Donald Rumsfeld, George W Bush’s defence secretary, liked to say “weakness is provocative”, says Bret Stephens in The New York Times. It’s the perfect explanation for our current “predicament” with Russia and Ukraine. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the Bush administration “protested but did almost nothing”. President Obama pursued a “reset” with Moscow, accepted a Russian offer of mediation in the Syrian civil war, and did “almost nothing” when Putin’s “little green men” seized Crimea in 2014. President Trump sought to block new sanctions on Moscow, although he was eventually overruled by Congress. And the Biden administration has waived sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, increasing Moscow’s “energy leverage” on Europe, and sent “paltry” amounts of military aid to Ukraine.
So what happens next? Biden has promised “massive consequences” if Russia invades. But he’s talking about economic sanctions – almost the definition of “bringing a knife to the proverbial gunfight”. What if Putin responds by cutting off Europe’s gas supplies and demanding a Russia-Europe security treaty? Washington would inevitably stand down – and the Russian strongman would have achieved his long-term ambition of breaking NATO’s spine. Because that’s his real goal here; “another sliver of Ukrainian territory is merely a secondary prize”. Washington needs to recognise the stakes and “stand tough”. Losing this fight would “be to America’s global standing what the Suez Crisis was to Britain’s”.