THE unfinished business of 2014, when the West baulked at confronting Vladimir Putin over his seizure of the Crimea and his meddling in Ukraine, has returned to haunt President Biden and the EU.
Testing Biden’s leadership and will, Moscow has reportedly moved 100,000 troops to Russia’s border with Ukraine. Officials in Kiev fear these forces will invade the east of the country, which has a large ethnic Russian population, early next year.
What will Biden and his Western allies do about it? Options are limited. Do we care enough about Ukraine to rush to its aid even if not doing so reinforces the West’s appearance of weakness after the fiasco in Afghanistan?
What would be the consequences for Taiwan, where China now claims it has the ability to mount an amphibious invasion with up to 25,000 men?
In 2014, President Obama blinked and EU leaders froze. Coincidence or not, it was the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, when the events that followed the shooting in Sarajevo slipped rapidly out of the control of politicians, diplomats and generals.
It was a textbook example of the perils of escalation. The war that began in August and was supposed to be over by Christmas lasted for four years, destroyed empires and remade the map of Europe in ways that created the seeds of future conflict.
The Ukrainian government, caught in a geo-political trap between Russia and the West, does not have the resources to stop Putin on its own and couldn’t even if the West rushed hi-tech weapons to its military.
What would make Putin stop? Putting US and Nato forces on the ground in Ukraine, backed by air power, might give him pause but would ordinary Americans and Europeans stand for it? The alternative would be sanctions but would the EU risk its supplies of Russian gas?
Biden has to get this right after botching his withdrawal from Afghanistan and his lame showing during summit talks with Putin and Xi combined with his domestic credibility crashing in the polls.
Ukraine is not the only East European trouble spot bearing Putin’s fingerprints. He’s created a migrant crisis on Poland’s border with Belarus, using President Alexander Lukashenko as barely disguised cover.
The 2014 crisis arose in response to EU moves to develop closer ties with Ukraine, which has gradually turned westward since the collapse of the Soviet Union of which it was part. The United States helped engineer a pro-Western rising against President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow.
Putin retaliated by taking control of Ukrainian Crimea while ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, armed by Moscow, later shot down a Malaysian airliner killing all 298 on board, most of them Dutch.
The dilemma Biden faces now is the same one that Obama wrestled with unsuccessfully seven years ago. There was no way that Obama could have intervened militarily to wage a containable war in central Europe without running the risk of events running out of control as they did in 1914. He ended up applying mild sanctions.
Everything in Russian history shouted then and now that Putin will not tolerate a Nato-friendly country on his doorstep, which is why he is ignoring Western pleas to pull back.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, often a conduit for administration thinking, wrote that the West’s warnings to Russia weren’t getting through.
‘Instead, Putin seems to be relishing the West’s anxiety,’ he said. ‘He claimed [last] Thursday that the United States and its allies were ignoring Russia’s “red lines” and “escalating the situation” with shows of force . . . Putin’s goal seems to be restoration of Moscow’s Soviet-era hegemony over Kiev.’
Invoking force would be a hard sell for US and European leaders to make to their electorates, however sympathetic they might be to Ukraine’s plight. Putin would have less difficulty persuading his own people of a patriotic duty to aid Ukraine’s ethnic Russians.
The alternative to military action would be stepped-up sanctions but this is where the US and the EU could find themselves on different pages.
Sanctions could include Biden withdrawing his approval of American technology to be used in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to supply Russian gas to EU countries which have become energy-dependent on the US as a result of their commitment to sustainable electricity production at home.
Germany and nine other EU countries depend on Russian gas exports which cross Ukraine pending the opening of Nord Stream 2. Putin could turn the tap off in retaliation for US sanctions. A gas-less winter would cripple their economies as well as stranding families at home without dependable heating.
Putin’s advantage is that he doesn’t have to do anything at all. His implied threats are enough to keep the West on the hop and divided within itself.