When I became the supreme military commander at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2009, the alliance was focused on the war in Afghanistan. But one of the first senior delegations to visit me came to discuss Russia: the military chiefs of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
I’ll never forget the tone in their voices as they described the malevolence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They had the insiders’ view, as they had ascended through the ranks while their countries were part of the Soviet Union.
The three laid out a persuasive case that Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was a dress rehearsal for further operations against democracies bordering Russia. So we rewrote the alliance’s war plans for dealing with that possibility, significantly increasing the level of US support for Eastern Europe.
At the time, I felt Ukraine was a likely target — a close partner to NATO, but not an actual member. And in 2014, Putin’s military moved in and seized Crimea.
Seven years later, Putin is again setting in place the forces to strike Ukraine, as he seeks to fully sever its relationship with the West. What are the best tools the US and European democracies can use to deter him?
The first is intelligence and strategic communications. By gathering information from all sources (human, electronic, etc.), laying it out coherently and publicizing it globally, Washington can aim to rally a coalition intent on new and stronger punishments.
While the US government cannot reveal sources and methods, it can provide detailed, unclassified briefings, perhaps by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin or Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence. Photos of Russian forces in the field and heavy equipment are worth a thousand words.
Next is cyberwarfare. The National Security Agency and US Cyber Command are surely probing the likely command-and-control systems of a Russian invasion force. But total secrecy isn’t always the best approach: Ensuring the Russians can “see” American efforts moving through that domain, without revealing everything the US can and will do, should help them understand that an invasion will not be a layup. The Russians used cyberattacks very effectively in the earlier assaults on Georgia and Ukraine; they need to know that their advantage there has been blunted.
A third tool is economic. Yes, previous sanctions have not dissuaded the Russian leader. But in a two-hour discussion with Putin on Tuesday, Biden conveyed some of the “strong economic and other measures” in the event of military escalation.
These should include additional targeted steps by all Western democracies against the highest members of Putin’s inner circle; tighter sanctions on Russia’s state-owned banks and its oil and gas sector (recognizing the difficulty of all this given the European dependence on Russian energy); and far broader secondary sanctions against companies doing business in Russia — which would begin to cut Putin off from the global economy.
Finally, the administration must consider the so-called nuclear option: disconnecting Russia from the Swift international payment system used by banks around the world, a penalty that helped devastate Iran’s economy a decade ago.
In terms of aiding the Ukrainian military, the Pentagon is providing Biden with a significant menu: defensive but lethal missile systems that can stop tanks; motorized artillery and ground transports for troops; advanced drones with strike capability; basic ammunition; and other logistical support.
The Pentagon could even transfer a missile defense system to counter Russian surface-to-surface weapons. All this must be combined with sufficient US trainers and strategic advisers to assist Ukrainian military planners as they assess contingencies.
Finally, Putin despises the idea of Western troops stationed close to Russia. He is seeking security guarantees, including a pledge by NATO not to enlarge eastward, as the price of de-escalation. The West shouldn’t buy it: He should be told that an invasion of Ukraine would have the opposite effect, with a dramatic increase American forces in the Baltics, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. A flotilla of US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers currently stationed in Rota, Spain, could be redeployed to Greece and begin regular operational cruises into the Black Sea.
Putin has moved beyond saber-rattling, even if the likelihood of his launching an attack before the end of the year seems relatively low. He has invaded his democratic neighbors twice in the past 13 years. Letting him get away with it again could set the international system back decades.