Flexing US muscle over Ukraine best way to deter alpha male Vladimir Putin
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Flexing US muscle over Ukraine best way to deter alpha male Vladimir Putin

Originally published in the Weekend Australian.

Russia’s brazen attempt to force Ukraine into submission by threatening its territory and freedoms must be resisted.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin successfully imposes his will on an independent nation by force of arms or a manufactured political coup then the sovereignty of all nations is jeopardised. It would validate the use of coercive power, encourage dictators around the world, destabilise Europe, trigger another refugee crisis and send financial markets into free fall. And you can kiss goodbye to what remains of the rules-based order.

That’s why Ukraine matters for Australia.

Imagine if China threatened to invade Vietnam should it attempt to join ANZUS, and insisted that the US withdraw its military from bases in Japan and South Korea while promising not to deploy weaponry of which China disapproved.

That’s essentially what Russia is demanding of the US in its negotiations. Putin wants NATO to rule out Ukrainian membership, roll back its presence in eastern Europe and agree not to deploy offensive weaponry. But apparently it’s OK for Russia to mass more than 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine and conduct cyber strikes against its neighbour with impunity.

Let’s concede this to Putin. It was unwise of the US and Europe to allow the rapid eastwards expansion of NATO after the Cold War when Russia was weak. This served only to fuel Russian paranoia and Putin’s determination to make Russia great again. After all, this is the man who decried the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

But there is no immediate likelihood that Ukraine would be accepted into NATO, as Putin well knows. No country has the right to determine another’s foreign policy choices. If Russia hadn’t decided to annex Crimea illegally in 2014 and Balkanise eastern Ukraine, then Kiev wouldn’t feel the need for NATO protection.

The argument that NATO is an anachronism and Europe should be left to handle Russian aggression is flawed. NATO’s relevance has never been greater despite the reluctance of Europeans adequately to fund their own security. Would Russia be threatening Ukraine now if it were a member of NATO? Unlikely, because it would guarantee what Putin is most afraid of – a united European and American defence of Ukraine.

Preserving Ukraine’s independence cannot be left to a divided and weak Europe. If Putin had only Europe to worry about he would have occupied Ukraine long ago. It is only the threat of US retribution that has constrained him so far.

Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s vacillation has made the situation worse. Although defensive arms are beginning to flow into Ukraine, they are insufficient and verging on being too late.

Biden should have beefed up Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself months ago when US intelligence first began to detect the Russian military build-up.

The defensive weapons needed to counter Russia’s overwhelming military superiority should include more antitank missiles, portable air defence systems, electronic warfare capabilities, armed drones and counter-drone systems. They should be supported with actionable battlefield intelligence to provide early warning of attack and help the Ukrainian armed forces survive an initial Russian onslaught should it come to this.

What Putin wants to avoid is a war of attrition and a bloody occupation – the sum of all his fears. If he believes this is probable, he is unlikely to start a war. “Arm to deter” should be Biden’s mantra.

Deploying additional US troops to Europe would give Putin cause to pause. So would sanctions, especially if they include the immediate suspension of the Nord Stream 2 project built to supply Europe with Russian natural gas. It’s pointless waiting until after an invasion to apply sanctions. Better to deter than punish.

Biden also must get into Putin’s head to better understand how Russia’s President of everything thinks and sees the world. Despite his poker face and KGB penchant for secrecy, Putin is no Vladimir come lately. He has been running Russia for nearly a quarter of a century and Western intelligence has voluminous files on the man and his beliefs.

Putin is a calculating pragmatist, once described in a leaked US diplomatic cable as “an alpha male”. He is also an uber nationalist, wedded to the idea of Russia as a great power, resentful of the US and determined to re­incorporate Ukraine into “sacred Rus” despite its distinctive history, culture and hard-won independence. The problem, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says, is that Putin is “laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn’t believe that Ukraine is a sovereign nation”.

The whole thrust of the West’s strategy for deterring an invasion must be to change Putin’s risk calculations. These are in the balance as he weighs his options. Alpha males respect strength, not prevarication. That’s why a tougher response is required. This is not an argument for eschewing diplomacy but for reinforcing it with targeted economic, financial and military action.

Blinken’s diplomatic strategy is the right one. Deter Russia from invading and then talk sensibly about Russia’s grievances and concerns without a gun to the head. Blinken has already indicated a willingness to negotiate missile reductions in Europe and engage on the Minsk protocols that permit a special status for the separatist-controlled provinces of eastern Ukraine. But Russia must reciprocate. This means listening to Ukraine’s concerns and respecting its independence.

For those who mistakenly think Ukraine’s future does not concern Australia, consider this. A Russian invasion could precipitate the most serious global crisis since Nikita Khrushchev recklessly dispatched ballistic missiles to Cuba in 1962, aimed at the US. Russian policy is to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to de-escalate a regional crisis that threatens Russia’s security. So, a nuclear conflict over Ukraine can’t be ruled out.

And don’t forget that Xi Jinping is watching all this with interest. If Putin successfully invades Ukraine and weathers the resultant storm then Xi will conclude that China could do the same with Taiwan. And that may not be the end of it.

Areas of expertise: Political and strategic developments in East Asia; transnational security issues; intelligence; Australian national security and defence