Putin Now Knows the Price

Nobody will be able to interfere if the Russian president decides to further dismantle Ukraine. After his talk with Biden, however, he now knows what an invasion is going to cost him.

Joe Biden cannot prevent Vladimir Putin from attacking Ukraine. Nobody should cherish the illusion that the U.S. would send troops in order to protect the country in an emergency. From a military point of view, the situation is very simple: If the Russian president decides to send his troops into the neighboring country to retaliate in response to an imaginary national humiliation or to defend Russia’s supposed sphere of influence, he will do just that — and no GI will get in his way.

The summit meeting between the U.S. president and his colleague in Moscow via video conference on Tuesday served a different purpose. Biden told Putin the price he would have to pay should he invade Ukraine. Seven years ago, after the annexation of Crimea, Moscow got off easily: A few power brokers with close ties to the Kremlin had their accounts in the West frozen and Russia was banned from participating in a few international committees. It was laughable, and Putin’s aggressive behavior since then is proof that these trivialities do not impress him.

Biden doesn’t delude himself about Putin’s character and agenda, unlike Germany’s former government, which happily built a pipeline in cooperation with the man who jails dissidents, poisons critics and is calmly carving up a neighboring state — and by doing so destroys the European post-Cold War order, which in its core prohibits the redrawing of borders through military force. If the invasion happens, Washington is going to impose strict economic sanctions on Russia, designed to render all trades based on the U.S. dollar impossible. The European Union will (hopefully) cut off Russia from monetary transactions with the euro as well.

If the German government believes that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline can still be brought into service just because the mining office in Stralsund has authorized it, it will be surprised. In reality, Russia’s already struggling economy will, due to the West’s sanctions, become dependent on China, aside from a few trades with Syria or Venezuela. Putin has to decide whether that’s what he wants.

Beijing and Tehran Will Pay Close Attention

Biden will also act bluntly toward Putin because he’s aware that other autocrats are watching. America’s reputation as a decisive world power has suffered greatly due to the humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. Biden wants to rectify this — he has no choice, as we are living in dangerous times. The U.S. president is currently handling three international crises at the same time, each of which could potentially lead to a military confrontation for America if wrong decisions are made: Russia’s warmongering on NATO’s Eastern border; China’s aggression against Taiwan; and Iran’s determined march toward the atomic bomb. In two of these conflicts, the U.S. is facing nuclear powers. Every miscalculation could have horrible consequences.

The more clearly Biden shows Putin where the red lines are, and the faster Russia gets handed the actual bill for crossing them, the better. Maybe Putin will take this knowledge into account when he decides whether invading Ukraine is really worth it, or whether, after 30 years, it is time to stop mourning the fallen Soviet Empire. And maybe the rulers in Beijing and Tehran will understand Biden’s behavior in his conflict with Putin as a warning. In that case, the video conference would have made the world a little safer.

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