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Sanctions Are Not Enough

Column: America needs energy independence and a much larger military to deter Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo by ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
• February 24, 2022 1:27 pm

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Ever since last year, when Vladimir Putin began preparing for an invasion of Ukraine, President Biden has tried to deter him. Biden tried to reason with the Russian autocrat. He released declassified intelligence to rally the world against the imminent threat. He supported French president Emmanuel Macron's last-ditch attempt at diplomacy. He warned Russia that a war would be met with harsh economic sanctions.

Nothing worked. Negotiations failed. So-called "deterrence through disclosure" had no effect. The threat of punishment carried no weight. The invasion began in the early hours of February 24. The largest military action undertaken on the continent of Europe since World War II is underway. Anyone who pretends to know what will happen next is kidding themselves.

President Biden and America's allies in Europe have prepared a program of sanctions to punish Putin, his inner circle, and the Russian security and military services for this unprovoked assault on an independent nation of some 40 million people. Biden is right to do so. Free societies have an obligation to demonstrate their revulsion toward despotism. Any cost imposed on Putin is worthwhile.

Yet sanctions aren't enough. The record is clear: Sanctions make a point, but they rarely achieve their goals. The American president can no longer pretend that economic coercion alone will do the trick. A grand strategy is required to make Putin's invasion and possible occupation of Ukraine as painful for him as possible, to stop him from expanding the war, and to reestablish deterrence.

America's economic, military, technological, and cultural power must be aligned toward shielding democracy in Europe and undermining the Russian war machine. Limiting ourselves to sanctions and diplomacy won't make Putin think twice before demanding more of the West. Quite the opposite: He will brush his shoulder off. He will look for another target.

The first task is to assist Ukraine in its existential conflict. The flip side of sanctioning Russia ought to be providing additional financial aid to the elected government of Ukraine. Weapons should follow the money.

The president can declare that America will not recognize, nor will international organizations seat, a Russian-backed Ukrainian regime. He can prepare to support a Ukrainian government in exile and to supply anti-Russian partisans in occupied territory. Abandoning Ukraine to fight unassisted would be worse than a betrayal. It would make Putin's life easier. It would enhance his personal rule. That is exactly what we do not want.

Second, Biden must abandon his energy strategy. Nothing less than a total reversal of his approach is necessary. Certain times require a reevaluation of priorities and a reorganization of values. The global crisis that Putin has set in motion is such a moment.

Putin tends to lash out when gas prices are high. Lowering these costs will not be easy. It will take time. And the only effective means of lowering the price of energy is increasing its supply.

Biden must embrace oil and gas exploration. America was energy independent just a few years ago. The American president must do everything he can to make us independent again. While he's at it, he needs to blanket Europe with liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities, call on the German government to reevaluate its attitude toward nuclear power, and ask the U.S. Congress to subsidize new nuclear plants here at home.

Soliciting OPEC is a crutch. The green-energy transition must wait. Turn on the spigot of American oil and gas to drown out Putin's energy weapon. Failure to do so would be another self-inflicted wound.

Third, Biden needs to ask Congress not only to pass the authorized defense budget, but to send him an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that dramatically ramps up military spending. Biden's idea that he could minimize the role of the Defense Department and conduct foreign policy through the State Department and—God help us—John Kerry was always delusional. Now it's dangerous.

Congress authorized, but hasn't passed, a defense budget greater than the one Biden requested. Even this increase, however, amounts to a net cut thanks to inflation. America needs to spend more on defense—much more. This additional spending ought to include enhanced research and development as well as updating and expanding America's nuclear arsenal.

America needs more of everything—more troops, more tanks, more planes, more ships, more drones, more UAVs and USVs, more ABM systems, more chips, and more connectivity. And we need it soon. Ronald Reagan grabbed the Kremlin's attention with his defense budgets. Biden has not. He needs to mimic Reagan, not Barack Obama, if he wants to stop his presidency from sliding entirely into chaos.

Finally, Biden has an opportunity to reassert himself as leader of the Free World. Biden has sounded the right notes on democracy, but his actions have not supported his rhetoric. He is responsible for the extinction of democracy in Afghanistan. He could not stop Putin from attacking Ukraine. If he does not change his approach, he probably will watch China take Taiwan before his term is over.

Supplementing economic sanctions against Russia with military aid to Ukraine, a liberalized energy policy, and massive defense spending will help anchor Biden amid the authoritarian riptide. To press forward, however, he needs to make a robust case for democracy in multiple venues. He needs to rush reinforcements to NATO members such as Poland and Romania, the Baltic States, and Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro. And he needs to live up to his rhetoric of national unity by nominating a Supreme Court justice who will attract GOP votes and inviting national security officials who have worked for Republicans to join his team.

One of the reasons that the West misjudged Putin was our minimization of ideology in world affairs. We tend to believe that everyone is, in the end, like us—they think like us, they want the same things as us. But we are wrong. Putin and Xi Jinping have different belief systems, different values. And these divergent ideas motivate them to pursue horrific ends.

Every American president has a responsibility to stand for, speak for, and support the values of political and religious liberty at the heart of our experiment in self-government. The most recent occupants of the Oval Office have not quite lived up to the job. The egregious acts of Vladimir Putin offer President Biden a chance to turn things around. Pray that he seizes this opportunity.