Putin Has Told Us What He Fears
And that offers the U.S. and its allies a path forward to help Ukraine.
As the Ukrainian military and armed citizenry fight against their Russian invaders, political leaders across the West are once again scrambling to respond to a Vladimir Putin gamble. On Friday, President Joe Biden announced a new round of sanctions against Russian banks and entities as the Pentagon sent more American troops to Europe to reinforce NATO along its eastern front. Yesterday, the U.S. and its allies announced major new sanctions on Moscow, including cutting Russia out of the SWIFT financial transaction system and freezing some of its central bank’s assets.
Although sanctions are an important tool for constraining the Kremlin’s resources and ability to exert power, overemphasizing them can be a distraction. Putin has already told us and shown us what he fears, and that is where the U.S. and its allies should focus its attention.
Sanctions are a helpful indicator of international opposition to Russian aggression and, one hopes, a booster to Ukrainian morale, but the most severe sanctions will cause significant collateral damage and destroy any chance of forming a united front against Putin. Preventing Russian entities from exporting oil and gas is the most severe option available, but it will backfire tremendously without crippling Russian finances. Over the past several years, Russia has accumulated about $630 billion in currency reserves, which is enough to make up for Russia's 2021 oil and gas revenues five times over. Many of those assets have now been frozen, but it is not clear yet to what extent exemptions will allow more flexibility for Moscow’s central bankers. Even so, taking an action that will not yield much effect for some time is not always a bad idea if the long-term benefits are worth it.
In this case, they are not worth it at all. Largely because of a series of bad decisions made over the past half-century, many European countries, including Germany, are utterly dependent on natural gas from Russia to power their factories and heat their homes. Americans get upset when the price of gas increases too much; imagine the political backlash in Europe next winter if Russian gas is not available. Even if the European leaders enacted these sanctions, the result would be to cause immense suffering in Central and Western Europe that would discredit the politicians who enacted the sanctions and make hawkishness toward Russia a political nonstarter. For this reason, even yesterday’s sanctions leave allowances for oil and gas payments. Germany's decisions to freeze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and arm the Ukrainians are late, but commendable, and the U.S should encourage Chancellor Scholz to take more productive steps rather than punish him.
Finding alternative sources of energy for Europe is a strategic necessity. In this respect, the Biden administration is working at cross purposes. In late January, the U.S. designated Qatar as a “major non-NATO ally,” in part to ensure that European nations will have another source for natural gas should Putin reduce or cut off access from Russia. The move will not sit well with many Americans, but steps like this will be necessary, particularly given other steps the administration has made. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently announced it would increase scrutiny for American natural gas pipelines to address climate change, and the administration withdrew support for a Greece-Cyprus-Israel gas pipeline. While that might be a mistake, there was little possibility that that project would be viable without Turkish involvement. One suspects that recent events will have made Ankara more interested in a deal.
Rather than take counterproductive steps, the U.S. and its NATO allies should take advantage of Putin’s fears, fears that he has revealed during his time in office.
The first is to make the war in Ukraine as punishing and brutal for the Russian invaders as possible. Stereotypes about Russian indifference to life notwithstanding, Putin goes to extraordinary lengths to hide from the Russian people the costs of his foreign adventures. During the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops were secretly buried, and shadowy figures attacked BBC journalists who were investigating the story. Similarly, fighters belonging to the mercenary Wagner Group that allegedly attacked American forces (and were slaughtered in response) disappear on the job disturbingly frequently without their family members learning anything about their ultimate fate. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has suggested that the Russian army’s mobile crematoria are meant to help hide the invasion’s death toll.
To capitalize on this dynamic, NATO should give any Ukrainian willing to resist Russian aggression the means not just to kill or capture Russian troops but also to disseminate information about those casualties. More weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, and other materiel are necessities, but so are the means to communicate with other Ukrainian fighters and the outside world. Training volunteers to employ some of the devices and methods used against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan can be done remotely. We should have realistic expectations about Ukrainian resistance, however. The CIA has allegedly been training Ukrainians to conduct an insurgency, but a previous attempt in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not fare well. We do not know, and cannot yet know, how long Ukrainian resistance will last. The goal should be to encourage more of the anti-war protests that are already occurring and to stress the regime.
