For months now, Europe has been on the brink of war. Vladimir Putin has staged a massive buildup of Russian troops around Ukraine, whipped up propaganda about a fake Ukrainian “genocide” of ethnic Russians to justify invasion and there are now reports of Russian artillery attacks on the Ukrainian front.
An announcement by the Kremlin earlier this week that Russia was withdrawing troops led to a brief hope that this is all a bluff intended to panic Ukraine and the Western powers into concessions. Then U.S. intelligence revealed that rather than withdrawing, Russia has been sending more troops. Putin has built up the means to invade Ukraine and plunge Eastern Europe into chaos, and we are all merely waiting on his decision.
So why should Americans care? What’s at stake for us in this conflict? At a time when most of the country seems skeptical of any overseas commitment, from Afghanistan to Taiwan, what could we possibly have at stake in Ukraine?
Making Russia Great Again
To understand why Ukraine matters, let’s first get an idea of what Putin wants and why he is driving this conflict. The Russian president has made no secret that he wants to resurrect his country’s Soviet-era empire and “sphere of influence.” He is infamous for declaring the collapse of the Soviet Union to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” It certainly was—for him. He went from being a rising star in the KGB, on his way to helping exert control over a global empire, to driving a cab to make ends meet. This is why he laments the “disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union” and wants to put it back together.
Note that phrase “historical Russia,” which includes Ukraine, the Baltic states and many other former Soviet republics that are now independent countries. And notice that this is just raw Russian imperialism, shorn of the old ideological pretensions of the communist era. So we see Russia’s foreign minister complaining that the NATO powers are “taking over territories orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union.” Orphaned? Because Russia is their daddy?
In a recent piece in The New York Times, Fiona Hill argues that Putin’s goal is wider than Ukraine: “He wants to evict the United States from Europe.” She continues:
Mr. Putin wants to give the United States a taste of the same bitter medicine Russia had to swallow in the 1990s. … In the 1990s, the United States and NATO forced Russia to withdraw the remnants of the Soviet military from their bases in Eastern Europe, Germany and the Baltic States. Mr. Putin wants the United States to suffer in a similar way. From Russia’s perspective, America’s domestic travails after four years of President Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, as well as the rifts he created with U.S. allies and then America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, signal weakness. If Russia presses hard enough, Mr. Putin hopes he can strike a new security deal with NATO and Europe to avoid an open-ended conflict, and then it will be America’s turn to leave, taking its troops and missiles with it.
But it goes even farther than that.
Kremlin officials have not just challenged the legitimacy of America’s position in Europe, they have raised questions about America’s bases in Japan and its role in the Asia-Pacific region. They have also intimated that they may ship hypersonic missiles to America’s back door in Cuba and Venezuela to revive what the Russians call the Caribbean Crisis of the 1960s.
You can see why this conflict isn’t just about Ukraine, much less about some tiny, contested sliver of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has not made Russia great again in any of the ways that might matter for his people, who are poorer and less free than they were in the years after the fall of communism. But he is seeking to making his own power great again and expand the reach of his control.
If Putin wants to restore Russia’s Soviet-era empire, with its pretensions to global influence, he is going to have to do a whole lot more invading and annexing, a whole lot more threatening and intimidation and assassination. Ukraine is just the beginning. It is his big test of exactly how much he can get away with.
The real threat to free nations in the West is that the “sphere of influence” Putin is trying to establish goes far beyond Eastern Europe.
Consider a recent case in which the government of Belarus concocted a fake threat of a terrorist attack in order to force an airliner to land so the government could arrest a dissident blogger who was on board. This was an Irish airliner on its way from Greece to Lithuania. It was an airline based in one free nation flying a plane from a second free nation to a third free nation—yet these nations could not protect a dissident. It was an attempt by Russia, by way of its Belarusian puppet, to extend its dictatorship beyond its borders.
That is also the upshot of Russia’s campaign of assassinating critics on British soil, which may just be starting. It is a campaign to extend Putin’s tyranny indefinitely across the rest of the world, leaving nowhere safe from his rule. This is why Britain has been among Ukraine’s staunchest and most active supporters, airlifting anti-tank weapons as well as providing military advisers to train Ukrainians to use them.
