Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
With Moscow’s tanks on the move, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff informed the president that there was little the United States could do in response. “There is no military action we can take,” he said. “We do not have the forces to do it.” The vice president concurred: “All you can do is snort and talk.”
The year was 1968, the tanks were Soviet, and their target was Czechoslovakia. More than half a century later, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has highlighted a vexing problem that policymakers had hoped would disappear with the Cold War: what to do about the Kremlin’s military adventurism in areas that are not U.S. vital interests but still matter to international security.
President Lyndon Johnson, usually no pushover when he felt challenged, agreed with his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, that the United States could only “snort and talk” in response to the Soviet crackdown on the “Prague Spring.” By that point in the Cold War, the United States had accepted that there was little it could do in Moscow’s sphere of influence in Europe, especially with so much of the U.S. military invested in Vietnam.
The Biden administration is doing a lot more than “snort and talk” in response to this new chapter of Kremlin imperialism. But pressure is mounting on the administration to increase its involvement, as is evidenced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeals for a no-fly zone or Soviet-era planes piloted by foreign volunteers. Successive U.S. administrations have tried out different strategies to influence Soviet and Russian behavior, and there are useful historical examples for the Biden administration and its allies to learn from. Specifically, the U.S. response to Putin’s invasion of Georgia helped stave off regime change in that country—even after Putin had committed forces to once again absorb the country into the Russian orbit.
Condoleezza Rice, then the secretary of state, set a high standard for the U.S. commitment to the territorial integrity of Russia’s borderlands: “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it,” she announced during a press conference. “Things have changed.” Whether this statement holds true today will depend largely on how successful the United States is in dealing with Putin’s latest aggression.
Once both Washington and Moscow had acquired nuclear weapons, the superpowers established an informal understanding that they would not seriously challenge each other in their respective spheres of influence. The most dangerous moments came when one superpower didn’t respect this understanding. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s vague ultimatums for France, the United Kingdom, and the United States to leave West Berlin in 1958 and 1961—culminating in the building of the Berlin Wall—raised tensions to a dangerous degree. And Khrushchev’s decision in 1962 to place nuclear weapons in Cuba despite assurances to the Kennedy administration that he would not risked nuclear war. The creation of NATO mostly explains Soviet caution: Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty—which declares an assault on one member to be the equivalent of an attack on all—made the threat of a great-power war very real. Still, the fact that the United States effectively risked a nuclear standoff three times to keep the status of West Berlin unchanged and to force missiles out of Cuba also played a role.
Meanwhile, U.S. caution in Eastern Europe reflected Washington’s unwillingness to trigger a broader war. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower didn’t lift a finger to help the Hungarians fend off Soviet tanks. Llewellyn Thompson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union under three presidents during the 1950s and 1960s, pointed to the risk of nuclear conflict as the reason. In July 1968, a month before the Soviets invaded Prague, Thompson advised Johnson not to counter the incursion, which U.S. intelligence had predicted. “Any appeal to the Soviets would necessarily reveal weakness of our position,” he wrote, “by what we would not and could not say. Moreover, I believe that on balance such appeal would strengthen the hands of the hardliners rather than those who oppose intervention.”
A decade after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when the Kremlin amassed troops along the Afghan border, President Jimmy Carter, like his Cold War predecessors, concluded that he shouldn’t take any military risks to try to discourage the Soviets from invading their own backyard. Unlike Eisenhower and Johnson, however, Carter was determined that the Soviets not be allowed to get away with using force to threaten a neighboring country. He worked with allies to sanction Moscow and authorized covert assistance to the mujahideen. President Ronald Reagan continued the policy, taking even greater risks—including sending military technology such as stinger missiles, which could be traced to the United States—to help the local resistance make the cost of the occupation unbearable to the Kremlin.
For over a decade, Putin has tried to re-create the Soviet sphere of influence.
The U.S. efforts to frustrate the Soviet military in Afghanistan would play a role in the Kremlin’s decision to withdraw from the country in 1989. But a more decisive factor was regime change in the Soviet Union. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev rejected the idea that Moscow had the right to interfere in socialist countries, a doctrine the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had formally announced in 1968. Gorbachev was also skeptical that Moscow required a servile sphere of influence for its security, a lesson he gleaned from the strategic failure in Afghanistan. Of course, what one Kremlin autocrat can end, another can restart. Putin came to power after the Cold War, but he still believes that countries bordering Russia are not fully sovereign states. And for over a decade, he has pursued policies designed to re-create the Soviet sphere of influence.
