How to stop Putin in Ukraine

Six months after invading Ukraine, not much has gone right for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. But it’s dangerous for despots to admit defeat, so he’s doubling down on death and destruction in hopes of salvaging something he can call a win.

Having failed to topple Ukraine’s government or overwhelm its highly motivated defense forces on the ground, Putin is settling into a grinding war of attrition, featuring World War II-style leveling of cities and terror attacks on civilians.

His aim is to seize more land along Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders that adjoin territories already contested by pro-Russian separatists following Putin’s 2014 incursion. U.S. officials expect Moscow to declare its intent to “annex” the conquered terrain, just as it did with Crimea.   

In this way, Putin would have something to show Russians for the horrendous butcher’s bill he’s running up. CIA Director William Burns last week estimated that 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed so far and as many as 45,000 have been wounded.

Since Ukraine is fiercely resisting its piecemeal dismemberment and occupation by Russia, the fighting could continue indefinitely. Putin shows no interest in negotiating an end to the war, either because he still believes he can break Ukraine or, more likely, because he thinks a military stalemate works in his favor.

This calculation rests on unflattering assessments of the West’s strategic stamina. As long as the NATO countries keep supplying Kyiv with weapons and financial support and enforcing suffocating sanctions on Russia’s economy, Ukraine probably can hold out against its bigger and heavily armed neighbor.

So Putin is betting that Western solidarity will wilt as the civilian death toll mounts, the strain of accommodating 5 million Ukrainian refugees intensifies and the threat of Russian gas cut-offs fuel public demand across Europe to mollify Moscow.

Putin also may be counting on a Republican takeover of Congress this fall. This could fray the strong bipartisan coalition President Biden has built behind robust U.S. military and economic aid to Ukraine. Although GOP congressional leaders have opposed Putin’s aggression, a Republican victory would surely embolden “America First” nationalists who share former President Trump’s admiration for Putin, disdain for NATO and indifference to Ukraine’s fate.  

So, what can the United States and its NATO allies do to disabuse Putin of the idea that time is on his side?

First, they should speed up deliveries of advanced weapons to Ukraine. Biden has led the way, sending Kyiv $8 billion worth of military aid, including the HIMARS mobile rocket system. Ukrainian forces are using it to devastating effect against Russia’s arms depots, supply lines and command posts, but they complain that the slow pace of deliveries is allowing Russian forces to gain ground.

Britain and Poland also are major arms suppliers to Ukraine. But two major NATO powers, Germany and France, have been laggards. France, former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen tartly observes, has delivered only $160 million in military assistance, about the same as Denmark. These two EU leaders need to step up.

Second, take swift advantage of Sweden and Finland’s decision to abandon neutrality and join NATO. Although he professes not to care, this is a huge strategic setback for Putin, as it means Russia will soon have a new, 800-mile northern border with NATO. Strengthening NATO’s Nordic flank will complicate Moscow’s efforts to intimidate the Baltic states. “He wanted less NATO,” Rasmussen says of Putin. “He got more NATO.”

Third, the Atlantic allies should publicly declare that they will never recognize the legitimacy of Putin’s land grabs in Ukraine (excepting Crimea, which Soviet leaders “gifted” to Ukraine). They should also raise their defense spending to the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP, including resources to support prolonged Ukrainian resistance to Russian occupation.

Fourth, the allies should investigate and draw the world’s attention to Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Putin is employing the same barbarous tactics he used to crush the Chechen revolt in 1999 and pulverize anti-regime cities in Syria — indiscriminate shelling, airstrikes and cruise missile attacks intended to terrorize civilians. 

Ukrainian and European lawyers are collecting evidence to put before the International Criminal Court. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers are pressing a reluctant U.S. State Department to designate Russia as a “terrorist” state. Whether or not we take that momentous step, U.S. intelligence agencies should assist international efforts to create a public record of Russian war crimes and identify officers and specific units responsible for committing them.

Fifth, Washington should ramp up liquified natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe. As EU leaders belatedly realize, their heavy reliance on Russian oil and gas has become a huge political vulnerability. Beset by sharp rises in fuel prices, rationing and strikes, Europe fears a cold, dark “winter of discontent” if Putin turns off the gas.

The United States lacks the export infrastructure to quickly replace Russian gas. But steadily boosting U.S. exports could help Europe diversify its supplier base over the next three to five years, blunting Moscow’s ability to weaponize its vast reserves of oil and gas. Substituting U.S. LNG for dirty (methane-intensive) Russian gas also would help Europe make progress toward its ambitious carbon-reduction goals under the Paris accords.

These steps would demonstrate U.S. and European resolve to win today’s test of wills with Putin. If he succeeds in biting off large chunks of Ukraine and destabilizing the democratic government of Volodymyr Zelensky, he wouldn’t stop there. Moldova, another former Soviet province also plagued by pro-Russia separatists, fears that it will be next.

Putin’s bellicose expansionism poses the greatest threat to European peace and security since the Cold War ended. It will require sacrifice and steady nerves, but the NATO allies have all the tools they need to stop him in Ukraine.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).