How should the U.S. react to Russia’s Ukraine threats?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin that invading Ukraine would result in “strong economic measures” during a videoconference between the two leaders on Tuesday, according to national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s recap of the conversation.

Biden’s warning comes amid the U.S. government’s finding that Russia is amassing about 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, raising fears that Putin may be planning to invade the country for the second time in less than a decade. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea — a strategically critical peninsula on the Black Sea that still remains under Moscow’s control. That same year, pro-Russian separatists seized power in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine after months of deadly clashes.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it’s planning another invasion, insisting it is merely moving troops to defend itself and its proxies in Donbas from attack. But Putin recently referred to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” and compared Ukraine’s growing alliance with Western powers to “the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”

Why there’s debate

Putin’s provocations have sparked significant debate over what the U.S. should do to prevent an invasion and how aggressively it should defend Ukraine if Russia does launch an attack.

Biden has said the idea of sending American troops to Ukraine is “off the table,” a stance most experts agree with, given the risk that the conflict could spiral into an all-out war between two nuclear superpowers. But many still argue that the U.S. has an obligation to take strong steps to support Ukraine and impose substantial costs on Russia if an invasion does occur. Those actions could include supplying the Ukrainian military with weapons and issuing major sanctions that could cripple the Russian economy.

Some foreign policy analysts, on the other hand, say the U.S. should use a softer touch. They argue that the U.S. has very little power to influence Russia’s behavior and caution against escalating the situation unnecessarily. They argue that Moscow has routinely shrugged off economic sanctions in recent years and any military action by the U.S. could provide Putin with the excuse he needs to rationalize an invasion. The best way to avoid conflict, some argue, is for the U.S. to exert pressure on Ukrainian leaders to follow through with the terms of a peace agreement that was reached in 2015 but never honored by either side. That deal would grant the pro-Russia Donbas region more autonomy to make decisions independent of the Ukrainian government.

Another group insists that Western leaders are being manipulated by Putin, who they say has zero interest in getting drawn into what would be a lengthy and costly conflict in Ukraine. They argue that Russia’s troop movements and tough talk are entirely designed to prevent Ukraine from deepening its relationships with Russia's rivals.

What’s next

U.S. national security officials say it’s still unclear whether Putin has made his mind up one way or the other on whether to invade Ukraine. Western intelligence services reportedly believe that an attack, if it happens, could come in the early months of next year.


The U.S. should promote a peaceful resolution from a position of strength

“There may still be time to convince Mr. Putin that his best hope lies in a diplomatic solution. … For U.S. diplomacy to succeed, though, it must be backed up with political, economic and military strength.” — Editorial, Washington Post

The U.S. has the leverage to keep Russia in line if it’s willing to use it

“From a position of strength, the U.S. can and should offer Russia face-saving ways out of the crisis, but on substance Mr. Biden should stand firm. The reality is that Russia has lost its battle for the heart of Ukraine. After encouraging Ukraine to cast its lot with the West for three decades, America’s only honorable course is to sustain Kyiv in this hour of trial.” — Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal

Western powers can’t allow Russia to keep expanding its influence

“From Bosnia to Belarus, Mr Putin’s baleful influence in the former Soviet sphere is deepening. Robust western solidarity with Kyiv will be needed to prevent a resurgence of the same in Ukraine this winter.” — Editorial, Guardian

Bolstering the Ukrainian military will help convince Putin the cost of invasion would be too high

“The Pentagon should work closely with the Ukrainians to provide them with just the sort of weapons that they need to convince Moscow that they’re capable of inflicting heavy costs on Russian forces — helicopters, Stinger missiles, and more. Ukrainians are the first to say that they don’t want U.S. troops fighting on their territory, even if that possibility were in the offing. … We have every incentive to work with them to try to deter what would be a naked and cynical act of aggression even by Vladimir Putin’s standards.” — Editorial, National Review

The U.S. should press Ukraine to accept a partial, but peaceful, surrender

“The risk of a major war seems real enough to justify a new U.S. approach. The current policy of threatening punishments and bolstering Kyiv might be morally justified, but it is highly unlikely to alter Putin’s calculus. The Biden administration should accept the unsatisfying reality that it will likely not be able to coerce Putin to de-escalate if he is determined to act. America’s leverage is limited.” — Samuel Charap, Politico

America has no real options to stop an invasion if Russia is determined to launch one

“What are we supposed to do if Russia were to invade in defiance of our threats? Going to war with Russia would be madness, but it’s unclear whether any response short of war would be adequate to reverse significant Russian military moves. If Russia called our bluff, then, how exactly would that redound to our benefit, in the Western Pacific or anywhere else?” — Noah Millman, The Week

U.S. military involvement must be avoided at all costs

“The consequences of a direct US-Russian clash in Ukraine would be catastrophic. A full-scale conventional war would have the strong potential to escalate into nuclear war and the annihilation of most of humanity.” — Anatol Lieven, The Nation

Russia isn’t going to invade

“It would be colossally stupid for Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, and he is not a stupid man. He would end up occupying a country of 45 million people most of whom resent the Russian occupation so much that a big, long guerrilla war would be almost inevitable. He would face a rejuvenated NATO that posed a real threat to Russia from borders far closer to Moscow than those of the old Cold War, plus a crippling full-spectrum trade embargo.” — Gwynne Dyer, Bangor Daily News

It’s smart to keep Putin guessing about how the U.S. might act

“The Biden administration would do well to take a page out of the Russian playbook and make Moscow wonder — and fret — about Washington’s capabilities and plans. Only then can a reinvigorated diplomatic process — one that puts the United States at the table — work to prevent Russia from pressing its advantage in Ukraine.” — Angela Stent, Foreign Affairs

The U.S. shouldn’t sit on its hands waiting for Russia to set the terms of the conflict

“Is Ukraine under threat from Russia? Of course it is, and an entire generation of Ukrainians will suffer the fallout from the Kremlin’s geopolitical slaughter for decades to come. But maybe instead of taking Putin’s bait and allowing him to relish his role as an omnipotent villain, U.S. officials should sidestep the mind-games, skip straight to new sanctions, and let the insecure, aging dictator that he is shine through.” — Allison Quinn, Daily Beast

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