Biegun: To avoid war, Biden and allies must deter Putin from invading Ukraine | Opinion

Stephen Biegun

With more than 100,000 Russian military forces on the borders of Ukraine, poised to launch an invasion at a moment’s notice, Europe is on the verge of a conflict, the scale of which has not been seen since World War II. President Joe Biden has been clear that he does not intend to deploy the United States military to defend Ukraine.

Certainly, the United States should make every possible effort to avoid becoming embroiled in a conflict with the Russian military, but an invasion of Ukraine has real potential to escalate to a military confrontation between NATO and Russia. 

Russia could declare an embargo on arms shipments to Ukraine and threaten to shoot down any aircraft, including American military transport planes, resupplying Ukrainian forces with military equipment. An invasion by the powerful Russian army could see retreating Ukrainian soldiers and equipment, possibly intermixed with refugees, pouring into the territory of neighboring NATO members with the Russian forces in hot pursuit. And Russian shelling or air strikes, mistaken or intentional, could quickly spread the conflict across the borders of NATO members Poland and Romania, both of which the United States is committed to defend.

The best way to ensure that Biden can deliver on his intention to avoid a direct war with Russia is to deter a war from starting. This is undoubtedly made harder by foreign policy blunders in the first year of Biden’s presidency. It is hard to argue that Putin’s appetite for aggression was not encouraged, and allies’ faith in American resolve undermined, by debacles like the chaotic and disastrous retreat from Afghanistan.

It has been a steep learning curve for the Biden administration, but after a rocky start to its foreign policy in its first year, there are many things it has gotten right in this crisis.  

The best way to ensure that President Biden can deliver on his intention to avoid a direct war with Russia is to deter a war from starting, Biegun writes.

The Biden administration deserves high marks for working in common cause with allies in Europe. Putin’s demands to close off any possibility of future NATO membership for Ukraine, and to cease all security cooperation with NATO members admitted to the Alliance since 1997, were quickly rejected. NATO has not spoken with such unity in a very long time.  

At the same time, the Biden administration has also rightly been open to discussing with Russia the potential, destabilizing effect from the deployment of both NATO and Russian conventional and nuclear forces into sensitive parts of Europe.  

To deter Russia, the United States and its allies have expedited the delivery of lethal military equipment and training to the Ukrainians to raise the military costs to Russia from an invasion. NATO has disclosed plans to reinforce NATO members that share a border with Russia and Ukraine. In close coordination with European partners, a punishing set of economic sanctions is poised to be activated should Russian President Vladimir Putin order his military to invade.  

Perhaps sanctions, which have become a tired tool that in recent years has failed to reverse Russian aggression elsewhere, will prove to be more effective as a deterrent than they have been as a punishment.  

Finally, Biden has made the smart decision to publicize in real time sensitive intelligence on Russian preparations to invade Ukraine. The release of American intelligence on Russian troop deployments, false flag attacks being planned by Russian operatives in parts of occupied Ukraine, and the British government’s outing of a possible Russian plot to replace the elected government of Ukraine with Russian sympathizers, have hopefully put Putin on his back foot. 

But there is still more that must be done if the United States and its allies are to send a convincing message of deterrence to Putin. Russian intelligence operatives and cyber criminals have sought for years to amplify political polarization in their democratic neighbors and more broadly among the democratic nations of the West.

Disinformation campaigns, false flag cyber operations, and illicit funding to extremist organizations have all been used to divide the citizens of democracies against themselves. Putin undoubtedly hopes to test Western resolve by again using these tactics.  

Democratic societies, and in particular the United States, must send to Putin the unambiguous message that we will not again fall victim to his malign activities. Our leaders must understand that we are fast approaching a moment of possible global crisis, and only by working together can we deter it. After five years of using Russia policy as a political stick with which to beat each other, Republicans and Democrats must urgently come together to show Putin our nation is of one mind to deter and, in the event of an invasion of Ukraine, defeat him.

Biden should convene at the White House as soon as possible the bipartisan leadership of the House of Representatives and the Senate to show a unified, bipartisan stance against Putin‘s aggression. 

Equally important, the president and congressional leaders, along with the elected leaders of America’s allies in Europe, must level with their own populations. Citizens need to understand that in the event of a Russian invasion, and ensuing sanctions against Russia, the United States, and especially its European allies, could see immediate, negative economic consequences.  

Trade and investment will be disrupted, and interruptions in energy flows from Russia to the West will lead to higher prices or even shortages, all the more challenging during the cold winter months. And in the aftermath of a Ukraine invasion, the threat that Russia would pose to adjacent members of NATO will require increased military spending and deployments to deter further Russian aggression.  

Stephen Biegun

By expressing a willingness to engage in diplomacy, NATO has offered Putin an exit from a crisis of his own making. By amplifying Western resolve and preparation to defeat his aggression, NATO can affect Putin’s calculus about invading Ukraine. But he must also see that members of NATO are unified at home, and that they have prepared their populations for what may come.  

Only then will Putin be convinced to take seriously the high toll that an invasion will take on his economy and his military, and perhaps even his own political standing in Russia. With that, Putin can be deterred.

Stephen Biegun, a Detroit native, has more than three decades of international affairs experience in both government and the private sector. He began as a congressional foreign policy specialist focused on Russia. He was deputy secretary of state from 2019-21 and previously served 15 years as corporate vice president for Ford Motor Co.