The prospect that faces much of Europe is “Findlandization,” the state of permanent intimidation under which the Finns suffered for decades during the Cold War. As Finns recently recalled for a New York Times piece, Finlandization was more than just an enforced diplomatic neutrality between Russia and the West. It included a stifling cultural taboo against any criticism of the Soviets, for fear of provoking their wrath.
As a young man, [Matti] Hjerppe recalled, he harbored negative feelings toward Russia but kept them to himself. Many young people may have preferred English classes over Russian, and American jeans over the Soviet standard-issue, but overt criticism of Russia, while not illegal, was taboo.
While the effect of Russia propaganda and political meddling in the U.S. has been greatly exaggerated, it is real, and it fits with Russian goals: to make rest of the world subservient to Putin’s dictatorship, to leave no place safe for dissidents and critics of his regime and to enforce a taboo on opposition to his designs.
The Potemkin Village
Part of the success of Putin’s aggression is the idea that there is little we can do to deter Russia in Ukraine short of getting dragged into a major war between rival nuclear powers—a disastrous prospect.
But Russia is not acting out of strength. Its hysterical insecurity is a product of its weakness. Russia is shrunken shell of its former self. It has a tiny little economy, a GDP of $1.7 trillion compared to our nearly $25 trillion. France and Italy each have larger economies than Russia. At the height of the Cold War, in 1960, Russia had a population of 120 million to our 180 million, making it almost a peer. Today, the U.S. population is 330 million and growing, while Russia’s is 144 million and falling.
Russian claims about NATO aggression, or their fears of being “encircled” by NATO, are paranoid nonsense. But the fear is real, even if Putin won’t admit its actual object. Precisely because he controls a kleptocratic regime that is concerned with nothing but the personal power and privileges of its ruling clique, Putin and his allies face a constant series of challenges and rebellions, from Belarus to Kazakhstan.
We are in a far better position now than we were during the Cold War to exert military, economic, diplomatic and cultural pressure to quash this new Russian empire before Putin can build it.
Putin’s only advantage is his sheer aggressiveness, his ability to take action first, to create threats and change conditions on the ground, while we dither and debate and scramble to cobble together a response. For thirty years, we took for granted a situation of relative international peace and order, a world in which America did not face a major ideological, military or geopolitical rival, and we could largely set the rules for how the international system operated. We took all of this so thoroughly for granted that we assumed we didn’t really have to do very much to maintain it. We forgot how easily the world could be thrown back into the chronic conflict and brinksmanship of the Cold War era—or into the apocalyptic chaos of the early 20th century.
Now we have entered an era in which the dictators and fanatics are strident, bold and set the terms, while the world’s free nations are tentative, hesitant and on the defensive. I’m just old enough to remember what this felt like in the 1970s: In one area after another, the dictators advanced while we fell back.
The line must be drawn here. No more letting the dictators set the terms, extend their arbitrary rule over the rest of the world and inspire imitators in our own backyard.
We can have a debate about what we should do immediately to help Ukraine. Some of it we have already been doing. We can provide weapons and military training. We can build up our troops in neighboring NATO countries. We could impose draconian economic sanctions now, just for threatening Ukraine, and offer to lift them only if Russian troops withdraw. We can step up open and covert support for dissidents in Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. We can keep releasing intelligence about Russia military movements and “false flag” attacks, to deprive Putin of the secrecy that masks his intentions and abets his lies. And we can work to keep our NATO allies united and opposed to any concessions.
But the first step is recognizing that you have a problem. This is a wake-up call to renew the NATO alliance and strengthen its military readiness and especially the capabilities of our allies.
For those who worry that standing up to Russia could just provoke Putin and drag America into war, I will point out that if the history of the 20th century taught us anything, it is that nothing is more provocative to a dictator than the weakness of free nations. The best and, in the long run, the least bloody course is to confront the dictators early and often, and there is no better time to start than now.