Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine deserves universal condemnation. In my view, any U.S. politician who defends Putin is unredeemable.
There are some legitimate policy issues surrounding what America’s response to Putin should be. The stakes are immense—the preservation of the post World War II world order, in which war to seize territory from another sovereign country was unacceptable. Given these stakes, it is difficult to imagine an economic or political sanction that is too severe.
Some would argue that these sanctions should have been imposed as Putin built up his forces to prepare for the invasion. I am not sure that that would have made a difference, but we will never know. The problem is that to be effective sanctions require coordination among our allies and I am not sure that we would have been able to get that coordination before an actual attack.
Others would argue that we should have been more aggressively arming Ukraine for years. I think that is unambiguously true and there is much bi-partisan blame that can be spread around regarding that issue.
Looking forward, I think that Putin has succeeded in making it clear that building up NATO and strengthening NATO’s forces in the former Soviet states is, and always has been, essential to maintaining peace in Europe. Putin’s claim that the expansion of NATO is a threat to Russia has been stripped of any credibility by his own actions in Georgia and Ukraine and by his rhetoric with respect to the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.
Putin appears to be following in the footsteps of Hitler by using the presence of ethnic Russians in these countries as a pretext for aggression, much as Hitler used the presence of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia as a pretext for invading that country at the beginning of World War II. Those who ask what national interest we have in Ukraine, might well have asked what national interest Britain, France and the U.S. had in Czechoslovakia in the 1930’s. If Hitler had been met with united resistance, the carnage of World War II might well have been avoided. Putting that aside, the United States and the UK were parties to the agreement between Russia and Ukraine in 1994, in which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons to Russia in return for a guarantee of territorial integrity.
At this point, any treaties or international agreements that Russia enters into must be viewed as worthless pieces of paper, not unlike the one signed by Hitler and Neville Chamberlain at Munich.
Any trade agreements with Russia must be viewed as weapons of war meant to make the West dependent on Russia. Unfortunately, this should have been clear to Germany before they shut down their nuclear power sector and made themselves dependent on Russian natural gas. It must be remembered, however, that that dependence is a two way street. If Russian gas exports are included in the sanctions imposed on Russia, the long-term effects would be devastating for Russia. Roughly 70% of Russian gas exports go to Europe and unlike oil, it is very difficult, in the short term, to redirect those exports elsewhere. There will be some pain in terms of higher oil and gas prices if Russian gas supplies are embargoed but it is never painless to resist an aggressive bully like Putin, Hitler, or Stalin. The U.S. should do all that it can to limit the pain for Europe by drawing down oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, facilitating exports of liquified natural gas to Europe, and enabling the U.S. oil and gas sectors to maximize their near term production.
What is important at this point is making sure that, whatever Putin had hoped to obtain by invading Ukraine, he experiences a far worse outcome for himself, for the oligarchs who support him, and for Russia. A united NATO with overwhelming forces stationed on his border is a start. A Russian energy sector denied outlets for Russia’s only valuable export is a start. Freezing his assets and those of the Russian oligarchs and their families is a start. Crippling Russian financial markets is a start. Denying Russia access to western technology is a start. Arming Ukraine with every lethal weapon possible to defend themselves is a start.