Source: Michael Curtis

Ukraine is the former Soviet Republic with social and cultural ties to Russia and eight million ethnic Russians. Spokespeople for Russia declare it has no plans to invade the country, but what then are the reasons for the massing of troops and weaponry close to its border?  At a minimum, the given explanation is that Ukraine must never join NATO.  More aggressively, Ukraine is seen as linked to, or as a part of Russia, not as a separate country.

Even more, generally, Russian policy touches on at least four factors:  to restore its influence in Eastern Europe; to end the eastward expansion of NATO now that 12 countries, from Estonia to Bulgaria, have joined since 1997; to prevent any NATO activity in Eastern Europe; and to eliminate NATO combat units in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Putin calls for NATO to pull back from pre-1997 lines in accordance with the agreement between President Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin that former Soviet states and Warsaw bloc nations could choose whether to apply to NATO for membership.

Basic to understanding his policy is that Putin wants to stay in power. He was lucky he gained power at a moment when Russia was benefiting from foreign investment: rising oil, gas, and mineral prices, and relative political stability. His position is more precarious now in a period of lower energy prices and problems of growth, and Putin portrays himself as a defender of a besieged motherland, against supposed threats from Finland in the north to Georgia in the south.  He also sees the process, under the presidency of Alexander Zelensky, of increasing Ukrainization in the country and the reduction in the teaching of the Russian language in the schools.

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Signs of Putin’s aggression are manifest. He wants to recreate a Russian empire, one comparable to the power of the Soviet Union.  Russia has stationed 100,000 troops close to the border with Ukraine accompanied by tanks, heavy artillery, and field hospitals. It is moving S-400 surface-to-air-missile systems into Belarus and has moved ships near the shores of Ukraine.

Putin reasserted influence over the Caucasus after the 2008 war by occupying 20 percent of its territory. He helped keep his ice hockey partner Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has threatened to cut supplies of gas to Europe and has caused a migrant crisis, in power. Putin intervened in Kazakhstan with a squad of paratroopers to save President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and helped him in a struggle with his predecessor and rival, to declare a state of emergency, shoot troublemakers, and crush the revolt.  He is helping Serb leader Milorad Dodi in Bosnia-Herzegovina and planning to send Russian gas to the region via the Black Sea. Putin will deploy troops to Mali after the French move out of Timbuktu.

How to deal with Moscow? Diplomatic activity so far has failed to ease tensions, though maintaining the dialogue with Moscow remains the first priority. Western authorities hold that the international community should not tolerate any action which undermines Ukrainian sovereignty. Yet they have issued mixed messages of “grave or massive consequences” if Russia invades. There is no policy of appeasement but the response of NATO countries has varied and remains unclear, while the Unites States has no firm position.

Britain has sent military hardware to Kyiv, planes, 2,000 short-range anti-tank missiles.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the UK would contribute to any new NATO deployment. He declared that the British army leads the battlegroup in Estonia and will protect allies in Europe. 

Denmark is sending a frigate to the Baltic Sea and plans to deploy four F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania.  The Netherlands is sending two F-35 fighter planes to Bulgaria.  Spain is sending ships and may send fighter jets to Bulgaria.

France has said it could send troops to Romania. However, President Emmanuel Macron has advocated what appears to be a European security and stability strategic partnership between Russia and the EU, separate from NATO:  “ I haven’t,” he said, “detected anything concrete coming out of the talks with the U.S.” The European Commission has said it will not withdraw its embassy staff from Kyiv, yet the EU has plans for loans and grants to Kyiv though this will need approval from member states.  

The surprise is the ambivalence of Germany, either for what it conceives as its self-interest or a genuine belief in intercedence with Russia. The new German chancellor Olaf Scholz issued a vague threat that grave consequences would follow if Moscow invaded Ukraine.  One may ask what kind of consequences. Scholz has said there are ways other than military ones, “to achieve de-escalation.” Russia is investing in the German economy, and Germany is not imposing an embargo on Russian exports and strategic minerals.

It is understandable that Germany is reliant on Russian gas, especially in winter, and gives mixed signals over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but its policy is not appreciated by fellow EU members.  So far Berlin has refused to allow arms exports to Ukraine because of its policy of not sending weapons to conflict zones. It is blocking Estonia from sending howitzers to Ukraine, because the weapons originated in Germany.

The U.S. has ordered 8,500 troops to be on standby for deployment, but the Pentagon has stated that U.S.  deployment would be part of a NATO response force.   Biden, like Donald Trump, has held that the Nord Stream 2 will not be allowed to operate if Ukraine is invaded.  Biden claimed he will impose mandatory sanctions if Moscow increases hostilities or invades Ukraine.

But Biden’s ill-considered words about a probable minor U.S. response to Russian minor incursions, whatever that entails show a confused mind or indecisive policy, or at best strategic ambiguity.

The vital question is whether the U.S. and the West are genuinely serious about preventing or countering Russian aggression. The fact that Ukraine is nor a member of NATO should not prevent Western deployment. Certainly, the West cannot allow Putin the right to veto NATO membership.

The opponents of Putin do not make a team, but they should agree on possible actions. They are not paper tigers. A number of suggestions might be considered. Preventing the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline if Russia is belligerent. Aid should be given to Ukraine for its self-defense — anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, maritime security, and intelligence.  In every way raise the costs of a Russian invasion.  Deny access to the Swift financial system for dollar transactions. Impose export controls on important sectors of the Russian economy, including an export ban of microelectronics. Pull diplomatic staff out of Kiev if it continues to be threatened.

In the U.S., the decision to act against the possible aggression of Putin forces should not be handicapped by political party divisions. The U.S. should counter Pupin’s demand that NATO removes its forces from its eastern members.

Above all, the U.S. and the West should remember the fallacy of appeasement policy and of the foolish words of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 that resistance to Nazi Germany would mean involvement in “a quarrel io a far-away land between people of which we know nothing.”