Vladimir Putin declared in 2005 that “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” was not World War I, or World War II, or Mao Zedong’s takeover of China, or the Cold War — all cataclysmic global events that, collectively, killed hundreds of millions of people and enslaved more than a billion. No, in Putin’s worldview, the historic tragedy was the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which liberated a score of European countries and almost 300 million of their captive populations from Soviet tyranny.
Less than three years later, Putin reprised Adolf Hitler’s revanchism after World War I and the Versailles Treaty to reverse what he saw as an intolerable chapter in world history. Months after NATO expressed support in 2008 for Georgia and Ukraine to become members, Russia invaded and occupied parts of Georgia.
When the Bush administration and NATO effectively acquiesced, he prepared for his next move in reconstituting the Soviet Union. President Obama in 2009 announced a “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations and, in 2012, promised Putin greater U.S. “flexibility.” In 2014, Russia responded by invading Eastern Ukraine and seizing Crimea. Again, the West did nothing that would reverse or meaningfully punish Russia’s aggression. Putin commenced preparations for Phase 3 of his imperial revival project.
As Russia massed forces for the next invasion of Ukraine in 2021, Washington — with intelligence that foresaw all Putin’s moves — just watched it happen. Transfixed, the Biden administration congratulated itself on its accurate predictions but was unwilling to take direct or timely action with NATO to stop the aggression.
Instead, Washington threatened unprecedented economic sanctions, which national security adviser Jake Sullivan contended would succeed after the Russian attack — not to prevent its expansion, but simply to impose an economic cost on Russia. Biden later said he knew all along the sanctions would “never work” to deter or constrain Putin.
Meanwhile, Biden continued to deny Ukraine a NATO no-fly zone and to withhold the most urgently needed weapons it sought — a policy that originated in the Obama administration and was only modestly changed under President Trump.
Ukraine has brilliantly and bravely exploited the limited range of defensive weapons the West has sent, as well as its own domestically-produced arms, such as the indigenous Neptune anti-ship missiles which, with the help of U.S. intelligence, sank Russia’s Black Sea flagship.
Nevertheless, despite Ukraine’s dramatic success in protecting the capital city of Kyiv and thwarting Russian offensives elsewhere, the disparity in weapons and Russia’s overwhelming advantage in force numbers is taking its toll and maintaining Russia’s strategic advantage.
Though a costly victory, Russia eventually captured the port city of Mariupol and retained its Black Sea blockade. It continues to make incremental but steady gains in the Donbas region, threatening a wide encirclement of Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly requests heavier and longer-range systems that would enable Ukraine to push Russian forces away from cities and military assets. But the Biden administration adheres to its policy of withholding weapons that Putin might find “provocative” — when, of course, all forms of Western aid, including rhetorical and moral support, are anathema to Putin and incur his Hitlerian rage and resentment.
As Putin’s forces move inexorably forward in eastern Ukraine, Washington and some other NATO capitals — e.g., Berlin, Paris, Rome — waste precious time and energy obsessing over the precise level of military support they can provide to prevent both Ukraine’s collapse and Russia’s defeat and humiliation. The armaments calibration is intended to engineer a stalemate that will incentivize both parties to compromise and offer Putin a face-saving off-ramp.
Henry Kissinger, the ultimate national security “realist,” made the case for accommodating — some say, appeasing — Putin in virtual remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.
“Negotiations need to begin in the next two months before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily overcome. Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” he said, meaning the respective territorial control that existed just before Russian forces invaded on Feb. 24, but not before Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. What cannot be “returned” to the situation before Russia’s invasions, of course, are the thousands of Ukrainian lives lost and ruined, or the cities and historic places destroyed.
Kissinger added this warning: “Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.” Apparently, he believes Ukraine’s freedom is divisible and applies only to areas not controlled by Russia on Feb. 24.
Moreover, Ukraine does not intend, or need, to attack Russia itself — just uninvited Russians in Ukraine. And, as with Hitler, any territorial concession would merely constitute a pause in the aggressor’s pursuit of his master plan. Presumably, part of Kissinger’s negotiating inducements would be the permanent exclusion of Ukraine, Georgia and any other aspiring country to membership in NATO. But Putin has indicated he wants to see NATO’s eventual rollback to the 1997 security situation.
Kissinger has demonstrated his negotiating prowess before, when he and Communist China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, hammered out the Shanghai Communique, whose clever wordsmithing on Taiwan’s status has emboldened China and bedeviled the West ever since — and brought China-Taiwan and China-U.S. conflict ever closer. Kissinger has spent the ensuing five decades prevailing upon subsequent U.S. administrations to hew to an interpretation of the arrangement most favorable to Beijing — as in his warning to Taiwan in 2007 that “China will not wait forever” for its surrender to communist rule.
Kissinger also earned a Nobel Peace Prize for managing the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, which encouraged congressional termination of U.S. funding and left America’s South Vietnamese ally defenseless against North Vietnam’s massive final onslaught, not the graceful exit for which he was willing to trade away Taiwan’s sovereignty. Soviet-U.S. detente also turned out to be a mirage as Moscow pressed its advantage in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
Biden would be well-advised to heed instead the urgings of Ukraine’s heroic President Zelensky, who is at the forefront of the titanic struggle between freedom and autocracy that Biden has described. It would serve Washington in good stead for the next campaign in that competition — the freedom and security of Taiwan against the hostile intentions of China under Xi Jinping, Putin’s “no-limits strategic partner” in opposing the liberal international order.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.