions will soon make the war untenable for the Kremlin is just that—a hope. Instead of hoping, the West needs a strategy that extends beyond just days or weeks and operates under the unfavorable assumptions that (a) Putin’s regime is here to stay and (b) both Russia’s war chest and Putin’s resolve are big enough to sustain a prolonged conflict and occupation.
There are other discouraging facts: For one thing, once our shock and righteous collective anger wear off, the war in Ukraine will give way to other news items. And the longer the conflict drags on, the harder it will be for the public and policymakers to stay focused—and to justify the cost of policies that would keep inflicting damage on Russia. After all, Putin is racing against a clock of his own: The growing frustration at the slow pace of Russia’s progress in Ukraine has already led to an escalation of indiscriminate violence that targets civilians and urban centers, including a possible use of thermobaric bombs that have wreaked havoc in Syria.
The risk is that, just as Russian brutality intensifies, the West’s current determination will subside into a growing resignation, if not indifference. Yes, we will continue to arm Ukraine’s defense forces (or Ukrainian rebels, if the country falls under Russian occupation). Yes, we might even cut ourselves off of Russian oil and gas supplies altogether and try to sanction the country back into zemlyankas. Yet we might not be able to stop Putin’s brute force from razing one of Europe’s largest countries to the ground. Worse yet, once either or both sides sue for peace, we may fall back into the Minsk trap by urging Ukrainians to be “reasonable” and make concessions to Russia, maybe to cede Luhansk and Donetsk or recognize a Russian Crimea.
To prevent entropy from asserting itself, we need a plan that makes all the punitive measures adopted against Russia permanent, barring complete Russian withdrawal, no matter how much they would hurt us. To put the cancerous phantasmagory of Russian imperial nostalgia to rest and prevent a war that would involve our NATO allies, it is not enough that Ukrainians fight the Kremlin to a stalemate and then reach an unsatisfying political settlement; Russia must unequivocally, transparently lose this war.
For that reason, Americans and Europeans have to think about how to escalate their response further if Russians go down the path of indiscriminately destroying and brutalizing the Ukrainian population.
Before the invasion, President Joe Biden and other Western leaders essentially ruled out the use of direct force in Ukraine. The reasons were understandable: Nobody wants a war with a nuclear power, and no treaty obliges the United States or its European allies to come Ukraine’s defense.
Still, the decision to rule out direct Western military involvement in Ukraine was made in a different geopolitical environment from the one we now inhabit. Most important, it was based on the assumption that the prospect of debilitating sanctions and global pariah status would be enough to dissuade Putin—those plus the prospect of an extended conflict with an adversary able and more than willing to defend itself.
That assumption has now been proven wrong; hence, the current rush of all remotely responsible governments to support and arm Ukraine and economically punish Russia. But what if even those things are not enough to stop Putin from conquering Ukraine even at the price of genocidal violence, or from pushing still further and testing NATO’s resolve to defend its own members later on? Last week, even Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted that Putin’s ambitions extend beyond Ukraine, something that ought to be obvious from Putin’s public statements alone—and, indeed, from the ultimatums he handed to the United States and NATO before the invasion.
In other words, as much as we want to avoid a direct, kinetic conflict with the nuclear power that is Russia, one may well be staring us in the face.
In fact, the relevant question may be whether we push back now, on our terms, or wait for Putin to make a first move—at a place and time of his choosing, which may find us back-footed once again. The hope that such a confrontation will not be necessary, no matter how belligerent Putin proves to be, because he will be embroiled in a long, unpopular war in Ukraine, is—once again—a hope, not a plan.
The questions involved in escalating a conflict with Russia are agonizing, but they do not get any easier if we avoid the relevant decisions; quite the contrary. Neither is the question a binary one of either staying out and providing assistance from the sidelines or jumping all-in with U.S. troops. Besides continuing to arm the Ukrainians with any and all equipment they can use, the West must show a willingness to put other, potentially riskier options on the table as well—like aggressive cyberwarfare, the use of proxies, covert operations, and maybe even the much maligned idea of a no-fly zone over parts of Ukraine, along with making it clear that we have more time, resources, and determination to wage and win this conflict than Putin does by amassing a sufficient military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.
We face a situation of enormous gravity, but a Russian win or an ambiguous outcome is completely intolerable. It is also worth remembering that, for all the scrutiny of America’s sins of commission in places like Iraq, the sins that created our current situation are sins of omission, from the lack of clarity over the real prospects of Ukraine’s integration into the West, to our series of Russia “resets,” to our failure to respond more decisively to Putin’s many depredations over the course of the past decade.
Enough. If a peaceful, rules-based order is to continue to exist in Europe, this aggression cannot stand.
Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
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