Russian President Vladimir Putin is like a compulsive poker player who can’t stop testing his luck. Every time he gets a good card, he can’t help but raise the bet.
This is what he’s doing in threatening Ukraine. And he may wind up over-betting his hand and losing badly.
Putin holds two good cards: force and energy. If the transatlantic community commits to strengthening its deterrent forces—strategic as well as conventional—and building real energy security that allows Europe access to affordable and reliable energy, Putin will be left with a losing hand.
Confrontation and Crisis
The Ukraine crisis is not just about Ukraine. The Russians have told us so. On Dec. 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered an ultimatum demanding that NATO< guarantee it would never admit Ukraine… and Belarus… and Sweden… and Finland as member nations.
The ultimatum, as well as subsequent Russian communiqués, have been economical with words but rich with demands. Moscow seems convinced it has the upper hand in negotiations with the West. Apparently, it has come to believe in the moral decline of the West and that NATO has no political will to help defend Ukraine from invasion.
Putin’s risky bid to destabilize and exploit Europe is nothing new from Moscow. Soviet leaders placed reckless bets too, starting with the Berlin Wall and the attempt to starve West Berlin. It was a big gamble—and a poor one. It led President Kennedy to organize an air bridge operation that broke the blockade and started the long-term reintegration of Germany into the rest of Western Europe.
Moscow also tried to best the West in the space race. Yuri Gagarin’s first flight in cosmos, coupled with the Kremlin’s space weaponization program, mobilized U.S. government, industry and universities to build an American space program that not only surpassed Russia’s, but yielded unprecedented advances for American industry.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the best example of a bad bet by Moscow. The attempt to place nuclear warheads on the island led to the first nuclear crisis, ending in a humiliating Russian withdrawal. The incident set back relations between the superpowers for many years.
Back in Europe, the failed assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II—masterminded by Bulgarian security services but inspired by the Kremlin—was a traumatic event for the Pope’s homeland. But instead of breaking the spirit of the Poles, as intended, it united the nation in faith, courage, and determination to carry on the work of John Paul II. The Pope’s words in Warsaw—”Do not be afraid!”—would prove instrumental to the 10 million-strong Solidarity movement which eventually helped overthrow communist rule in Poland in 1989.
In Ukraine, in 2014 Putin won Crimea and Donetsk, but lost the Ukrainian people. The invasion strengthened the bonds of Ukrainian nationalism, which in practice did not exist before. It also led Kyiv to build one of the most powerful and resolute armies in Europe which is determined to resist another invasion and, in 10 years’ time, take back from Russia what is hers.
How to Handle Russia
Getting Russia right is important to the transatlantic community. Yes, China is the biggest threat the free world today. And Europe must also contend with problems spilling over from the Middle East—particularly the Islamist threats from Iran and elsewhere.
Moscow, Beijing, and the Islamists all want the same thing: a disbanded transatlantic community and a weakened, disorganized, vulnerable Europe. Taking Putin’s bullying out of the mix makes their job a lot harder.
Europeans and the Americans can do this. They have done it before. Indeed, they’ve done it just this past year, when Putin’s political puppet, Alexander Lukashenko, launched an unprecedented hybrid attack on the eastern border of the European Union. Taking advantage of desperate and naive immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, the Belarusian president drove them across the borders, hoping to create a political crisis and destabilize eastern Europe. The crisis would have been quite handy for a Russian leader planning to attack Ukraine just a hundred or two hundred kilometers further east.
In the past, similar provocations have found fertile ground among various left-wing organizations. Some out of the compassion, others for money, would help Moscow by stirring divisive debate in Europe. There was no shortage of that this time, either. However, the cynicism and callousness of Lukashenka actions convinced Brussels and most European capitals to support Poland and Lithuania in their effort to defend their borders.
Both countries received strong moral and logistical support. Europe was again united. Putin had overplayed his hand.
The same happened again at this month’s NATO summit with Russia. All NATO countries stood their ground, united and speaking with one voice for the first time in several years.
Regardless of how Ukraine plays out, we have seen again Putin’s two most potent weapons for messing with the West: force and energy. Those have to be checkmated. NATO needs to ramp up conventional and strategic deterrence. Every member of the alliance must step up and make good on their promised contributions to the common defense. Further, the U.S. has to be an active partner in forward defense, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
The transatlantic community also needs energy security: a vibrant energy private sector that delivers reliable, affordable energy. Everything needs to be in the mix—robust U.S. exports, natural gas exploration and development in Europe, nuclear energy, even clean coal where it makes sense. There is no need for Europe to abandon a transition to green energy, but this must be done in a more responsible and prudent manner. An attempt to transition while heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil, would leave Europe wide open to energy blackmail.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive