It is easy to look at the mountain of military movements conducted by the Kremlin in these past months and be afraid of what escalation would look like. These fears have been heightened by the alacrity with which Russia was able to slingshot special operations forces and materiel (and likely mercenaries) into Kazakhstan during this past week. While this operation benefitted from the mobilizations and high-readiness levels for a potential Ukraine intervention, some Russian ideologues have noted the added benefit of displaying, before bilateral talks between Russia and the US, how rapidly and effectively these capabilities could be deployed for Ukraine without having to use them in Ukraine. This has not moved any assets away from Ukraine, and it has increased the fear of what Russia might do.
But this paralytic fear of how the Kremlin might make things worse has held American policy hostage long enough. It was a lever used to trap deliberative, logic-seeking President Obama into not doing enough to slow the renewed projection of Russian power into Syria, Libya, across the Middle East, into Ukraine, into cyberspace, far beyond. Goodwill extended to the Kremlin was weaponized against us, and afterward, everything was less stable, less certain than it had been before. And we should be very clear on this: it’s not just that this goodwill earned us nothing, but that it actively weakened our position.
As I wrote earlier, Putin’s people look across the table now and think this same vulnerability exists in the Biden team. It has renewed poignancy given the dogged withdrawal of American forces from overseas by the current administration, and a clear desire to set the terms of competition from further horizons and with cleaner optics. In this psychology, the Kremlin sees opportunity to create doubt, test resolve, make our desire not to use our strength seem a projection of weakness. The Biden team has responded to threats by taking options for action off the table — by seeking to reassure the Kremlin that somehow we can all still get along. This was, and is, a failed strategy. Defeating the Kremlin’s attempts to control the terms of engagement requires breaking free of the trap of fearing that they might do worse. They are already doing their worst.
President Biden understands the importance of rallying the free world to bolster democracy against the rising, cohesive authoritarian forces in the world.
But the free world won’t save itself trapped by fear. What Putin fears most is that we will not be afraid of Putin. We need to conceptualize not just what it means to slow the rise of the autocrats, but to deal one a defeat that might disrupt the calculus of the whole network.
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The Kremlin is quite adept at constructing traps. Usually, the trap is engaging in the process. Talks, negotiations, whatever the process — it’s all to tie up resources and take options off the table from our side. We should set our own terms of engagement, not respond to theirs.
The fear of escalation is also a trap. And I cannot say often enough that we need to focus on what we might do, not on what the Kremlin might do. Deterrence is in potential action, in the creation of options — not in limiting them in an attempt to reassure a fundamentally unreassurable opponent.
Since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the trick of it has been that the target of the Kremlin’s actions has been NATO — the security guarantee that underpins transatlantic and European prosperity. Or specifically, the trick is to make us believe the expansion of this security guarantee is to blame for the instability the Kremlin has created, rather than see it as the solution to Kremlin opportunism and the source of what Putin most fears.
Every time we find ourselves in a moment of confrontation with the Kremlin over its increasing tempo of aggression out in the world, social media and op-ed pages seem suddenly awash in all the warmed-over Kremlin-narrative excuses for why it’s actually the fault of the West — or NATO, or specifically the US — for not pandering enough to the irrational insecurities of a country that is currently led by a bunch of guys who idolize the days when wielding crushing psychological terror against their own people could be openly heralded as a sign of strength, instead of seen as a sign of monstrous misdirection. This reflex for terror has been on full display this past year, as Russian interventions into Belarus and Kazakhstan have escalated violence against domestic populations, levied mass arrests, leaned heavily on information control. This is who they are — the “stable and predictable” assumption about who we deal with in the Kremlin.
In the moments of confrontation, there’s always the scholarly back and forth about history and diplomatic exchanges which inevitably devolves into a timeline of events where the other side always took the action that “started it” — whatever it was — followed by explanations of how insecure Russia must feel that it can no longer wield terror with a free hand, and how hard so many of the nations that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain had to work to be invited into NATO, which will immediately be dismissed by Moscow’s defenders as not the point.
And it’s this last point, of course, that matters above all else. NATO doesn’t conquer members, and no single member can anoint another into the club; a place in the alliance has to be earned. A whole lot of people wanted to be in NATO because they didn’t trust that Russia would be content inside its borders. They had living memory of the tactics that could be used to get outside those borders. They wanted a shield against them.
Those nations did that hard, expensive work to get into NATO because they believed it was worth it to gain the security guarantee that would ensure their freedom — for good this time, they hoped — from Moscow. They did the hard, expensive work to get into NATO so there wouldn’t be another generation of missing fathers and grandfather and sons, mothers and grandmothers and daughters, who disappeared in famines and purges and mass deportations, bones still lost in mass graves in prisons or permafrost, or scattered across the thousands of miles of gulags and railroads and other forced labor projects.
