General

Appease or Confront

For much of the past two decades, the U.S. and its European allies have chosen not to confront Vladimir Putin.

Even as Russia invaded Georgia, annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, shot down a passenger jet and interfered in a U.S. presidential election, the West did relatively little to stop him. It imposed sanctions too porous to have much effect on the oligarchs around Putin and stayed far away from any military confrontation with Russia.

When Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the strategy of non-confrontation seemed as if it would continue. Western leaders again imposed only modest sanctions and did not send any troops to Ukraine. The leaders feared sparking a larger war with Russia and — although they didn’t say so publicly — had decided that trying to save Ukraine was not worth the risk.

But then the Western leaders changed their minds.

Over the past two months, the U.S., the E.U. and their allies have shown an entirely new level of assertiveness toward Russia. As recent news stories have documented, the U.S. has gone so far as to provide Ukraine’s military with information that helped it kill Russian generals on the battlefield and sink the Moskva, a 200-yard-long warship that was the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The West also continues to send weapons to Ukraine and enforce harsh economic sanctions on Russia.

What explains the turnabout? I posed that question to my colleague Helene Cooper — one of the reporters who has broken stories about the collaboration between the American and Ukrainian militaries — and our conversation helped me understand the main reasons. Today’s newsletter focuses on this rapid and consequential change in American foreign policy.

Over the past two decades, American officials have had a lot of experience collaborating with another country’s military during a war being fought on its soil. Much of that experience was in Afghanistan, and it was deeply frustrating for the U.S. Although many Afghan soldiers bravely fought the Taliban, the Afghan government was riddled with corruption and did not seem committed to victory.

The defeat there has haunted members of the Biden administration and the U.S. military. “They were scarred from Afghanistan,” Helene says.

On the surface, Ukraine initially looked like another lost cause. Its military was far smaller and less well armed than Russia’s, and Western experts expected Ukraine’s government to fall within days.

From the first days of Russia’s invasion, however, Ukraine surprised the world. Its civilians demonstrated a patriotism that belied Putin’s claim that Ukraine was not a real country, and its military stopped Russia’s army from advancing in many places.

“Not only did Ukraine fight,” Helene said, “but they were winning.” This early success showed Western officials that trying to stop Putin might not be a hopeless cause.

The start of fighting changed the West’s calculations in another way, too. Europe’s largest war in more than 75 years — since Nazi Germany surrendered — was underway. Russia was bombing cities and killing civilians, and millions of Ukrainians were fleeing their homes.

Putin’s earlier aggressions had been on a smaller scale. His previous attacks on Ukraine and Georgia were not full-scale wars. His interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was certainly aggressive, but it was also amorphous: Nobody could be sure exactly how much it mattered, and the Trump administration had an obvious incentive to downplay it.

The images coming from Ukraine were much more salient. They were sufficiently shocking as to change the way many Western leaders thought about their approach to Putin. Before, those leaders were willing to tolerate his aggressions, partly out of a fear of how much worse things could get. After the Ukraine invasion, these same leaders effectively came to believe that they had only two choices: appeasement or confrontation.

The change in the West’s policy has been remarkable. In the early weeks of the war, Helene points out, American officials were not willing to admit that they were sending shoulder-fired missile systems known as Stingers to Ukraine. “They were afraid to use the word ‘Stingers,’” she said.

Today, U.S. officials acknowledge helping Ukraine get access not only to Stingers but to other missiles, tanks and more. The American involvement in attacks on Russian generals and the Moskva ship, although not officially acknowledged, is even more aggressive.

As Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official, said, describing the new U.S. policy: “We will give them everything they need to win, and we’re not afraid of Vladimir Putin’s reaction to that. We won’t be self-deterred.”

The U.S. and its allies still have tough decisions to make.

Some officials and experts worry that the West continues to err on the side of caution and is not giving Ukraine what its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, says he needs to win. “We have been deterred out of an exaggerated fear of what possibly could happen,” retired Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, the former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, has said.

Other experts think the U.S. may be overcompensating for its initial weakness toward Putin and is now risking a wider confrontation. Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist, captured this worry in his most recent column. The sinking of the Moskva and targeting of Russian generals, he wrote, “suggest we are no longer in an indirect war with Russia but rather edging toward a direct war — and no one has prepared the American people or Congress for that.”

There are no easy answers here. The old strategy — appeasement without calling it so — encouraged Putin to become more aggressive, believing the West was too frightened to respond. The new strategy — confrontation without fully acknowledging it — risks a fight with a nuclear power that many Americans and Europeans do not want. Putin knows that, which is part of the reason he has been willing to take such enormous risks.

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