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We are living at a hinge point in history. The world is witnessing the resurrection of a particular kind of great-power aggression—the effort to rearrange European boundaries by direct military force—that has led to countless conflicts on the continent itself and has triggered the most cataclysmic wars the world has ever seen.
For almost 80 years, the combination of military deterrence and Western alliances kept the peace, a peace that had become so familiar and comfortable that our eyes rebelled at what we were seeing on our television screens last night. As we watched the live video of Russia’s attack, it was hard to believe it was real.
But shock has to give way to resolve, and the resolve is this—Russia must pay. Its act of aggression must cost Vladimir Putin’s regime so dearly, its ultimate failure stands as a reminder that the world rejects aggressive war—that it is a path to ruin and loss, not victory and greatness.
This is easier said than done, especially since direct American or allied military intervention in the conflict is profoundly unwise. Simply put, we lack both the will and the immediate capacity to make a decisive difference in the battle, and we would immediately spark a broader conflict that could easily spiral out of control.
But that doesn’t mean we’re impotent—far from it. America and its allies still retain enormous power, including the power to help shape the course of the conflict in Ukraine itself. Here are the key steps:
First, minimize partisan recriminations at home and present a united front. It’s important for Americans to understand where the blame lies—with Putin, not with Democrats or Republicans. If you don’t understand Putin’s mindset, I’d urge you to read his February 21 speech to the Russian people.
His real grievance is against Ukraine‘s very existence, and he made that grievance clear in the opening moments of his address:
I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space. These are our comrades, those dearest to us—not only colleagues, friends, and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.
Indeed, he sees the country as essentially fabricated out of whole cloth during the Russian Revolution, a historical mistake that Soviet leaders never fixed:
So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia—by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.
Never mind that Ukraine gained its independence after a 1991 referendum where “the millions of people living there” expressed exactly what they wanted. We now understand Putin’s real problem with Western influence in Ukraine, including potential NATO membership—it would guarantee the independence of a country that should not exist, at least not in its present form.
This war is not President Joe Biden’s fault or former President Donald Trump’s fault—even if we can critique different aspects of each president’s policies. Putin has been using violence as an indispensable element of his foreign policy from the moment he attained power, and he’s conducted successful military offensives under every American president since Bill Clinton.
He invaded Georgia in 2008. He first invaded Ukraine in 2014. He conducted offensive operations in Syria throughout the Trump administration. And now he’s invaded Ukraine again, this time with massive force. Deterrence has failed time and again. A united commitment to Russian defeat is now our best response.
Second, inflict crippling economic sanctions on Russia, even if they hurt the West. Economic warfare presents its participants with a version of the challenge presented by armed conflict: It can be difficult to inflict casualties on the enemy without suffering loss yourself. Russia doesn’t have a large economy (especially relative to its size and population), but dramatic economic action can, for example, increase energy costs in the United States and abroad.
We should bear that cost—and the related costs of disrupting Russia’s place in the world economy. Putin may be counting on the comprehensive softness of the West, the unwillingness to bear virtually any real consequence in the defense of the international order, to ease the economic pain of his aggression. We must prove him wrong.
Third, directly target the assets of Russian oligarchs. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a small number of Russian citizens have grown both fantastically rich and disproportionately powerful. These Russian families park immense yachts in European ports, enjoy access to prime real estate in European capitals, and treat the world as their playground.
No more. They are part of the structure and system of Russian power, a structure and system that has proved itself to be recklessly aggressive. Seize their yachts. Seize their London flats. They should be made to pay directly for their complicity in Russia’s rise as a criminal regime.
Fourth, arm the Ukrainian military and resistance. Expect to see rapid Russian military gains in the first days of its offensive. It possesses overwhelming aerial superiority and overwhelming superiority in mobility and long-range fires. The Ukrainian military is outgunned.
But we know from experience that wars do not always end when capitals are seized or even when conventional battles are lost. So long as there are army formations (or insurgents) willing to fight, they should have access to Western arms. They should have access to Western training. Ukraine may not possess the capacity to defeat the Russians in a slugfest between armies in the field, but it does have the capacity to impose an unacceptable cost on the Russian military, if we’re willing to help. (Eliot A. Cohen, a former counselor of the State Department and an Atlantic contributing writer, has made a forceful case for exactly this.)
Fifth, reinforce NATO’s frontiers. It is Putin’s dream to not just reconstitute elements of the old Russian empire but to collapse NATO as an opposing force. Our allies on NATO’s eastern flank are watching us closely. They see Russia’s power up close. Will they see our response?
President Biden has already sent small numbers of reinforcements to Eastern Europe. He needs to send more—not in offensive formations that would indicate a potential attack (and possibly provoke a catastrophic Russian response), but in numbers and composition that demonstrate an unshakable defensive commitment and remind our allies that Russia, though dangerous, is not the most powerful force in Europe.
Sixth, welcome Ukrainian refugees. Wars breed refugee crises, and the United States should be willing to step up and absorb our share of the allied burden of care. One of the most grievous aspects of the right’s turn against immigration has been an unwillingness even to shelter and protect those who are suffering direct, violent repression.
But this is not the mainstream American position. It is not even the unified position on the right. Our nation should reaffirm its place as a haven for those facing death and persecution abroad.
I’m cautious about historical analogies. We’re often too quick in particular to stampede to World War II as a pattern for what we’re witnessing. Vladimir Putin doesn’t have to be Hitler to be dangerous, and the attack on Ukraine doesn’t have to mirror Hitler’s attack on Poland to be alarming.
By launching an attack on Ukraine, Putin steps into the shoes of a long line of aggressive authoritarians, including, for example, Kaiser Wilhelm and Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, the fact that we can immediately recall a number of names of catastrophically aggressive European rulers highlights the danger of the moment.
What we face is not unique. It’s another chapter in an old story. Whether this chapter ends with the beginning of yet another era of great-power conflict will depend very much on whether Russia and other aggressive states (including China) ultimately view Putin’s attack on Ukraine as a great triumph or a terrifying cautionary tale of hubris and, ultimately, loss.