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How the West Is Losing Ukraine


Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

is visiting Europe this week in a frantic effort to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we hope he succeeds. But the Administration is also signaling that an invasion is likely, and if so it’s worth explaining why deterrence will have failed.

The fault lies mainly with

Vladimir Putin

and his desire to restore Greater Russia. But this ambition has been known at least since his annexation of Crimea in 2014, so why has he moved again now? And why have Washington and Berlin failed to convince him that the costs of another invasion will exceed the benefits?

Mr.

Biden

didn’t help deterrence at his press conference Wednesday by suggesting that a “minor incursion” by Russia might not trigger a united response from the West. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do,” Mr. Biden said. Pressed on the point, he didn’t provide any clarity on what would be “minor,” and Mr. Putin may think he now has leave to take at least some territory.

***

This response fits the pattern that goes back to the weak Western responses to Russia’s previous aggression. In 2009, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia the previous year,

Barack Obama

called for a “reset” with the Kremlin and achieved little. In 2014 Mr. Obama and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia, but they were too weak to make much difference.

The Biden Administration is now promising “massive consequences” if Russia invades again, but why should Mr. Putin believe it? The U.S. has ruled out any direct U.S. military defense of Ukraine, so Mr. Putin knows he needn’t worry about that. But the U.S. has also failed to raise the costs of a Russian invasion by adequately arming Kyiv.

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Late last year a Ukrainian defense official told us the country needed “anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and anti-missile defense (including Patriot anti-aircraft and missile defense systems), electronic and anti-drone weaponry,” as well as “artillery and mortar systems, reconnaissance and medical equipment, ships and boats.”

On Wednesday a senior U.S. official boasted about approving a mere $200 million in additional military assistance last month but didn’t say what was being sent. The White House has feared too much military aid would cause Mr. Putin to invade. But restraint hasn’t deterred Mr. Putin, and sending more equipment after an invasion begins could be too late.

Germany also has refused to send weapons to Kyiv, with the foreign minister on Monday citing historical reasons. This is from a country that exported nearly €10 billion worth of arms in 2021. Apparently Ukraine is more problematic than Egypt, Berlin’s top customer last year.

Also depressing is the U.S. and European disarray on economic sanctions. Germany is the heart of this problem. President Biden made a priority of courting lame-duck Chancellor

Angela Merkel

as a counterpoint to

Donald Trump

and in the name of trans-Atlantic unity. This has been one of Mr. Biden’s biggest strategic miscalculations.

Mrs. Merkel has been replaced with a coalition led by a Social Democratic Party (SPD) that is even softer on Russia. Mr. Biden reversed U.S. opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would give Russia more energy leverage over Europe. This month the White House lobbied to defeat a Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill in the Senate.

Influential SPD officials have said the pipeline’s fate shouldn’t be tied to Ukraine’s, and new Chancellor

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Olaf Scholz

has only vaguely allowed that “everything will have to be discussed” after an invasion. The backdrop is Berlin and Washington’s war on their own domestic energy production, which makes them more vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

The toughest economic sanction would be cutting off Moscow from the Swift international banking system and access to U.S. dollars. A German newspaper recently reported that the West had ruled out such a move, though the U.S. responded that “no option is off the table.” Mr. Putin can read the papers and knows many in Europe will fight any Swift sanctions, especially if Russia threatens to retaliate by withholding energy from Europe in winter.

***

Beyond policy divisions is the message that Mr. Biden sent to the world’s rogues with his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mr. Putin has since moved his troops toward Ukraine, and that may be no coincidence. He watched a new U.S. President abandon allies in a 20-year conflict with the argument that domestic issues are paramount. He saw a U.S. President retreating from the world.

If Mr. Putin does invade Ukraine, he will be betting he can shore up his nationalist standing at home, snatch a neighbor’s territory, and spread further division in the Western alliance. The tragedy is that the West hasn’t done nearly enough to persuade him otherwise.

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