Vladimir Putin wants the world to forget what happened in 2014. That’s the year he amassed troops at the Ukraine border to assist Russian-backed separatists fighting the Kyiv central government. They wound up shooting down a Malaysian jumbo jet, killing all 298 aboard. Also in 2014, Russia staged the conditions for Putin’s illegal seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Putin wants the world to forget 2014 in order to argue that NATO, not Russia, poses the greatest threat to world stability. It’s precisely because of Russian expansionism that NATO is weighing Ukraine’s entry into the trans-Atlantic, mutual-defense pact. Putin is trying hard to portray Russia as the victim when, in fact, it is the clear aggressor. He’s in the process of amassing an expected 175,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s border. The Biden administration warns that Russia is preparing to do to the rest of Ukraine what it did to Crimea.
Why should folks here care about stuff happening half a world away? It matters because these are the real ingredients of a major, full-blown superpower military confrontation. At a minimum, a Russian invasion would provoke massive new economic sanctions — even more punishing than the ones still in force against Russia since the 2014 retaliation.
New sanctions would likely target Russian gas exports to a heavily dependent Europe, prompting severe global economic repercussions. Russia could be expected to launch an all-out cyberattack on Western computer networks. Putin also has demonstrated his willingness to use ground-based weaponry to disable communications satellites or simply blast them out of the sky, as occurred on Nov. 15 when a Russian anti-satellite missile test scattered 1,500 pieces of debris into the same orbits used by U.S. spacecraft and the International Space Station.
Russian leaders have a history of sizing up their American counterparts and calculating the most opportune moment to go on the offensive. They seem particularly prone to test U.S. resolve during Democratic administrations, such as the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan under President Jimmy Carter. The Crimea seizure and Russian deployment of troops to prop up the dictatorship in Syria made President Barack Obama look weak and ineffectual.
Russia seems unimpressed by more threats of economic sanctions. But it does understand clear U.S. statements of a willingness to use military force, if necessary, to bring Moscow to heel, as occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
It’s unquestionable that Putin is testing U.S. and European resolve. If President Joe Biden hopes to restore his international stature and recover from last summer’s disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, he must make clear in his phone conversation with Putin that a NATO response won’t be limited to economic sanctions.
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