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What Putin wants

William Inboden | And how the United States should respond to the Russian leader


Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over a videoconference Cabinet meeting at the Kremlin last week. Associated Press/Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo

What Putin wants
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It is true that presidents do not get to pick the foreign policy crises they face. But presidents do have a choice in how they prepare for and respond to those crises. On both counts, President Joe Biden’s handling of the current crisis over Ukraine is wanting.

Several of Biden’s actions during his first year in office projected weakness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. These included Biden’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and his reversal on sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Europe. Nord Stream 2 will enable Putin to choke off Ukraine from needed revenues while blackmailing much of Europe with the threat of cutting off natural gas during the cold of winter. Putin merely pocketed Biden’s concession while giving up nothing in return. Instead, Putin increased his troop buildup against Ukraine and now threatens to invade.

Meanwhile, Biden is making things worse. Instead of strengthening the United States’ hand and Ukrainian defenses now, and instead of increasing pressure on Putin, the Biden administration has engaged in fruitless negotiations with Putin while merely threatening economic sanctions that would be imposed after he invades. This is feeble. And the Russian leader knows it. Putin—who is probably the world’s richest man—does not mind Russia paying economic costs for territorial and geopolitical gains. Witness his invasions and interventions in Georgia, Syria, and Crimea and the Donbass over the past 15 years—none of which were deterred before the fact or reversed after the fact by economic sanctions.

While Biden’s docility bears responsibility for this current crisis, in fairness he inherited a weak hand. America’s eroding support for Ukraine has been sadly bipartisan of late. Beginning with President Barack Obama’s flaccid response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and continuing with President Donald Trump’s suspension of much-needed military assistance to Ukraine while attempting a crude shakedown of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the United States has not kept faith with Ukraine, despite our sworn commitment to do so in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

In a fallen world marred by sin, the prudent exercise of power is necessary to maintain order, and order is a prerequisite for justice and liberty.

Putin sees this and acts accordingly. Understanding the inscrutable Russian may be hard, but understanding his goals is not. Just look at a map of the borders of the old Soviet Union—including its republics such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Georgia, et al.—and transpose those Soviet borders onto Eurasia today. That is what Putin seeks: possession, or at least control, of the erstwhile Soviet empire. He cannot abide a Ukraine that he can’t control—especially if that Ukraine is democratic and free. Putin does not see NATO as a threat to Russian security; he knows NATO is a defensive pact with no designs on Russia whatsoever. Rather, he sees NATO as a threat to his imperialist ambitions. Thus, his broader goal is to neuter NATO and rent asunder the Western alliance.

To Americans who may question why we should care about Russia and Ukraine, I will highlight three reasons. First, whether we admit it or not, Russia has already declared the United States as its main adversary. Besides his aggression against our allies and friends, Putin has been engaged in political warfare against the United States for years, through efforts to sow division and promulgate falsehoods through social media disinformation and hacking. Not to mention Russia being the most likely culprit behind the “Havana syndrome” microwave attacks that have sickened or injured over 200 American diplomats and spies.

The second reason was put best by President Ronald Reagan. In 1984, as he stood atop a Normandy cliff commemorating the anniversary of the D-Day landings, he said, “We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”

The third reason follows from that. In a fallen world marred by sin, the prudent exercise of power is necessary to maintain order, and order is a prerequisite for justice and liberty. If the United States—still the world’s most powerful country—does not lead in maintaining international order, then malevolent nations such as Russia and China will exploit the vacuum and have their way in reshaping a world much less friendly to free societies.

So what to do in the present crisis? America needs first to regain the initiative and increase its leverage. Specifically, impose punishing economic sanctions now on Russia—including on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Deploy NATO forces to Ukraine and substantially increase weapons supplies to the Ukrainian military. Invite Sweden and Finland to join NATO and remind Putin that he cannot dictate the free choices of other nations. Then, and only then, invite Putin to talk and pursue a negotiated settlement—when diplomacy backed by strength might have a chance.


William Inboden

William Inboden is executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and editor in chief of the Texas National Security Review. Previously he served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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