Joe Biden agreed a few weeks ago that Vladimir Putin was a “killer”, and Putin is about to prove it. He is slowly executing Alexei Navalny, his most successful opponent thus far, as he rots in a Gulag on trumped-up charges. Simultaneously, Putin amasses troops, ships, missiles, and tanks on the northern, eastern, and southern border of his other punching bag, Ukraine, a nation-state that has striven since 1991 to wrest free from the Soviet system. Putin maintains that Ukraine is really Russian, which is untrue, and intended to recapture its eastern half in 2014 but failed.
Putin only grabbed 12.5 percent of the country -- about the size of West Virginia -- because millions of Ukrainians miraculously withstood the assault by Russia’s surrogates backed by its military. This was Ukraine’s finest hour, a nation-saving rescue equivalent to the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 when a flotilla of small boats saved allied forces from slaughter by the Nazis.
But the damage was bruising. Crimea was annexed. Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as Donbas, was conquered, and its $30-billion worth of infrastructure destroyed. Roughly 14,000 died, and two million Ukrainians fled the occupied territories, now run by Russian thugs and militias, and resettled with relatives and friends in the rest of the country.
I once suggested that Ukraine should have sent all its refugees to Poland and asked the United Nations to erect a gigantic refugee camp -- such as exists in Turkey for Syrian refugees. Only this would have made Europeans realize the scale of Russia’s predation, unprecedented in post-war Europe. But Ukrainians sucked it up and looked after their own and continue to pay an awful price.
Since 2014, Ukraine -- the poorest nation in Europe -- has had to build the region’s biggest army that singlehandedly defends the Eastern “wall” of Europe against a revanchist Putin whose dream is to restore the Soviet Union, its captive republics, and European satellite countries. With help from NATO members and the United States, Ukraine now supports a military force of 204,000 active soldiers, 900,000 reservists, and 88,000 paramilitary forces. This is bigger than the armies of France, Britain, or Germany where per capita incomes are $44,995, $46,344, and $51,860 respectively, compared to Ukraine’s $3,984.
Europe has botched any attempt to negotiate peace between Russia and Ukraine or to offer rapid accession into the European Union for the valiant Ukrainians. Today Europe still dithers even though Ukraine faces another invasion and shoulders an unfair share of Europe’s defense against Russia’s colossal military forces -- active, reserve, and paramilitary -- which total a staggering 5.8 million. This is larger than America’s 5.137 million.
Navalny and Ukraine are threats to Putin. Navalny has drawn enormous international attention, and sizeable protest crowds inside Russia, with his courageous anti-corruption activism. The fact that the Kremlin allows his struggle inside the prison to leak out is strategic, designed to intimidate Russian sympathizers and demonstrate ruthlessness.
Ukraine’s growing prosperity, freedom for its people, and higher wages plus its new President Volodymyr Zelensky also represent rebukes to Putin’s kleptocracy. The night Zelensky won his landslide victory to fight corruption in 2019, he turned to the camera and threw down the gauntlet to Moscow in perfect Russian: “I can say as a Ukrainian citizen to all the countries of the former Soviet Union: Look at us. Everything is possible.”
This was not simply a comment by a mere politician. Zelensky is, to the Russian-speaking world, what George Clooney is to the English-speaking one: He is a household word due to the lasting popularity of his comedy, movies, television series, and live performances over the years. Here was one of the most famous celebrities in Russia baiting the Kremlin before its own audience.
Not surprisingly, Russia has continued to escalate its hybrid war against Ukraine by blaming it as the source of U.S. election interference in 2016, and by convincing Donald Trump that Ukraine could be useful as a vehicle to derail Biden’s presidential bid. Armed with misinformation from Russian operatives, Trump tried to shake down Zelensky to help him smear Biden’s son concerning his foolish connection to an unsavory oligarch. Zelensky ducked and Trump was impeached.
More recently, Zelensky has taken aim at one of Putin’s closest friends, a Ukrainian politician and media mogul named Victor Medvedchuk. He, his wife, and businesses have been sanctioned and his three influential, pro-Russian television stations have been taken off the air. This constituted a direct attack on Russian influence and power in Ukraine and is why Putin has chosen now to mobilize and terrify everyone in Europe. And looming American sanctions to halt Putin’s pipeline to Germany is another reason to saber rattle.
Ironically, standing up to Putin may be the only bipartisan consensus in Washington which is why Biden must do so now. On April 9, the United States sent two warships into the Black Sea in response to Russia’s deployment along Ukraine’s borders — a move that Barack Obama should have undertaken in 2014 during the first invasion and didn’t, and is why one-eighth of Ukraine now belongs to Putin.
One must assume that Putin anticipates a military stare down but essentially has already accomplished what he set out to do: Divide the Western democratic world into two camps. On the one side is an indignant America, whose President has called out Putin for what he is. On the other side are appeasers like France and Germany that have been thoroughly co-opted by Putin. Since 2014, France’s trade has tripled with Russia.
And Germany has partnered with Russia to build that $11-billion natural gas pipeline that America opposes because it will bypass Ukraine, deprive it of energy paving the way for a full invasion, make German industry richer, and make Europe as a whole more dependent on Russian energy to bankroll Putin’s predations.
In the middle is Ukraine, stuck with a peace negotiation process managed by France and Germany. This pairing represents one of Europe’s biggest post-war diplomatic blunders: The United States and Britain should have been at that table, not because of their military clout, but because in 1994 the two gave security assurances to Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan that their borders would not be breached by Russia or any others in return for their agreement to denuclearize. Russia signed that pledge too and ignored it, in the case of Ukraine and more recently Belarus, and the U.S. and Britain have done nothing.
Now, the President must sort out the mess left by Presidents Obama and Trump plus a generation of cowardly European leaders. Fortunately, the Navalny and Ukraine situations leave no doubt in the world that Russia is a rogue nation -- the most dangerous on the planet -- and must be severely contained. Putin has gone further afield too. He has weakened the European Union by influencing the Brexit outcome, and by propping up the genocide of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, causing the displacement of millions and destabilizing Europe. He has also created chaos in other western democratic elections as well as in Libya and Venezuela, and Africa.
This is the Cold War 2.0 and Navalny and Ukraine are ground zero. Sanctions, mobilization, and penalties must be extracted. Russia should be isolated and suspended from the G20, the United Nations Security Council, the world’s banking system, and the World Trade Organization. Its oil export contracts must be abrogated. The pipeline to Germany has to be stopped.
It’s time for draconian measures against an odious regime because Putin’s targets are not simply Navalny and Ukraine. We are all at risk. We are all Navalny. And we are all Ukrainians.