While President Biden warns President Putin that invading Ukraine would bring drastic sanctions in some misty tomorrow, the Russian dictator is leveraging the current crisis to humiliate and shake down the West today. Whatever Putin’s next move, it’s worth tallying what he’s already gained.
Mr. Biden, for all his warnings, has so far imposed no serious costs on Mr. Putin for threatening Ukraine by land and sea. The Russian ruler has spent months assembling a strike force of war ships along Ukraine’s coast and more than 150,000 troops along its land borders. In April he threatened to invade Ukraine with a smaller force, for which he paid no price.
The precedent now taking shape is that Mr. Putin can with impunity threaten, terrorize, and engage in a dress rehearsal for invasion, as long as the troops then go home — at least for a while. This routine provides useful training in the field for Russia’s military, should Mr. Putin decide at some stage to go ahead.
While Mr. Putin has been readying his guns, America has defaulted to talks, with senior officials proffering diplomatic off ramps as if Mr. Putin were stuck in a runaway truck. Yet the problem is not that Mr. Putin lacks off-ramps. Rather, Putin is expert in creating crises he can manipulate, and he created this one.
Mr. Putin makes no secret of his desire to reassemble a Russian empire. He has already attempted an invasion in 2008 of Georgia, created a mascot state in Belarus, seized Crimea in 2014, intervened recently in an upheaval in Kazakhstan, and fueled separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine for years. If he has yet to make up his mind on Ukraine, it might just be that he is taking time to marvel at the limp American response.
Mr. Biden’s threat to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany in the event Russia were to invade Ukraine would probably be more daunting were Germany more clearly on board, and if Mr. Biden had not waved ahead the same pipeline last year as a fait accompli.
The efforts to corral Mr. Putin with diplomacy would be comical were the stakes not so high. American senior officials have flown hither and yon. Mr. Biden has held virtual meetings with Mr. Putin. The president of France, the foreign secretary of Britain, and the chancellor of Germany have all traveled to Moscow to try to reason with Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin has offered nothing except demands that they submit to his dictates on such matters as who may join NATO, or where NATO may station missiles and troops.
Mr. Putin has made one big trip himself — to reinforce a burgeoning partnership with the Communist Chinese Party boss, Xi Jinping. Mr. Putin flew to Beijing to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics as an honored guest. From Beijing, Messrs. Putin and Xi released a statement that a Pentagon spokesman said “certainly provided evidence that China has decided they’re going to stand alongside Russia with respect to what’s going on in Europe.” Mr. Xi can no doubt expect similar camaraderie if China makes a grab for Taiwan.
The Xi-Putin Russia-China demarche amounts to a declaration of a new world order, in which the ascendant powers are China and Russia. The statement, released in English translation by the Kremlin, alludes to America as a declining world player, “hampering the development and progress of mankind, against the opposition from the international community.” It deserves a Reaganesque rebuttal from the American president.
Don’t hold your breath. Earlier this week, Mr. Putin’s threats impelled the United States to shutter its embassy in Kiev and relocate a skeleton staff to Lviv, near the Polish border. This is the second time in seven months that we have shut down an embassy under threat, the first time being the surrender of free Afghanistan.
Closing the Kiev legation devalues Mr. Biden’s assurances that America stands with Ukraine. It’s humiliating for us Yanks. Mr. Putin has just showcased to the world that it’s not only the Taliban who can make the United States run for the exit.
What Mr. Putin has learned is that if he does launch an invasion of Ukraine, he need not worry about facing American troops. They won’t be there. Mr. Biden has been advertising for weeks what he said Tuesday — that while the United States is providing supplies and logistical support, “I will not send servicemen to fight Russia in Ukraine.” Spelling that out is a gift to Mr. Putin. Ambiguity, at the least, would have been a more useful deterrent.