Stephen Biegun: Pretending we're not at war with Russia has real risks

Stephen Biegun

Despite a few fits and starts in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has largely demonstrated solid leadership from intelligence, to analysis, to arms transfers, to the mobilization of allies, to sanctions. American leadership has mobilized a truly global pushback against Russia’s dangerous aggression against a democratic neighbor.

Watching this brutal campaign play out in Ukraine, many have asked, why? Why did Putin do this? And why now — or why then? On the timing, we are still searching for a satisfying answer. Something in Vladimir Putin’s timing is out of context, at least by the reckoning of many Russia experts.

In the past year, Putin transformed from a leader who seemed to feel that time was on his side to one who seems to feel he is running out of time. During the summer of 2021  U.S.-Russia relations were actually moving in a positive direction. After a little level-setting early in President Joe Biden’s term with sanctions against Russian election interference and the poisoning of Russia’s leading opposition politician, the United States and Russia were on a constructive path with a leader-level meeting and the launch of strategic nuclear stability talks. These initiatives had full buy-in from senior Russian officials. Last September, the Kremlin made it known that Putin felt his June 2021 Geneva meeting with Biden was both constructive and promising.

In the past year, Russian President Vladimir Putin transformed from a leader who seemed to feel that time was on his side to one who seems to feel he is running out of time, Biegun writes.

Administration officials were quietly building out areas of cooperation, with notable engagement on cybercrime and the breakup of a particularly dangerous group of Russian hackers. And yet, starting in October and into November of last year, the Russian military began a buildup on the borders of Ukraine with worrying implications.

Explanations as to why then — ranging from Putin’s personal pique with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over the jailing of a criminal Ukrainian oligarch close to Putin, to personal health problems for Putin (dispelled in public comments last week by both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence chiefs). None of these of these answers are proven, and none are satisfactory. 

Putin also behaved in an uncharacteristic manner at the start of this conflict. Despite being stripped of subterfuge and the element of surprise by the strategic sharing of U.S. intelligence, he impatiently launched the invasion in February. And the disastrous performance of the Russian Armed Forces in those early months is easily explained by the fact that this was an invasion planned by intelligence operatives, not by the military.

While we have yet to find a satisfying answer on the timing of this invasion, we can be more confident in our understanding of why. Of course, Putin was never evasive about his reasons. He sees Ukraine as a threat. Not a threat in the sense that we might understand it — a risk of invasion of our homeland or malicious designs on our system of government or economy. No, the threat Putin saw was anchored in his demand for control of Ukraine.

What Putin does not control threatens him. And he has not been shy of telling us that control of Ukraine is a Russian birthright. He also shares the views expressed in Thucydides’ classic History of the Peloponnesian War, that the strong do what they can and the weak endure what they must.

But there is a dangerous disconnect among American leaders and the American public. More than us simply supporting Ukraine against an invasion from Russia, we have not understood that we, too, are at war with Russia. Incidentally, that is a view shared by Putin, and perhaps it was his view even before Feb. 24.  

This really needs to sink in for all of us. The United States and the Russian Federation are at war.  

For us it is not yet a direct, kinetic war, but if we look at the range of possible outcomes in this war, direct combat between our two nations certainly must be considered a strong possibility, especially if Russia at some moment faces the prospect of battlefield reversals or even by any definition, defeat.

Do not for a moment assume that Putin does not want this war to spread, nor that he would be unhappy if it included new actors. When he concludes that he cannot solve the problem at hand, he will enlarge the problem.

This is more than semantics. There are real dangers in the fact that Vladimir Putin believes — and has openly expressed — that he is at war with us but we do not believe that we are at war with him. 

Why is that a worry? Because Putin is seeking to win a war against us at the same time we are ostensibly making decisions in consideration of avoiding a war with Russia.

There are real self-constraints and consequences that can derive from this asymmetry. It influences how we design our policies for this conflict. It can influence the speed at which we add incrementally to our support for the Ukrainians. It can lead us to self-limit, to take half measures, and it creates opportunities for Putin to exercise both an element of surprise and to achieve escalation dominance — always keeping us on the defensive.

Top experts on Russia have recently laid out a convincing case that the Russian economy is imploding, and experts like former White House official Fiona Hill recently suggested Putin has less time than he might think. But despite these otherwise encouraging assessments, this will make him even more dangerous. He cannot win the war he wanted to fight, but he also cannot afford to lose the war he is in.

This war is not likely to end with a quick Ukrainian victory, and with our help we must ensure that for Ukraine it does not end with a Russian victory.  Most experts believe that some form of stalemate around the contested areas of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine is the most likely outcome, at least in the short term.

But this will not be a stable peace nor an end to this war. And despite a stalemate, or even because of it, the more time he has, the more Putin will and can test Ukraine, us and the unity of our allies in the days and weeks ahead.

We already have brutal Russian aggression against Ukraine. But many are also deeply concerned with the possibility that similar Chinese aggression against Taiwan may not be far off.  And looming in the shadows is the risk of a conflict with Iran, where Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon may invite a preventative attack by Israel.  

There are many imminent and near crises in the world that could once more find America in a larger, even world war. All efforts should be made through diplomacy and other peaceful means to resolve these disputes. But deterrence and preparation for the worst case are also urgent.

This means planning, strategy, budgets, allies, even the potential deployment of forces and, above all, earning the support of the American people. As was said by the Roman general Vegetius, “Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum” (if you seek peace, prepare for war). The Biden administration has provided strong leadership abroad. It is now time for them to provide that same leadership at home.

Stephen E. 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, and most recently served as deputy secretary of state from 2019-21. Biegun is a visiting policy practitioner with the Weiser Diplomacy Center at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. The views expressed here are his own.