The next step should be to focus on one of Putin’s sore spots: corruption. Currently, Putin’s most formidable domestic opponent is anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who survived a nerve agent attack and has been imprisoned. During the sham proceedings, he released a documentary about one of the palaces Putin has built with his ill-gotten gains. Ostentatiously releasing some intelligence on the location and uses of his funds is a way to warn Putin that the U.S. can encourage his opposition and threaten his rule if he pushes us too far.
Finally, we should take Putin’s various pretexts for war seriously. He is not lying when he says that many Russians view NATO’s expansion with alarm; for the last several centuries, the Russian state has tried to ward off potential threats to the homeland by expanding outward. Asking Russians to interpret the approach of an alliance that is largely responsible for the dissolution of their empire as a favorable change in the international environment is asking quite a lot. However, the Russian desire for security through expansion conflicts not only with the national aspirations of the people who the Russians wish to rule, but also with the American interest in preventing an adversary from dominating Europe.
American and Russian interests are incompatible, and for that reason there will be innumerable grounds for conflict even if Putin conquers Ukraine. He will fear U.S. power as expressed through NATO. The key is to make him fear it enough to avoid challenging it.
The treaty he attempted to impose in December is more of a demand for surrender than a basis for serious negotiation, but it did tell us what Moscow fears: missiles and nuclear weapons. Moscow demanded that both parties refrain from “deploying their armed forces and armaments” where the other objects, “flying heavy bombers equipped for nuclear or non-nuclear armaments or deploying surface warships of any type” outside their borders, or staging “ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles outside their national territories.” This is a classic diplomat’s trick of using neutral-sounding language to undercut an opponent’s strengths, in this case the U.S. alliance network.
In his war speech, Putin aired more of his grievances. Missile defense bases in Romania and Poland could also host cruise missiles; the U.S. Navy’s SM-6 missile system can not only defend from other missile attacks, it can also hit ground targets. He complained falsely that Ukraine was about to let in NATO aircraft and radar systems, and warned that since the U.S. has withdrawn from the INF Treaty, intermediate-range American nuclear weapons could hit Moscow in minutes. All told, “it is like a knife to the throat.”
Putin has good reason to fear these systems: They will negate most of his strengths. Long-range missiles can help blunt his threat of invasion. Like the Wehrmacht, which was a curious mix of high-tech equipment for blitzkrieg and horse-drawn carriages that a Roman legionnaire would have found familiar, Russia’s army is a hybrid that boasts some of the most formidable weaponry known to man, all of which depends on railroads for transportation. If attacked, NATO defenders could cripple an invading Russian force by launching missiles at vital points on railways, such as bridges, and then kill or capture the Russians as they run out of food, fuel and ammunition. Russian troops are getting stranded on Ukraine’s highways against an adversary without much deep-strike capability; imagine the havoc NATO missiles could wreak.
To escape this dilemma, Putin could resort to nuclear blackmail. The Soviets tried this maneuver in the 1970s when they deployed intermediate-range SS-20 missiles to threaten Western Europe with nuclear destruction and then daring the U.S. to respond with an all-out nuclear war. The U.S. responded by creating and deploying Pershing II missiles that negated this strategy and then by negotiating the INF Treaty that stood until the Russians cheated on it and the U.S. withdrew.
Because the Defense Department has not focused on fighting an industrialized enemy for some time, U.S. forces are missing many of the tools they need for a high-intensity conflict. This must change, and soon: Increasing defense spending to 4 percent of GDP, which is still well below Cold War levels, would give the Pentagon adequate funds to field the forces it needs to put Eastern Europe and Taiwan out of danger. The holiday from history is over; defense spending must rise as we acknowledge this fact.
Asia-first hawks have argued that the U.S. should not add more troops to NATO, and some assert that the U.S. should withdraw more forces. This is strategically shortsighted: since George Kennan wrote the Long Telegram in 1946, it has been clear that the American international position has depended on preventing another power from establishing hegemony over the industrialized regions of Europe and Asia. Although Europe’s place in the global economy is diminishing, it is still a vital component of it.
Putin clearly enjoys negotiating while holding a knife to his opponent’s throat. It is time to return the favor.
Mike Watson is the associate director of Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.