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Half measures are for the half-hearted. If President Biden and other democratic leaders around the world are really going to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his brutal invasion of Ukraine, then it’s time to apply the muscle needed to clip his power permanently and smash his ability to wreak destruction wherever he chooses.
The way to corral Putin is with robust energy sanctions that will raise prices even more and cause genuine hardship for millions outside of Russia—but pay off in the end. That should be combined with resolute but careful military support, including covert aid. Biden and the leaders of allied nations in Europe, Asia and elsewhere will have to explain coming sacrifices to their people and find ways to rally them if success isn’t quick.
Military hawks want the NATO military alliance to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine and confront Russian forces militarily. This is unclever and dangerous and likely to be backfire. Armchair generals should read up on what it takes to establish a no-fly zone over a country the size of Texas. It would be a massive mobilization almost certainly involving losses of NATO aircraft and personnel Russia would be able to target with stand-off weapons. It would also require NATO airstrikes inside Russian territory, to disable air-defense systems that reach into Ukraine. That would give Putin exactly the justification he’s looking for to characterize his demonic jihad as a reaction to NATO aggression. It would also give him the pretext for using tactical nuclear weapons, if he’s willing to go that far.
We don't know what's happening behind the scenes
It's easy to understand why Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky continually asks NATO to establish a no-fly zone to limit the Russian bombs and missiles killing civilians and wrecking schools, hospitals, apartment buildings and government offices. But Zelensky must know NATO is not going to do this, since every Western leader commenting on the idea has ruled it out. It’s possible this is a deliberate feint, of sorts: Zelensky keeps asking for an escalation that would undoubtedly trigger Putin, while NATO and other friendly nations keep saying no, while slipping Ukraine other types of military aid that’s a little less escalatory. Know-it-all war commentators should keep in mind there’s always stuff going on behind the scenes during a military conflict.
Several nations, including the United States, are rushing defensive weapons into Ukraine, including missiles able to destroy tanks and aircraft. Turkey is sending armed drones that already seem to have helped take out scores of Russian vehicles. This should continue as long as necessary. Ukraine’s own army has so far shown remarkable resolve and more capability than most analysts expected. Build on that for as long as it takes.
Russia, meanwhile, has revealed some major weaknesses that must alarm Putin, if he’s sane. The most startling is a creaky army that can’t get the job done. Battlefield reports should always be viewed skeptically, yet there seem to be numerous instances in which the long Russia army columns heading toward the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and other cities are stuck for lack of fuel, food and spare parts. Some captured Russian conscripts say they thought they were going to training exercises rather than invading a neighboring country.
The mark of a professional military isn’t fancy weapons that shine in parades. It’s logistical competence under stress and discipline among troops who know what the mission is. Russia still has massive amounts of firepower in Ukraine and select units of elite troops, and could regroup. But some of its weaknesses are astonishing.
A hollow Russian army
Tanks seem reluctant to leave blacktop roads, for instance, as if they fear bogging down in mud. That makes thousands of Russian vehicles in stalled convoys sitting ducks for any weapon that can get to them. Russia could shut down digital and communication networks in Ukraine, but it hasn’t, possibly because it needs them for its own battlefield communications. Vulnerabilities seem to be everywhere.
Putin supposedly rebuilt this force from the tattered remnants of the Soviet Union’s Red Army, financing it with billions in revenue every year from oil and gas sales to the rest of the world. Yet everybody knows Russia is a kleptocracy with officials and businessmen at every level, from Putin on down, siphoning off as much national wealth as they can get for themselves. This story is incomplete, but it now seems corruption and graft have left Putin with a hollow army. Put to the test, it’s turning out to be a flabby spear for Putin to attack his neighbors with.
This is the army Putin built with his nation participating fully in the world’s oil and gas markets. So imagine how feeble it would become if Putin lost access to that money, in a sustained way that left him nowhere to turn, not even to his fellow dictators in China.
This is where the United States and Europe are heading, and they should inflict maximum financial pain on Putin now that he has shown these glaring vulnerabilities. On March 8, Biden banned U.S. imports of Russian oil and natural gas, with the apparent blessing of Congress. The United States doesn’t buy much Russian energy, and this won’t hurt Putin much. But Biden has set the tone for other nations that need Russian energy a lot more to pass their own bans or at least cut back on Russian energy purchases.
On the same day, the United Kingdom said it would phase out Russian oil imports by the end of 2022, and the European Union said it planned to cut purchases of Russian gas by two-thirds in the same time frame. By 2030, the EU said, it planned to completely end its reliance on Russian gas. Europe buys far more Russian energy than the United States does, and losing Europe as a customer would be crushing to Russia. It will also be hard on Europeans, whose energy bills are already way higher than those in America. They will go higher still.
An unreliable business partner
While government sanctions are beginning to squeeze Putin’s war financing, so is the market. Many private-sector purchasers of Russian energy now can’t buy it even if they want to, because sanctions on the financial system make purchase transactions difficult or impossible. Until now, Russia’s giant energy firms have been reliable business partners delivering their product almost regardless of what else is going on. But Putin has wrecked that, too.
“Russia has proved it’s not a reliable business partner,” Caroline Bain, chief commodities economist at Capital Economics, said in a March 8 call with clients. “Even if there’s some conclusion to the war, there will be some desire to limit exposure to Russia.”
Putin and the oligarchs dependent on him for their wealth will seek every possible way to evade sanctions. They’ll find some holes, for sure. This is where Europe and the United States and other allied nations must now make it a strategic, long-term national-security priority to boycott Russian energy for as long as Putin remains in power. Anybody who ever doubted that Putin is a bully undeterred by diplomacy can now see plainly that he will murder civilians and destroy nations to fulfill his egomaniacal ambition as long as he has the power to do so. His missteps in Ukraine now reveal how to torpedo that power.
Let Putin continue to rule Russia. Regime change in Russia should not be a public or secret goal of any Western nation. If Putin’s enemies in the Kremlin want to give assassination a shot, that’s their business. But the clear goal of the United States and the full slate of other nations confronting Russia should be the surrender of Ukraine back to Ukrainians, the diminution of Russian military power and a lock on the ATM that enriches Putin and his minions. Putin can have whatever is left after that.
Rick Newman is a columnist and author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.