Diplomatic Negotiations Are Good, But It’s High Time the West Shows Putin the True Costs of Attacking Ukraine

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is traveling to Moscow to prevent a war at the last minute. It’s good that he is negotiating with Putin, but he must make clear the price that Russia would pay if it were to invade Ukraine. Any ambiguity would be dangerous.

Last weekend, the U.S. put Europe on high alert sending a dire warning that a Russian attack on Ukraine could occur at any moment. In response, numerous Western governments began recalling their citizens and embassy personnel from Ukraine. Amid the excitement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is traveling to Moscow Feb. 15 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to prevent a war at the last minute. Scholz should take this opportunity to use every means at his disposal.

He should absolutely invest in diplomatic negotiation. The objective of Western politicians to buy time and keep Russia occupied at the negotiating table, instead of on a new front line of battle, is a good one. A similar effort last week by French President Emmanuel Macron, however, had little visible effect. Accordingly, Scholz needs to do even more. He should use this opportunity to finally make it absolutely clear to Putin that Germany and the Western allies will impose severe consequences on Russia in the event of an invasion. And Scholz should be clear that those consequences would apply in the event of any military attack, because the West cannot afford any ambiguity that would allow the Kremlin to stealthily and gradually start a war if it is facing lesser sanctions.

Those are the lessons from Russia’s military operations in the Donbass and from its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Then, it took the West considerable time to understand the game that Russia was playing by sending “little green men” and anonymous weapons systems into Ukraine. Moscow denied everything, and at first, there was little hard or fast evidence. Thus, the West reacted late and its response was modest because it did not want to provoke Putin. Eight years later, the largest unannounced troop mobilization at a neighboring country’s border since World War II hints at the conclusions Putin drew from that experience.

Biden’s Misstatement Exposes the West

In mid-January, President Joe Biden mused at a White House press conference that a possible “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine might provoke a fight by the West over “what to do and not do” in response. Biden purportedly spoke in error, and corrected his remarks the next day following an angry reaction from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But the incident revealed that the White House apparently considers the scenario Biden suggested as highly likely, and it sounded a lot like an invitation to the Kremlin to test the solidarity of the Western allies with a small-scale campaign. Scholz absolutely must avoid such mistakes.

There is still reason to hope that Putin will not use his deadly arsenal to destroy his neighbor with a torrent of bombs and missiles that would kill hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian “brothers and sisters,” because that would also produce unforeseeable risk and high political, military, and economic costs for Russia. It would completely alienate the Ukrainians who Putin does, after all, very much want to bring back into his kingdom’s sphere of influence. Putin’s own people would not accept such brutality as it would fly in the face of Kremlin propaganda.

Putin’s Aggression Cannot Be Justified

Even if no one can predict what Putin will do next, it is more likely that it will involve a scenario like the one that Biden recklessly sketched out. With targeted air attacks on military installations, Putin could nullify Ukraine’s defensive readiness in just a few days. With a modest ground invasion, albeit disguised through staged provocations on the border or in the Donbass, Russia could occupy part of the country in the east or the south. That would have few concrete advantages for Russia; Ukraine is no threat to nuclear power Russia, and even now, part of the country is already under Russian control given the situation in the Donbass.

But Russian propagandists might present such an outcome as success, and assert that it had averted the purported threat from “Ukrainian fascists.” Russia could establish a military buffer zone on the Ukraine border and secure the Russian zone of influence in the Donbass and in Crimea. This would let the Russian troops withdraw somewhat in triumph.

In addition, it would impinge on Ukraine’s sovereignty in the long term, make the country’s orientation toward the West and democratization more difficult, and hinder its economic development. Ukraine would thus shine much less brightly as a counterimage of Putin’s authoritarian and economically languishing kingdom.

Any Relativizing Will Invite Even More Violence

Thus, the West must now make it clear: Even a limited attack cannot be justified, and the West will impose the harshest possible sanctions if an invasion occurs. Any relativization and any concession would just invite more provocation and impertinence from an authoritarian aggressor like Putin and make him an even greater threat to western Europe’s long-term security interests. This message must be an important part of Scholz’s mission in Moscow.

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