Biden needs to get Ukraine right. America's security depends on it.

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American families are struggling with inflation and a never-ending pandemic. And with plunging polling numbers, Democrats face tough prospects in the November midterm elections.

President Joe Biden can’t afford another foreign policy disaster after the embarrassing mess of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, either. And if Russian leader Vladimir Putin seizes more of Ukraine now, the humiliation will only appear to confirm the image of Biden as weak and ineffectual. He and his party will then face a steep uphill climb in 2024.

Biden must get Ukraine right.

After failing to get a handle on the pandemic and foolishly trying to park Russia while prioritizing China and climate change, the White House seems to have woken up to the reality of the immediate threat. Central Europe was the flashpoint for the two most destructive wars in recent history, both of which pulled in the United States.

China is watching Russia

Now, more than 100,000 Russian troops surround Ukraine on three sides, poised to strike at Putin’s command. If Russia invades Ukraine again, it could inspire China to take aggressive military action in the South China Sea or across the Taiwan Strait.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, second from left, sits across from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv on Jan. 19, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, second from left, sits across from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv on Jan. 19, 2022.

More Ukraine analysis: Why Americans should care about Russian aggression against Ukraine

Washington and NATO are stepping up their game, but they still haven’t figured out how to deter Putin. The White House recently sent deliveries of military equipment to Kyiv, and President Biden is considering sending up to 8,500 U.S. troops to Eastern Europe, and NATO has deployed a few ships and aircraft to Central Europe. But these hesitant moves are not enough.

The good news is that there’s still time.

Members of Ukraine's volunteer military units  train in a city park in Kyiv on Jan. 22, 2022.
Members of Ukraine's volunteer military units train in a city park in Kyiv on Jan. 22, 2022.

Russian war machine not in place, yet

Putin is unlikely to strike until February, if he does strike at all. Russia does not have the forces in place that it would need for a full-scale land invasion now – it would need a minimum of 200,000 troops, according to former defense minister of Ukraine Andriy Zagorodnyuk – and it hasn’t put the logistical systems it would need in place. Sending more Russian troops, quickly assembling mobile hospitals and moving large amounts of fuel would signal that Russia is about to move into Ukraine.

Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council in Maryland, 2021.
Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council in Maryland, 2021.

The stakes could not be higher. Putin doesn’t just want to put a stop to Ukraine’s progress toward the West. He wants to humiliate the United States and destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization so that he can boss Europe around. The ultimate objects of Putin’s disdain are the things we stand for as Americans of all political persuasions – personal freedoms, real elections, and the rights and laws that protect them.

In depth reporting: The Ukrainian/Russian conflict

A map shows Russia, Ukraine and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
A map shows Russia, Ukraine and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Three steps to get Ukraine right

Here's are three things that Biden can, and should, do, to make the resolution of this crisis a top priority:

►Get on a plane and personally rally Europe’s wobbling leaders around a unified position in opposition to Russian aggression. Biden should also bring with him short-term plans for renewed American troop deployments to Europe and long-term plans to end the continent’s dependence on Russian gas.

►Put Putin’s warmongering at the top of the agenda at the United Nations. Yes, Russia and China will veto anything substantive, but the world needs to know where we stand.

►Fill every relevant diplomatic vacancy immediately. It’s ridiculous that we don’t have an ambassador in Ukraine now.

We must get Ukraine right. Our security depends on it.

Melinda Haring is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow her on Twitter: @melindaharing

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia-Ukraine crisis: How President Biden can get this right