By CHARLES PAIGE December 15, 2021 in Foreign Policy
Whether Putin is saber-rattling or going to invade, either way he’s in a winning position.
Things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now. —National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan
That’s great, but it’s also why we are facing the situation we are now — with Russian troops postured to invade Ukraine and Vladimir Putin holding all the cards. The corollary to President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” dictum is that weakness invites mischief and aggression. That dictum is time-tested. “To be prepared for war,” George Washington declared in 1790, “is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Nearly a decade of equivocation can’t be undone overnight. Joe Biden was a key player in Barack Obama’s non-response in 2014 and hasn’t shown anything since to indicate he’s ready to break (or capable of breaking) from his record of, in the words of former CIA Director and SecDef Robert Gates, being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
In contrast to Biden, Putin’s threats carry real weight because he’s shown a willingness to act in the past. Biden makes concessions (lifting Donald Trump-imposed Nord Stream 2 sanctions), and his family is party to corruption that undermines rule of law and Western interests in Ukraine; Putin sends in the troops and annexes territory in Ukraine and Georgia. The latest troop movements and talk of unifying Russia and Ukraine could just be posturing on Putin’s part, but either way he’s in a winning position.
If he green-lights the invasion, the Russians face no real threat that their territorial objectives will be denied or that NATO will respond militarily. If he chooses not to invade, his messaging machine will portray him as a benevolent peacemaker who showed great restraint in the face of Western aggression. Either outcome will play well with his domestic audience, which is the only one he really cares about placating.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the job in Ukraine over the last couple of years, and I concur with Mark Alexander’s recent analysis. The Ukrainians I work with are resigned yet determined. They want to be more closely aligned with the West, but they aren’t banking on meaningful personnel or material contributions if Russia invades. They know it will be virtually impossible to stop a Russian onslaught, but they vow that the Russians will pay a heavy price. In short, they show far more resolve and character than the man they’re counting on to keep Putin in check.
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