President Joe Biden verbalized Saturday what we all know is true. As long as Vladimir Putin is Russian president, there will never be peace between Russia and the West. That said, he did misspeak. The U.S. does not have a strategy of regime change. In fact, it is not still clear that the U.S. has any real long-term strategy to ensure Putin is not a threat to us.
Putin’s war against Ukraine raises two major questions. The most obvious is: What happens to Ukraine after the fighting stops? The answer, of course, depends on how the war ends — win, lose or draw.
The second big question is: What happens to the transatlantic community and America’s place in it? The answer to that will depend mostly on what the president of the United States does. And his actions in this regard will affect what happens to our paychecks, our communities, the sons and daughters who defend us and the security, freedom and prosperity of every American.
What promises a better future for all of us is a strong, confident and unified transatlantic community. And the reason for that is China.
Cutting the transatlantic community in half is the most important part of Beijing’s global strategy. This would help isolate and tame America, leaving us even more dependent on trade and investment with China. Moreover, a weakened, divided and distracted Europe will be far more susceptible to Chinese influence. And Beijing’s best weapon for accomplishing that goal is Russia.
There is no question that China greenlighted Putin’s attack on Ukraine. Beijing, like Putin himself, expected a lightening victory. They calculated that Washington and the Western European capitals would then shrug their shoulders and go back to sleepwalking through history — just as they did when Putin usurped Crimea.
A successful land grab would give immediate and obvious advantages to Putin. But what’s in it for China? The expectation was that another successful Russian campaign would lead more European governments to lose faith in the U.S. and seek a new partner and interlocutor for dealing with the Kremlin. That new “fixer” would, of course, be Beijing.
Make no mistake, not matter how this war ends. Russia will still be Beijing’s stalking horse in Europe. Post-war Russia will remain a dangerous threat to the transatlantic community for two reasons: its military power and its energy resources, upon which so many of these countries rely.
Yes, the Russian military has thus far proved embarrassingly inept in Ukraine. Yet they have also shown they have no compunction about killing a lot of innocent civilians and flattening cities. And they’ve done that using only conventional weapons so far.
But Europeans are keenly aware that Russia has the largest and most powerful nuclear arsenal on earth — one that includes the world’s largest collection of tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, Russian war doctrine embraces the use of tactical nukes, even against nonnuclear powers. At least as long as Putin commands it, the Russian military will cast a dark and deeply concerning shadow on the West.
As for the energy threat, the European nations’ rush to transition to a “green” economy has left them more dependent on Russian oil, gas and coal than ever. While the West, like the rest of the world, needs abundant, affordable, reliable energy, it has yet to figure out how to get it without doing business with nations that want to undermine, bully and subjugate them.
The way to meet both challenges is to recognize that the West can’t survive and thrive without the roaring economies that made the free world the envy of the world.
No matter how the war against Ukraine ends, Putin will have to reset and rebuild his military. It will be a span of months, perhaps years, before he can seriously threaten most of his neighbors again. This gives the West a window when they can strengthen their capacity to stiff-arm future threats from Putin. The question is: Will they use that time wisely?
The transatlantic community has shown admirable unity in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine. That is not the same as rolling up sleeves and doing the heavy lifting needed to deal with threats. Biden’s swing through Europe last week was supposed to reassure us and our allies that he is up for that. It did not.
Let’s start with defense. NATO leaders announced deployments of battlegroups to show the flag along the alliance frontier. These are a handful of battalion-sized forces, a few hundred soldiers each. In comparison, U.S. official estimates Putin threw over 80 battalion-sized groups into the first wave of the Russian invasion.
NATO deployments are based on a “trip wire” strategy to deter aggression. The idea is to keep troop counts and firepower well below the Russian forces on the other side of the border, so they present no threat of aggression, yet sufficient to slow a Russian invasion until NATO can move more forces into the battlefield in the event of an invasion.
But Putin has shown he is reckless enough not to be deterred by the presence of clearly lesser forces. NATO needs to shift to a “forward defense” strategy. That would change the signal to Moscow from one that says “If you cross into NATO territory, you can dictate the terms of the initial engagement” to one that says “From day one, we will kill every aggressor who crosses the blueline.” That’s a deterrent.
To establish that deterrent, all NATO members — including the U.S. — will have to field more capabilities: additional air and missile defenses, logistical support, stocks of arms and ammunition … the works. Biden said nothing in Europe that suggests he acknowledges the need. Not one budget or defense plan the administration has produced suggests he gets it. In fact, the Biden administration has yet to issue a national security strategy; his team withdrew the draft they had produced because even they knew it was too milquetoast.
Biden’s energy plan is even more pathetic. He promised to help get Europe liquid natural gas in the short term. That is little more than a band-aid — the international equivalent of his move to ease the fuel crisis here by releasing three days-worth of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve.
And his long-term “answer” — renewables — shows that he really doesn’t get it. Renewables require heavy subsidies, can’t deliver electricity for a stable reliable grid, can’t provide for all the needs of modern society and can’t be scaled to meet the West’s energy demand. (Nor will they deliver better outcomes for the global environment.)
Finally, we have yet to hear a responsible plan from the president on how he is going to unleash our economy. In fact, every policy Biden suggests seems calculated to pile up more debt, more taxes, more inflation, more government red tape and intervention — the opposite of what needs to be done to unleash a free market economy.
Crucial times such as these require bold, rational leadership. But there is little reason to believe we will get anything approaching that from our current president.
A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign affairs.