For the second time in a year, Russia is mounting a major military buildup near its border with Ukraine. The last time, in March and April, did not result in an invasion, but Russian leader Vladimir Putin arguably got what he wanted: the world’s attention. In June, U.S. President Joe Biden held a summit with Putin in Geneva that was reminiscent of the Cold War days when Russia was a superpower like the United States.
Putin, who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century,” is eager to restore the level of influence his country has enjoyed, and he has the mineral wealth and military capabilities to achieve his objective. Once again, his military buildup has riveted the world. Headlines proclaim concerns about a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is warning Russia against further aggression.
The Specter of Invasion
It seems doubtful that Russia will try to invade and occupy all of Ukraine. Kyiv has an increasingly capable military, and, even if it is defeated, Russia does not want to find itself in another costly guerrilla war like the one in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Putin could more readily expand Russia’s zone of control in eastern Ukraine, perhaps linking the separatist region of Donbas with Crimea, which was occupied by Russian forces in 2014.
As noted by Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ukraine is integral to Putin’s hopes of reviving the old empire and creating “strategic depth” against invasion from the West. Putin published an ominous treatise in July describing Ukraine as an inalienable part of Russia, laying the justification for invading it if he so desires.
A Ramped-Up Role for NATO?
How should the United States and its allies respond to the latest threat of aggression against Ukraine? The most powerful deterrent in the West’s arsenal is NATO membership. The only countries that Putin has invaded—Georgia and Ukraine—are not NATO members. He has been careful to keep his aggression against NATO members (e.g., disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and naval and air operations near members’ borders) below the threshold of NATO’s collective defense provision, known as Article V.
Ukraine’s pro-West president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been pressing Washington for a timeline for Ukrainian accession to NATO, but he has so far been rebuffed. NATO has repeatedly proclaimed that no outside power (read Russia) will have a veto over NATO expansion, but a de facto Russian veto exists. Putin’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 made those countries too hot to handle for NATO: Most members, including the United States, do not want to expand the alliance to a country that is already locked in hostilities with Russia because they could be drawn into the fight.
But there is a good deal that the United States and its allies can do to buttress Ukraine against Russian aggression even without offering it an Article V guarantee. Biden has been off to a good start in this regard by hosting Zelensky at the White House and making clear that, as he put it, “The United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression.”
That is a welcome contrast from the Donald Trump administration, when the president held up military aid to Ukraine to try to force Zelensky to make unwarranted accusations of corruption against then candidate Biden. The United States has resumed military aid to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank missiles—first delivered by the Trump administration—that would be of great utility in fighting a Russian armored invasion. Since 2014, the United States has provided Ukraine with more than $2.5 billion in military assistance. The latest commitment, $60 million, was announced prior to Zelensky’s White House visit.
However, Biden needs to do more to increase the economic cost to Russia of its aggression. One of the biggest points of leverage is the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany underneath the Baltic Sea. It will bypass existing pipelines that run through Ukraine, depriving it of around one billion euros per year in transit payments. Nord Stream 2 will increase Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and leave Ukraine vulnerable to politically motivated Russian gas shutoffs.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration essentially threw in the towel on Nord Stream 2, lifting sanctions on the company building the pipeline and describing its construction as a fait accompli. But now, a German energy regulator has refused to certify the pipeline, raising fresh questions about its future. The Biden administration should reimpose sanctions related to the pipeline, as urged by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, while offering to provide Europe with more U.S. natural gas and help in its transition to renewable energy.
John McCain, the late U.S. senator, once described Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” The most effective way to hurt Putin—and protect Ukraine—could be at the pump.