Turns out: these newer NATO members were right to have little trust. And everyone can “yes, but” and “you can’t blame Russia for its own insecurities” all they want. But the simple truth is, Russia — modern Russia, Putin’s Russia — is a terrible neighbor as a matter of policy and strategy. They understand their aggression against neighbors will fuel divisions with the West. The conflict is the point. It has yielded favorable results. The Russians believe they have more to lose in this transaction, and thus more will to win the long war.
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Often you will hear: Putin needs war. But what, and why?
There are a lot of ways to explain it. A state of war is more than the kinetic part. But war protects Putin from the reality of his weakness, allows him the chance to play the proverbial bad hand of cards well, shields him from the unfulfilled desires of the Russian population. This is often where the United States and parts of Europe further from Moscow lose sight of why negotiations with Putin won’t work. We might be able to help him deliver more access to French cheese or Baltic herring or holiday beaches, but no one is going to help him stay in power perpetually, so really, there’s not much on the table that he wants.
We know what his will is to fight against democracy. It has shocked us more times than we can count.
But what is our will to fight for democracy — to fight for the free world? That is what we need to focus on defining.
Instead, we often get lost in the weeds.
One of the first things President Biden did during this latest round of Kremlin aggression was announce that sending US troops to defend Ukraine was not being considered.
Asked if American forces could be used to prevent an invasion of Ukraine, Biden replied: “That is not on the table… It would depend upon what the rest of the NATO countries were willing to do, as well. But the idea the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not... in the cards right now… We have a moral obligation and a legal obligation to our NATO allies if they were to attack under Article 5, that's a sacred obligation. That obligation does not extend to... Ukraine.”
Why on earth would you telegraph this in public — to the Kremlin, to Ukraine, to the allies — in advance of negotiations that you believe are vital to de-escalate Kremlin threats to Ukraine? When all options should be on the table in order to have maximum leverage going into talks? The unfortunate answer is that this White House does not see that their approach to the Kremlin is leaving them in a permanent position of disadvantage. They limit the options, take things off the table, in a continual effort to reassure the Russians that we mean them no harm. The instinct for this is well-intentioned, but — eight years on from Crimea — misplaced. Facing a unilateral Russian escalation against Ukraine, we are missing an opportunity to say enough is enough. Instead, we’ve signed off on a permission structure to project aggression against non-NATO nations.
A similar problem in approach and mindset is readily visible in how the White House has tried to communicate their message in public about what we might do for Ukraine (and shore up damaging leaks that they were considering offering to drawdown NATO forces from the Baltic states and Poland in exchange for Ukraine de-escalation — a story which the entire administration had to mobilize to deny was accurate). A New York Times story described additional sanctions, financial measures, and technology embargoes that may be used to punish Russia if they move against Ukraine. But it also described one of the threats as arming Ukrainians for an insurgency if Russia “invades further.” “Ukrainian insurgents.”
Now, facing the realities of Kremlin aggression and insecurity, the role of US Special Forces in preparing a resistance operating concept and training with Baltic and other regional allies and partners — including Ukraine — for such contingencies is a very real and prescient priority. This is not the issue. But essentially saying to Ukrainians at a moment of crisis that we won’t help them keep their country, but we might stand with them if they lose it, is a hell of a message to send them — and the Kremlin.
This is the same dance the Baltic allies and Poland have tried to navigate since Crimea — warning that the time to bolster defenses and send signals is before the Kremlin starts its maneuvers, not when the gun is already pointed at your head.
Our frontline allies bring a very different perspective — and one we would do well to listen to more patiently. For us, this fight is more conceptual — something we engage via expeditionary warfare, but we have our mothership on the other side of the ocean to retreat to when things get bad. “You have the ocean,” one senior military commander told me, steely calm. “We will have an ocean of blood if Putin comes. We have nowhere to go. We live and die in our forests and villages.” This is the core of the resistance operating concept, really. That they will fight for what is theirs — and that we promise to aid that endeavor. This is what we ask them, as equal members in our alliance. To be prepared to pay this price. So when I say we should listen — it’s because they earn our respect every day.
The problem with these “messaging” missteps from the administration is that it reflects the mindset they embrace. And the Kremlin is making good sport of it. This time, even the preparations to engage with the Kremlin have caused deep divisions in the Alliance and raised real concerns from the frontline partners.
