For most of the past two decades, the United States and its European allies have chosen not to confront Vladimir Putin.
Even when Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, downed a passenger plane and interfered in the US presidential election, the West did little to stop it. Sanctions were imposed very porous To have a great influence on the oligarchy around Putin and to stay away from any military confrontation with Russia.
When Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, his non-confrontational strategy looked like it would continue. Western leaders imposed again Only modest punishments It did not send any troops to Ukraine. The leaders were afraid of an even bigger war with Russia – and although they didn’t say so publicly – they decided that trying to save Ukraine was tantamount to Not worth the risk.
But then Western leaders changed their minds.
Over the past two months, the United States, the European Union and their allies have demonstrated a whole new level of assertiveness toward Russia. As documented by recent news stories, the United States has gone so far as to provide the Ukrainian military with information that helped it Russian generals were killed on the battlefield And dumping Moskva, a 200-yard warship that was the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The West also continues to send and carry out arms to Ukraine harsh economic sanctions In Russia.
What explains the coup? I posed this question to my colleague Helen Cooper – a reporter who has published stories about cooperation between the US and Ukrainian militaries – and our conversation helped me understand the root causes. Today’s newsletter focuses on this rapid and consequential change in US foreign policy.
No more “scars”
Over the past two decades, American officials have had a lot of experience cooperating with the military of another country during a war on its soil. Much of that experience was in Afghanistan, and it was very frustrating for the United States that although many Afghan soldiers bravely fought the Taliban, so was the Afghan government. full of corruption He does not seem committed to victory.
The defeat there haunted members of the Biden administration and the US military. “They were wounded from Afghanistan,” says Helen.
On the surface, Ukraine at first seemed like another lost cause. Its army was much smaller and less armed than Russia’s, and Western experts predicted the government of Ukraine to fall within days.
But from the first days of the Russian invasion, Ukraine surprised the world. Its civilians demonstrated a patriotism that belied Putin’s claim that Ukraine was not a real country, and its army stopped the Russian army from advancing in many places.
Not only did Ukraine fight, Helen said, “but they were winning.” This early success showed Western officials that trying to stop Putin may not be a hopeless cause.
“We are not afraid”
The start of the fighting changed the calculus of the West in another way, too. The largest war in Europe in more than 75 years – since the surrender of Nazi Germany – was underway. Russia was bombing cities and killing civilians, and millions of Ukrainians were fleeing their homes.
Putin’s past assaults have been on a smaller scale. His previous attacks on Ukraine and Georgia were not large-scale wars. His interference in the 2016 US presidential election was certainly aggressive, but it was also amorphous: No one could be entirely sure how important it was, and the Trump administration had a clear incentive to downplay it.
Pictures from Ukraine were more clear. she was Shocking enough To change the way many Western leaders think about their approach to Putin. Before, these commanders were willing to put up with his assaults, in part out of fear of how bad things could be. After the invasion of Ukraine, these same leaders effectively believed they had only two options: appease or confrontation.
The change in the policy of the West was notable. Helen notes that in the early weeks of the war, U.S. officials were unwilling to admit that they were sending into Ukraine shoulder-fired missile systems known as Stingers. “They were afraid to use the word ‘stingers,'” she said.
Today, US officials acknowledge helping Ukraine gain access not only to the Stingers but other missiles, tanks, and more. American involvement in the attacks on the Russian generals and the Moskva ship, although not officially recognized, is more aggressive.
As Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official, said, Describing the new US policy: “We will give them everything they need to win, and not be afraid of Vladimir Putin’s reaction to this. We will not deter ourselves.”
The United States and its allies still have to make tough decisions.
Some officials and experts worry that the West will continue to err on the side of caution and not give Ukraine what President Volodymyr Zelensky says it needs to win. “We have been deterred by an exaggerated fear of what could happen,” said retired Lieutenant General Frederick Hodges, former Supreme Commander of the US Army in Europe, He said.
Other experts believe that the United States may be compensating for its initial weakness with Putin and is now risking a broader confrontation. Thomas Friedman, columnist for The Times, explained this concern in his last column. The sinking of the Moskva and targeting of Russian generals, he wrote, “suggests that we are no longer in an indirect war with Russia, but are heading towards direct war No one has prepared the American people or Congress for that.”
There are no easy answers here. The old strategy — appeasement without calling it — encouraged Putin to become more aggressive, believing that the West was too afraid to respond. The new strategy – confrontation without full recognition – risks a fight with a nuclear power that many Americans and Europeans do not want. Putin knows this, which is part of why he is willing to take such enormous risks.
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