Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness.
“Don’t go all wobbly, Joe,” a present-day Margaret Thatcher would doubtless be instructing U.S. President Joe Biden, as she once cautioned George H.W. Bush. In facing off against Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Biden needs to be much more decisive, much more muscular and much more threatening.
U.S. aircraft carriers need to start steaming toward the Black Sea. Battle-ready craft in the Baltic Sea should be positioned opposite Kaliningrad, Russia’s stranded enclave. American aircraft of all kinds should be flying to positions in Germany – within striking distance of western Russia.
Mr. Biden is a president who values peace and keeping American troops out of harm’s way. The United States’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan shows the extent to which he shuns combat – all worthy and supportable instincts.
But an unprincipled autocrat is now testing the United States, to see how willing it is to be strong, and to gauge whether the superpower has become (thanks to Trumpism) a deeply wounded and possibly thoroughly spent force. Mr. Biden cannot afford merely to murmur sanctions and send Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other American diplomats to endless talk fests with Russian diplomats who themselves have little influence over Mr. Putin’s drive. They, like the rest of us, hardly know what the Russian leader really wants to achieve by massing more than 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s eastern and now northern borders.
Moreover, bargaining with a despot such as Mr. Putin without putting skin in the game – without showing that the U.S. could respond militarily – weakens the possibility of what Mr. Biden wants most of all: avoiding war. Simply folding one’s hands and promising the kinds of sanctions that Mr. Putin can easily ignore – or merely accept as the cost of gaining his goals of global attention and prominence – is bad bargaining. Any game theorist or poker player knows as much.
Mr. Putin is a schoolyard bully. One hardly copes with such bullies by threatening to tell the teachers. Instead, one must face down the bully in real time by amassing the kinds of countervailing forces that will make him think twice about attacking weaker school chums.
By failing to make clear to the world that it is willing to mobilize its armed forces, the U.S. has already shown weakness, not the prudence that Mr. Biden presumably wants to express. Just as former president Barack Obama did when he drew his infamous “red line” around chemical weapons in Syria and then failed to follow through, so too does Mr. Biden reduce the effectiveness of leadership in the free world by refusing to use the only language that someone of Mr. Putin’s ilk truly respects.
The West failed to respond when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin is testing us once again to see how Russia (and Mr. Putin himself) can profit by putting Ukraine at risk.
The security of Ukraine and the freedom of Ukrainians to decide with whom they wish to be aligned are at issue. But Mr. Biden’s weaknesses and Mr. Putin’s cynicism have turned the conversation away from Ukrainian sovereignty to the false issue of NATO expansion. Mr. Putin should not be allowed to switch the subject from his own dangerous maneuverings to the keeping of peace within Europe, especially in Poland and the small Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Focusing on freeing much of Moldova from Russian domination, and maybe retrieving Crimea, are topics as important as what happens on the eastern flanks of NATO’s domain.
Mr. Biden is anxious not to provoke Mr. Putin, legitimately fearing that a conflict that could escalate into nuclear war. But it is clear that Mr. Putin is himself provoking the U.S. and the entire Western alliance. He needs to be shown that doing so has real military costs.
If Mr. Biden were finally to end his “wobbliness,” he would doubtless gain enormous political acclaim, just as Mr. Putin hopes being strong regarding Ukraine will help himself. Instead, Mr. Biden has so far delivered the impression of indecisiveness and timidity to the American public. Sending ships and aircraft toward Russia would make his political day at home and help to restore U.S. prestige abroad. It is time to show power.
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