Estonian MP Eerik Kross wrote in Great Power last week:
As long as Washington does not say clearly that it rejects all and any Russian demand about the security arrangements in any NATO member, Putin’s team is winning. Because if the White House’s response to the demand to give half of Europe to Russia is “we’ll see where it takes us,” the alarm among members of the alliance is growing. Alarm not about the Russians, but about the Americans — a position everyone had hoped not to be in after the upheaval of the last American presidency. We know what the Russians want, but we are confused about what the Americans want.
Even the day before the talks are to begin, the Secretary of State, in an interview on CNN, said we shouldn’t be thinking about the talks through the lens of concessions but of reducing tensions. This isn’t enough when the former will just require more of the latter in the future. What we need to do is send a message that none of this is up for grabs by Moscow anymore. That the escalation cycle is over, there will be no more rewards.
In Syria and Belarus, Mali and Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Venezuela, the Kremlin has deployed a range of hard power and gray zone assets — mercenaries, economic arrangements, intelligence sharing, military partnerships and arms deals, shadow support to irregular fighters and groups, turn-key systems of information dominance — that have defined the sometimes small margins of victory between forces, all while expanding Russia’s economic, diplomatic, and security clout in the world. In none of these places did they weigh in on the side of increased freedom or democracy; that isn’t what they are exporting. It is a system to entrench oppressive powers.
And the bar for every next uprising gets that much higher because we are absent — because we are afraid, and we keep our powder dry. Because I guess we, as a matter of policy, choose not to believe that the hearts of other peoples could be as brave and fierce and worthy as our own.
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It doesn’t take much effort to look around and understand that democracy is in crisis, that the free world is at a tipping point. At home and abroad, democracies are struggling to find an identity, overwhelmed by crippling disinformation assaults, slow to confront the structural crises that must be overcome. And while this is a global problem — this feeling of retraction of democratic rule — there are few who would argue the chaos in America is not both a symptom and a cause of this churn.
But we are letting this uncertainty eat us alive. If this administration is not willing to walk out into the world with the confidence to defend the values that must win they day at home, then all might really be lost. Time is short. We don’t have time for more false starts.
The Kremlin wraps their poison pills in shiny paper and nice words — “security guarantees” and “reassurances” — but their strategy is for the defeat of the West, of NATO, of the United States. If we cannot read that clearly in their statements and draft agreements, then their actions should speak loudly enough. What they cannot gain through bribery and subversion, they will get through threat and use of military force. We must stop rewarding the cycle of escalation with freebies: we have only convinced the Kremlin that they are on the right course. And as long as we shuffle the same cards around hoping they will fall to the table in a formula for the mere containment of these ambitions — as if the Kremlin has not steadily advanced in their objectives since Putin first articulated them in 2007— then we are gambling with our own lives and our future.
New cards. New options. “Reducing tensions” will never be enough. We need to conceptualize how and when to deal a defeat to the Kremlin and its tactics — to disrupt the cycle of unchecked aggression.
The Kremlin works in action and electrons to build an information environment where we cannot see the possibility of our own success, only fear theirs. We owe it to ourselves and every life that may defend on the survival of the free world to break out of this mindset of fear and uncertainty, and come to the table with renewed clarity on what we might do to defend it.
The framework for renewed fortitude has started to take shape. It is formed by Finland and Sweden newly considering NATO membership in response to Moscow’s aggression. It is formed by Denmark saying it will come to the defense of the Baltic states if Russia moves against them. It’s formed by Estonia offering arms to Ukraine when they see what is coming. It’s formed by Lithuania withstanding, at great cost, simultaneous Russian and Chinese aggression in order to stand for the right principles and values. It’s formed by the Ukrainians who will not stop fighting for a free Ukraine. It’s formed by the UK for challenging the Kremlin’s illegal territorial claims. It’s formed by Canada’s quiet but consistent support for Ukraine and the Baltic states. It’s formed by every American working across the region to prepare our allies and our partners, and who would stand with them through whatever fire comes.
There is bravery and fortitude to be gathered and directed toward a common purpose. There is bravery and fortitude around us, friends, if only we would accept the duty to be the center of this mobilization.
We must be willing to confront Russia — you can say we must be willing to do this unilaterally, but we will not be alone if we choose to do what it is clear we must. We must be willing to conceptualize what defeating Putin’s aggression looks like, rather than merely accommodating it, since it becomes clear that this may be the only way to stop the ascendancy of the networked authoritarianism of which the Kremlin has made itself the core. We need to be the core of the counterforce. We must do this now, before the cost becomes even higher, and before the oceans we look out on are of blood instead of distance.