Putin’s problem is that the rest of the world has moved on, and the rules of 1968 no longer apply. Although the United States was no more willing to risk a general war, Washington and its allies came to believe that the sovereignty of Moscow’s neighbors was a Western concern. This was not simply a case of the West moving into a vacuum created by the implosion of Soviet power in the 1990s. It reflected the fact that much of much of the western part of the former USSR, not to mention the eastern European states that had once been part of the Soviet sphere, considered themselves European and wanted self-governance. These newly liberated states also assumed it was only a matter of time before Moscow sought once again to re-create servile borderlands; hence, they wanted to lock in their gains.
President Bill Clinton was the first American leader to embrace countries formerly ensconced in the Soviet sphere in Europe as NATO members. This afforded them the security of Article 5 and made their defense a vital U.S. interest. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, took an even more expansive approach to extending Western protection to Russia’s borderlands. He welcomed former members of the Soviet Union into NATO and established a rhetorical commitment to complete sovereignty for almost any of Russia’s neighbors that sought it.
Inevitably, Putin’s and Bush’s visions collided. In 2006, Bush sent a stern message to the Kremlin that Russian relations with the United States would be harmed if Moscow took action against Georgia, Russia’s southern neighbor. When Russia continued encouraging separatist forces there, Bush pushed hard in 2008 for Georgia and Ukraine to eventually obtain NATO membership. “I thought the threat from Russia strengthened the case for extending [NATO membership] to Georgia and Ukraine,” Bush wrote in his presidential memoir. “Russia would be less likely to engage in aggression if these countries were on a path into NATO.”
Bush was wrong. Four months after NATO’s April 2008 announcement that “Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO,” Russian troops invaded Georgia. Putin’s title was prime minister at the time, and theoretically he was subservient to President Dmitry Medvedev, but he was clearly in charge of the operation. He was the one to visit Russian troops on the border with Georgia and hint on Russian TV that the Kremlin had broad war aims, declaring, “There is almost no way we can imagine a return to the status quo.” Like his Cold War era predecessors in the Kremlin, Putin didn’t believe that the United States would retaliate unless he invaded a NATO member country.
Putin is unlikely to be deterred from an initial attack on a neighbor once he is set on that course.
Putin, however, had underestimated Bush. With the failure of deterrence, Bush was prepared to take greater risks in Russia’s borderlands than any of his predecessors. When Georgia asked Washington on the day of the Russian attack to help transport a Georgian army brigade then serving in Iraq back to Tbilisi, the Bush administration assented, despite the fact that this meant moving U.S. military planes into an active combat zone. The Pentagon alerted the Russian high command, not to seek permission but to assure Moscow that the planes would not be delivering additional U.S. military assistance. “Our embassy staff were also in touch with Russians . . . both providing information when each of our planes would enter Georgian airspace and saying we expected them to be left alone,” recalled Robert Gates, who was then the U.S. secretary of defense.
That was just one example of the support the Bush administration extended to Georgia. After the French government arranged a tenuous cease-fire between the parties on August 12—which the Russians quickly violated—U.S. military transport planes began a new airlift of humanitarian supplies to the country. At the start of the war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Rice that Moscow would withdraw only if there were regime change in Tbilisi. But the flexing of U.S. military muscle appeared to have changed Putin’s calculus. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili completed his term and won reelection. The Russians ultimately withdrew from the territory they had occupied, staying only in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But this wasn’t much of a win for Putin, given the fact that Moscow controlled those territories before the war.
President Barack Obama shared his predecessor’s belief that Russia wasn’t entitled to an empire along its borderlands. Obama, however, did not believe that the United States should push for extending NATO membership and the U.S. nuclear umbrella to Georgia and Ukraine. Instead, he tried to coax the Kremlin into better behavior by emphasizing the economic and political benefits of close relations, an approach formally dubbed a “reset.”
The Obama approach was no more successful than Bush’s had been at deterring Russian military adventurism. This was partially because of international events outside Washington’s control. A civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, threatening the regime of the pro-Russian dictator Bashar al-Assad. When the Ukrainians overthrew their pro-Russian government three years later, Putin feared Ukraine would become more European in its orientation.
