What Putin Really Wants From the Ukraine Crisis


By Bret Stephens

Opinion Columnist

Grave may have been the mistakes of Donald Rumsfeld, but George W. Bush’s first defense secretary did have a gift for memorable phrases. One of them — “weakness is provocative” — explains the predicament we again find ourselves in with Russia’s belligerence against Ukraine and NATO.

Let’s recap how we got here.

■ In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and took control of two of its provinces. The Bush administration protested but did almost nothing. After Barack Obama won the White House that fall, he pursued a “reset” with Russia. In 2012, he cut U.S. force levels in Europe to their lowest levels in postwar history and mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia our principal geopolitical threat.

■ In September 2013, Obama famously retreated from his red line against Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve gas in Syria, accepting instead a Russian offer of mediation that was supposed to have eliminated al-Assad’s chemical arsenal. That arsenal was never fully destroyed, but Vladimir Putin took note of Obama’s palpable reluctance to get involved.

■ In February 2014, Russia used “little green men” to seize and then annex Crimea. The Obama administration protested but did almost nothing. Russia then took advantage of unrest in eastern Ukraine to shear off two Ukrainian provinces while sparking a war that has lasted seven years and cost more than 13,000 lives. Obama responded with weak sanctions on Russia and a persistent refusal to arm Ukraine.ADVERTISEMENT 

■ In 2016, Donald Trump ran for office questioning how willing America should be to defend vulnerable NATO members. In 2017 he tried to block new sanctions on Russia but was effectively overruled by Congress. The Trump administration did ultimately take a tougher line on Russia and approved limited arms sales to Ukraine. But Trump also tried to hold hostage military assistance to Ukraine for political favors before he was exposed, leading to his first impeachment.

Which brings us to Joe Biden, who ran for office promising a tougher line on Russia. It has been anything but. In May, his administration waived sanctions against Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, which, when operational, will increase Moscow’s energy leverage on Europe. Since coming to office, the administration has done little to increase the relatively paltry flow of military aid to Ukraine. In the face of a Russian invasion, it will be as effective as trying to put out a forest fire by peeing on it.

Then there was the fiasco of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. “In the aftermath of Saigon redux,” I wrote at the time, “every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power.” The current Ukraine crisis is as much the child of Biden’s Afghanistan debacle as the last Ukraine crisis was the child of Obama’s Syria debacle.

Now the administration is doubling down on a message of weakness by threatening “massive consequences for Russia” if it invades Ukraine, nearly all in economic sanctions. That’s bringing a knife to the proverbial gunfight.ADVERTISEMENT 

Imagine this not-so-far-fetched scenario. Russian forces move on a corner of Ukraine. The United States responds by cutting off Russia from the global banking system. But the Kremlin (which has built its gold and foreign-currency reserves to record highs) doesn’t sit still. It responds to sanctions by cutting off gas supplies in midwinter to the European Union — which gets more than 40 percent of its gas from Russia. It demands a Russia-Europe security treaty as the price of the resumption of supplies. And it freezes the United States out of the bargain, at least until Washington shows good will by abandoning financial sanctions.

Such a move would force Washington to either escalate or abase itself — and this administration would almost certainly choose the latter. It would fulfill Putin’s long-held ambition to break the spine of NATO. It would further entice China into a similar mind-set of aggression, probably against Taiwan.

It would be to America’s global standing what the Suez Crisis was to Britain’s. At least Pax Britannica could, in its twilight, give way to Pax Americana. But to what does Pax Americana give way?

What can the United States do instead? We should break off talks with Russia now: No country ought to expect diplomatic rewards from Washington while it threatens the destruction of our friends. We should begin an emergency airlift of military equipment to Ukraine, on the scale of Richard Nixon’s 1973 airlift to Israel, including small arms useful in a guerrilla war. And we should reinforce U.S. forces in frontline NATO states, particularly Poland and the Baltics.ADVERTISEMENT 

None of this may be sufficient to stop Russia from invasion, which would be a tragedy for Ukrainians. But Putin is playing for bigger stakes in this crisis — another sliver of Ukrainian territory is merely a secondary prize.

What he really wants to do is end the Western alliance as we have known it since the Atlantic Charter. As for the United States, two decades of bipartisan American weakness in the face of his aggression has us skating close to a geopolitical debacle. Biden needs to stand tough on Ukraine in order to save NATO.


  1. The author understands putler’s objectives and offers a way out; for Biden. If his administration takes this on board, then a catastrophe will be averted and Biden will not after all go down as the worst president in history.
    God bless and protect Ukraine from savages.

    Liked by 4 people

      • US Russia policy since the arrival of putler has been a total disaster. I rather liked Dubya and his “I have looked into his eyes” comment reassured me at the time that maybe putler was not as bad as he seemed. Then he invaded Georgia, murdered innocent Georgian civilians and thieved South Ossetia*; all with complete impunity.
        Savage war crimes were committed; including the sacking of Gori; which is accurately depicted in the movie Five Days Of War.
        No punishment was given. Instead the EU committed a criminal offence: it sent a corrupt putinoid; Sarkozy, to “negotiate” a “ceasefire”. Then it issued a report blaming Georgia for starting a war with Russia. Utterly absurd.
        * Abkhazia had already been thieved.
        Obama’s response was a “reset” with putler that achieved fuck all.
        After that of course things got steadily even worse, leading to where we are now.
        A very gloomy prognosis in The Hill today:


        Liked by 2 people

  2. “…Russia then took advantage of unrest in eastern Ukraine…”
    Not correct. Mafia land provoked unrest there and elsewhere in Ukraine and took advantage of where it was most successful. I hate it when someone writes only half-truths even if the rest of his article is spot on.
    Of course, massive arms shipments should have been sent weeks ago already but the Bidenov administration is already getting famous for fucking things up and not doing anything to correct them, perhaps thinking that if they correct so much, people will think they screw up so much.
    Fact is, that Biden and his bumbling buffoons …
    –screwed up our borders. No fix to this day.
    –screwed up our energy system. No fix to this day.
    –screwed up on NSII. No fix to this day.
    –screwed up on Afghanistan. No chance to fix that anymore.
    –screwed up on Ukraine support. No fix to this day.
    –is currently screwing up on the mafia troop build-up. I hope I won’t have to add; No chance to fix that anymore.

    Liked by 2 people

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