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Putin gets more than he bargained for

By The Editors, National Review

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not going according to plan.

The Kremlin had hoped for a quick victory on the battlefield, a decapitation of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, and a divided West too feckless to respond to Russian aggression.

Instead, Russian troops have encountered a Ukrainian people in arms, a lion-hearted comedian-turned-president who has rallied his nation, and a Western alliance that is, in fits and starts, rising to counter Putin’s challenge.

In the days since Putin declared a war for the “denazification of Ukraine,” punishing sanctions have been leveled on Russian banks, businesses, and oligarchs; one by one European countries have closed their airspace to Russian-owned or operated flights; and NATO has announced the activation of its rapid-reaction force, ordering it to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank.

Next, in a stunning speech to the German Bundestag, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has declared that in the face of Russian aggression, Germany will rearm and spend 2 percent of GDP on defense “from now on, every year.” Berlin will also fund an immediate $110 billion infusion into the German military in order to improve its roundly criticized readiness.

From here it only gets harder.

The agreement that Western governments will reduce Russian access to SWIFT — the international cooperative that facilitates cross-border payments between banks — should inflict immediate pain of the sort that the initial round of sanctions did not. That said, the cumulative effect of these measures (and of the steps taken against the Russian central bank) is clearly now taking a toll.

But the further this goes, the greater the downstream risks. SWIFT works in a way that gives the U.S. a window into international banking’s plumbing, and, effectively, a degree of control. Encouraging the creation or expansion of alternative payment systems might be something we come to regret. Inevitably, the current moves with regard to SWIFT (and, for that matter, the measures directed against the Russian central bank) will also, to a greater or lesser extent, risk undermining the dollar as the dominant reserve currency, a role which is of immense value to this country. On the other hand, in an era of intensifying geopolitical competition between the West and a Chinese–Russian axis, the institutions and practices of the globalized economy will inevitably come under stress. The question is how much we want to add to that.

Importantly, Germany now says it will begin to decouple from a reliance on Russian energy, and it will build two liquefied-natural-gas terminals to facilitate non-Russian imports. This is an excellent — and far overdue — move, and, where applicable, the rest of the continent must join Germany in these steps, and quickly. Of course, the Biden administration must abandon its ridiculous harassment of domestic energy producers and do everything it can to make Europe’s transition away from Russian oil and gas as smooth as possible.

Oil and gas (and, to a lesser degree, some other resources and products) are one half of Putin’s leverage — the other is violence and the threat of violence.

Despite the heroic Ukrainian defense of their country and capital, it is still more likely than not that Russian armor will smash its way into Kyiv. The next few days could be horrific as street fighting envelops a European city of more than 3 million souls.

The West must prepare for this eventuality and declare before the fact that no allied country would recognize a Putin-installed apparatchik puppet in Kyiv. We must redouble our efforts to ship arms and supplies of all kinds to the Ukrainian army, even if it is forced to retreat to the west of Ukraine. And we must support President Zelensky’s government on the ground and around the world in every international organization.

There is a danger that Putin — trapped and risking a humiliating defeat — will choose a desperate escalation, threatening the West with nuclear blackmail (something he has implicitly come close to doing) or saber-rattling on the border of a NATO country. The United States must stand firm and support our allies, but we must also look for ways that might allow Putin to back down while retaining some semblance of face.

At least so far, the reaction to Putin’s invasion has been one that has unified a free West against a brutal authoritarian regime. It has given NATO a seriousness that it has lacked in recent years. And the gallantry displayed by the Ukrainian resistance and the Western support for Kyiv should be discouraging to Beijing’s designs on Taiwan, which is no small thing.

But the ultimate solution to our Vladimir Putin problem is a Russian one.

There are early and tentative signs that Putin’s aggression could be the spark that destabilizes his hold on power.

Russian democrats must take courage. Their task looks insurmountable. But Russians deserve the chance to live as a free people, and whether it takes weeks, months, or years, the United States should stand for a free Ukraine — and a free Russia.

Read more at National Review.

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