Just before I became Supreme Allied Commander at NATO in 2009, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia, a small, democratic, former Soviet Republic in the Caucuses. He used a trumped up “incident” and crushed his tiny neighbor, a country with only 3 million citizens. Russia then essentially annexed two small parts of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia by encouraging them to declare “independence” and then coming to their protection.
In 2014, just after I completed four years at NATO, he did it again, this time invading a much larger neighbor, Ukraine, and annexing Crimea. That invasion has led to over 14,000 deaths (and counting) and a virulent insurgency against the Ukrainian government in the Donbas region of southeast Ukraine.
Now, essentially completing the invader’s hat trick, he has attacked a neighbor for the third time, and has again used the “independence” route to cobble up a rationale for the invasion. The break-away “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk are now recognized by Russia, and “peacekeepers” in the form of Russian troops have again invaded a sovereign neighbor.
Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, said once that when someone shoots at you, the first time may be happenstance, the second time coincidence, but the third time is enemy action. It is time for the West to see Putin for what he is: a serial violator of national borders who wants to unwind the international order and restore what he can of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
What can the west do to stop him? How do we tear up the Putin playbook?
First and most simply, the U.S. and the democratic nations globally must shine a light on the actions of this rogue regime. If a burglar is approaching the house, light up the terrain surrounding it. The Biden Administration has done this well, utilizing massive dumps of intelligence and data, staying a step ahead of the Russians in terms of revealing their plans.
Next, and equally simply, the world’s democracies must sanction Putin’s Russia across the spectrum of economic activity: disconnection from the SWIFT system, a ban on dealing with every significant sector of the Russian economy, personal sanctions on high ranking government officials, senior military, and especially the oligarch class. These sanctions should include banning international travel to any democratic country. Let them move their yachts from Monte Carlo to a nice slip in the Bander Abas Yacht Club in Iran. There should be nothing but air whistling through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline for the foreseeable future, and the Germans are stepping up to ensure that is the case.
A third action would be increasing military aid to the Ukrainians. I know their military well, and their soldiers deployed on NATO missions under my command. They are brave and professional, and will fight—especially with their families and neighbors behind them and the Russians ahead of them. There is still time to move significant levels of material (notably anti-air and anti-armor systems) into Ukrainian hands—ship it to L’viv in the far west, which Putin is unlikely to seriously threaten given the vast size of Ukraine.
Prepare for the worst case scenarios: the fall of Kyiv and the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Ukraine. This means having an evacuation plan for President Zelensky and his team; a preset fallback position (initially L’viv and then perhaps back further to a NATO capital, say Warsaw or London); construct a rudimentary command and control network to run a credible resistance in the Ukrainian dominated portions of the country; and provide financial support to keep the current Ukrainian embassies and the network of ambassadors at the U.N. and other international organizations functional. Much as Charles de Gaulle continued to carry the flame of France during the Nazi occupation, Ukraine should be afforded a similar opportunity.
Outside of the borders of Ukraine, show Putin the steel and determination of NATO. While the alliance isn’t going to go to war in Ukraine, it must strengthen our defenses in the east. Activate the NATO Response Force and deploy it into nations on the Ukrainian and Russian borders; increase the level of intelligence gathered and shared across the alliance; conduct a new round of border defense exercises; deploy NATO’s Standing Naval Task Force into the Black Sea; and aggressively conduct air policing around the borders of the Alliance, especially in the Arctic which Putin values greatly. And it would be a good time to quietly encourage Finland and Sweden—both of whom have powerful, professional, and capable militaries—to join the alliance.
Finally, there is a strong case to be made that the battlefield may shift to cyber. Moving tanks, jet fighters, and armored personnel carriers full of troops is expensive, and Putin’s financial reserves, while significant, are not unlimited. But electrons are a “free good” in terms of costs, and he may choose to attack Ukraine directly (especially its electric grid) or even conduct a horizontal escalation against the U.S. and NATO. The U.S. and our partners in cyber must be ready to “go offensive” to stop Putin. This may end up being the most dangerous part of the conflict.
The Putin playbook is actually pretty tired and utterly obvious at this point. We know what we need to do, and even with the risk of escalation, we need to muster the will to stop Putin from simply annexing the rest of Ukraine—he will not stop unless he faces real consequences.
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