Washington’s tactics also played a role in the failure to curb Russian aggression. In March 2014, when Putin’s “little green men” took control of Crimea in Ukraine and the Russian parliament formally annexed the region, Obama decried Putin’s aggression. But he limited his response to economic sanctions and personal admonishments, moves that failed to de-escalate the crisis.
Obama’s approach to Syria, moreover, likely convinced Putin that he would pay little price for his foreign incursions. During his reelection campaign in 2012, Obama promised that if the Assad government used chemical weapons against civilians, it would cross a redline. But when the Syrians deployed sarin in Damascus neighborhoods the following year, the Obama team didn’t retaliate militarily and instead negotiated with Russia to eliminate the Syrian stocks of chemical weapons. Ultimately, however, Moscow turned a blind eye to at least some remnants of Syria’s arsenal, as evidenced by the fact that Assad’s forces went on to use sarin again in 2017.
Obama’s lack of follow-through on his warning no doubt made Putin more comfortable with covertly supporting Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Unlike his predecessor, Obama chose not to react to Putin’s escalation of the crisis with a renewed U.S. commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. He authorized U.S. aid to Ukraine—but did not provide lethal weapons.
During President Donald Trump’s tenure in office, Putin enjoyed a reprieve from the post–Cold War American policy of championing the sovereignty of former Soviet states and republics. Previous U.S. leaders had wrung their hands with worry about the Kremlin’s encroachments on its neighbors; Trump, in contrast, appeared to rub his hands with glee. He floated the possibility of withdrawing the United States from NATO. He also didn’t want to provide U.S. military assistance to Ukraine: he did so in 2019 only because Congress had appropriated the aid—and because his effort to blackmail Zelensky became public.
With war raging in Ukraine, President Joe Biden has taken yet another approach. In ways never imagined by his predecessors, Biden took advantage of strategic warning from U.S. intelligence before Russia attacked to weave together an international coalition. This resulted in the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a state and promises of NATO military might to aid Zelensky. Taking the best of Carter’s and Reagan’s efforts in Afghanistan, which he knew intimately from his years in the Senate, Biden also likely authorized an ambitious program of covert action to weaken Russia’s military in combat. Biden has, however, categorically rejected the possibility of committing U.S. troops to Ukraine or imposing a no-fly zone over the country.
As the United States learned in 2008, 2014, and again this year, Putin is unlikely to be deterred from an initial attack on a neighbor once he is set on that course. The issue is whether the Biden administration can influence what he does next. Although Bush was the author of the worst strategy for deterring Putin, his administration’s efforts to prevent Georgia from being reabsorbed into the Russian ambit suggest a possible middle ground.
Like every Kremlin leader since Vladimir Lenin, Putin respects U.S. power. He is not always convinced the United States will deploy that power to prevent Russian expansionist ambitions, however. Putin appears to have withdrawn from Georgia without achieving his aims; Bush’s noncombat military intervention may have played a role in that decision. It might be worth risking a slight escalation now, especially since Putin’s new strategy for breaking Ukraine will likely deepen and prolong the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since 1945.
Like every Kremlin leader since Vladimir Lenin, Putin respects U.S. power.
Instead of a general no-fly zone, the United States and its allies could consider working with the United Nations to create humanitarian air corridors to fly unarmed planes as far east as possible. These planes could be filled with inspected cargoes of medical supplies, water, and food, which could be dropped into besieged Ukrainian cities. In 2008, the Kremlin didn’t dare shoot on the U.S. military transport planes that flew into Georgia. The effort to try to make a humanitarian airlift happen in 2022 might apply additional pressure on Putin and rally more states, perhaps even China or India, against him.
Two decades of experience with Putin suggest he could be frustrated into cutting his losses, as he did in Georgia in 2008. His nuclear threat against the United States in the first days of his war in Ukraine was an early sign of desperation. In 2014, Putin boasted that Russian forces could take Kyiv in a mere two weeks. He probably made the same boast to his confidants this year. But the war is about to enter its sixth week, and there is no end in sight. This is the time to be even more creative in finding ways to increase the pressure on Putin while decreasing the pressure on the heroic Ukrainians.
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