Putin’s Making NATO Stronger, Whether He Starts a War in Ukraine or Not

·8 min read
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty

Vladimir Putin is in the midst of a colossal blunder—a miscalculation that will haunt the rest of his presidency.

Regardless of what happens next between Russia and Ukraine, Putin has given the NATO alliance a renewed sense of purpose. He might have even strengthened it. At the same time, he has helped to restore the U.S.’ leadership role, which he has long sought to weaken.

Don’t get me wrong. While NATO will almost certainly emerge stronger in the event Russia engages in a cold-blooded assault on a neighbor, the people of Ukraine would be certain to suffer and that is not to be minimized. Their government is at grave risk and a protracted struggle for control of Ukrainian territory will come at a high cost.

And whatever the outcome of Putin’s current gambit, he will certainly call it a success, much as he has already sought to precede it with a tsunami of lies.

The mood among senior members of the Biden foreign policy and national security teams is, at the moment, grim but purposeful. U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families have been ordered to leave Ukraine. NATO is actively repositioning to deter and contain any Russian threat. The consensus among my sources is that it is more likely than not that Russian troops will, in the next few weeks, invade Ukraine in force, augmenting their incursion into that country that began in 2014.

Intensive efforts are underway to prepare for that eventuality with a response far more robust than anything seen from the Bush, Obama, or Trump administrations in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s prior aggression in Georgia or Crimea.

At the same time, the State Department—led by the active diplomacy of Secretary of State Antony Blinken but also involving a wide range of top officials—is engaged in intense negotiations with our allies to ensure NATO cohesion and support for Ukraine, even as Blinken, his deputy Wendy Sherman, and their team engage with Putin’s emissaries in an effort to dissuade them from further violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

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A variety of scenarios are being considered by U.S. analysts. These range from Russia thinking better of action at the last minute, to more surgical attacks by Russia in order to claim specific pieces of Eastern Ukraine (such as the land bridge to Crimea), to a massive assault that could involve Russian elements entering the country from the south, east, and north. A lightning strike from Belarus to Kyiv is considered one possibility, with the intent of displacing the current Ukrainian government and replacing it with one more palatable to Moscow. While Russia denies this is their plan, U.S. officials believe one likely objective of a Russian move against Ukraine would be to force the Ukrainian government into a series of concessions ranging from promising not to join NATO to ceding greater autonomy to regions closer to Russia. This would have the effect of weakening central control of Ukraine and making it easier for Russia to pull the strings in those neighboring zones.

Officials with whom I spoke in the past few days have indicated that they believe the larger-scale scenarios are likelier to transpire than more limited Russian missions. In addition, they say the Russians are capable of rapidly mobilizing substantially more than the forces immediately on Ukraine’s border.

The expectation is that Russia would seek to enter, strike hard, destroy as much of the Ukrainian military as possible, and exact the concessions they seek as soon as possible rather than entering into a protracted conflict. They have had experience with such conflicts—in Afghanistan—and it is believed they do not wish to repeat those mistakes.

Not only would the people of Ukraine fight fiercely, but one of the key differences between this instance and past Russian adventures in their near abroad is that the Western allies have agreed to and already started to supply Ukraine with lethal aid. Alliance aircraft and ships have been moved into Eastern Europe while, at the same time, NATO allies are in advanced discussions about the deployment of more alliance troops and resources closer to Russia and Ukraine. In addition, the EU is preparing a substantial economic package for Ukraine.

The Biden team has been carefully and systematically reaching out to all of the U.S.’ friends and allies in the region, with top officials in regular contact with every member of NATO from Montenegro and Slovakia to Germany, France, and the UK. While NATO’s 30 member states are diverse and represent a wide range of political views and interests, the U.S. has found the group unified. Asked about outliers, one senior official suggested Hungary was the lone such example he encountered. Within Germany there has been a debate about the extent of support, particularly concerning supplying weapons or allowing German-made weapons to be supplied to Ukraine, and the new chancellor has urged caution on the application of sanctions. But if Putin was counting on internal divisions to paralyze NATO, that is not happening. France’s President Macron has sought to position himself as an independent thinker on this issue, with his government showing more hesitation to describe a Russian onslaught as imminent.

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Nonetheless, the sanctions regime under discussion (and likely to come from the Western allies) would be sweeping and pack a punch. It ranges from financial sanctions that could target Putin cronies and make it difficult for Russia’s financial community to do business, to “novel” export controls blocking the sale to Russia of critical U.S. technologies and devices containing or manufactured by those technologies.

Such sweeping and decisive actions, combined with effective diplomacy, are a far cry from what Putin encountered when he entered Georgia in 2008 or Crimea in 2014.

Many top members of the Biden team served in the Obama administration during the 2014 Russian invasion and its aftermath. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of hand-wringing, anguished internal debates that came back then—debates which had been characterized as being about whether or not we should send the Ukrainians “blankets or MREs (meals, ready-to-eat).”

The Biden team has also apparently taken to heart criticism of its withdrawal from Afghanistan by not only preparing for every eventuality and communicating carefully with allies but also conducting a well-orchestrated public diplomacy plan that ensures their efforts have been visible to the public.

For all these preparations, it is clear that should Russia launch a massive new attack on Ukraine—compounding upon its 2014 aggression and the conflict that has continued ever since—it will be a blow to peace and stability in Europe unlike anything the continent has seen since the Berlin crisis of 1961. The destruction, human toll, and related costs to the people of Ukraine could be enormous. In the short-term Putin might weaken his neighbor’s military, send a vainglorious message about his own strength, and even achieve political goals within Ukraine. His allies in the U.S. and Europe (nativist and isolationist conservatives, Viktor Orban, and others) might even try to place the blame for these events on “Biden’s weakness.”

But, of course, the blame for whatever happens next in Ukraine is entirely on Vladimir Putin. Attacking his neighbor—again—would be a classic “war of choice.” He would meet fierce resistance. Concessions won at the point of a gun are unlikely to be sustained over the medium-to-long term.

Moreover, while Putin might have thought the U.S. was retreating from its leadership role—perhaps since Bush’s debacle in Iraq, through Obama and Trump, and onto Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan—he has already been proven to be wrong.

The U.S. has mounted a carefully-calibrated, multi-front diplomatic and security initiative. And despite the fact that managing a 30-member alliance can often feel like herding cats, the West has shown great common purpose, decisively resolving to rebuff Putin’s threats. While the media may focus on outliers, the big story is the level of close coordination and shared resolve.

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Putin might have initiated this potential conflict to object to the expansion of NATO, and to advance his goal of undoing the alliance altogether. But what he has already done—and what he may do next—could have precisely the opposite effect.

The brilliant Russia expert Fiona Hill has, in a New York Times op-ed, argued that “Putin has the U.S. right where he wants us.”

Hill suggests that this is in large part a result of the U.S. being weakened by internal divisions. Were those divisions to rear up to impede the Biden administration going forward, I would agree.

However, that is not what has happened so far and if the administration and the allies stay on course, Putin is likely to find not only that he has miscalculated gravely but that he has achieved the near-impossible: giving new purpose to an alliance that has been searching for a raison d’etre since the end of the Cold War.

Putin has reminded the world, and especially Europeans, of the threat he poses. He has mobilized NATO into strong action, with America in the lead. NATO may even emerge larger, with Sweden and Finland publicly contemplating membership.

In other words, at the end of all this, NATO and the West will be stronger, Putin will be more of a pariah, and Russia will emerge weakened and even further diminished.

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