In 2009, Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Georgia, an ex-Soviet Republic of the Caucuses, just before my appointment as Supreme Allies Commander in NATO. He used a trumped up “incident” and crushed his tiny neighbor, a country with only 3 million citizens. Russia then essentially annexed two small parts of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia by encouraging them to declare “independence” and then coming to their protection.
Just four years after my time at NATO ended, he invaded a larger neighbour, Ukraine, again and annexed Crimea. Over 14,000 people were killed in that invasion, and there has been a violent insurgency in southeast Ukraine against the Ukrainian government.
Now, essentially completing the invader’s hat trick, he has attacked a neighbor for the third time, and has again used the “independence” route to cobble up a rationale for the invasion. The break-away “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk are now recognized by Russia, and “peacekeepers” in the form of Russian troops have again invaded a sovereign neighbor.
Ian Fleming (author of James Bond novels) once said that when somebody shoots at someone, it may just be chance, second-hand coincidence and third-party action. Putin is a serial violator of international borders and wants to dismantle the international order. The West must see him for who he really is.
He is a menace to the West. What can they do? We need to take down the Putin strategy.
The U.S., along with democratic countries around the world must raise awareness about the actions and reprehensible policies of the rogue regime. When a burglar attempts to enter your house, turn on the lights around it. This has been a great idea by the Biden Administration. It used huge amounts of intelligence data and was able to keep a step ahead Russians regarding revealing their plans.
Continue reading: What Putin’s Moves Towards War in Ukraine Reveal
Next, and equally simply, the world’s democracies must sanction Putin’s Russia across the spectrum of economic activity: disconnection from the SWIFT system, a ban on dealing with every significant sector of the Russian economy, personal sanctions on high ranking government officials, senior military, and especially the oligarch class. This should also include banning all international travel to democratic countries. Allow them to move their yachts in Monte Carlo to an area in Bander Abas Yacht club in Iran. For the foreseeable future there should only be air moving through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Germans are taking steps to ensure this is true.
An additional action could be to increase military assistance for the Ukrainians. They have soldiers who are currently serving on NATO missions with me. I am familiar with their military. They are brave and professional, and will fight—especially with their families and neighbors behind them and the Russians ahead of them. There is still time to move significant levels of material (notably anti-air and anti-armor systems) into Ukrainian hands—ship it to L’viv in the far west, which Putin is unlikely to seriously threaten given the vast size of Ukraine.
You should be prepared for worst-case scenarios, such as the collapse of Kyiv or the overthrow by the democratically elected Ukrainian government. This means having an evacuation plan for President Zelensky and his team; a preset fallback position (initially L’viv and then perhaps back further to a NATO capital, say Warsaw or London); construct a rudimentary command and control network to run a credible resistance in the Ukrainian dominated portions of the country; and provide financial support to keep the current Ukrainian embassies and the network of ambassadors at the U.N. and other international organizations functional. As Charles de Gaulle carried the flame of France through the Nazi occupation in France, the Ukraine should have the opportunity to do the same.
Don’t forget to show Putin the strength and determination that NATO has beyond Ukraine’s borders. While the alliance isn’t going to go to war in Ukraine, it must strengthen our defenses in the east. Activate the NATO Response Force and deploy it into nations on the Ukrainian and Russian borders; increase the level of intelligence gathered and shared across the alliance; conduct a new round of border defense exercises; deploy NATO’s Standing Naval Task Force into the Black Sea; and aggressively conduct air policing around the borders of the Alliance, especially in the Arctic which Putin values greatly. And it would be a good time to quietly encourage Finland and Sweden—both of whom have powerful, professional, and capable militaries—to join the alliance.
The argument can be made, finally, that the battlefield could shift to cyber. Moving tanks, jet fighters, and armored personnel carriers full of troops is expensive, and Putin’s financial reserves, while significant, are not unlimited. But electrons are a “free good” in terms of costs, and he may choose to attack Ukraine directly (especially its electric grid) or even conduct a horizontal escalation against the U.S. and NATO. The U.S. and our partners in cyber must be ready to “go offensive” to stop Putin. This could prove to be the most deadly part of the conflict.
Putin’s strategy is quite old and obvious. We know what we need to do, and even with the risk of escalation, we need to muster the will to stop Putin from simply annexing the rest of Ukraine—he will not stop unless he faces real consequences.