The moment, after a standoff stretching for months, has arrived. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is underway.
On Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said that he has decided to carry out a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine. Earlier this week, he had ordered his military into two regions in eastern Ukraine, giving the lie to the claim — often repeated by Russian officials — that he had no intention of invading. As well as an act of aggression, it’s a blatant violation of the basic legal principle that international borders are not to be changed by force and that sovereign countries are free to make their own decisions.
It is also unwarranted. There are two types of war: wars of necessity, to protect vital national interests and involving the use of military force as a last resort, such as World War II and the Persian Gulf war of 1991; and wars of choice — armed interventions taken either in the absence of vital national interests or despite the availability of options not involving military force. Into this category fall the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and, after a limited initial phase, Afghanistan.
Mr. Putin’s conflict is, decidedly, a war of choice. The Russian president’s justifications hold no water: There was and is no consensus about bringing Ukraine into NATO in the next decade or later. There was and is no threat to ethnic Russians in Ukraine. And the United States and NATO have voiced their openness to discussing European security arrangements that take legitimate Russian interests into account.
Instead, Mr. Putin is choosing the path of war. This calls for a determined, comprehensive reply from the West. Mr. Putin’s war of choice demands a response of necessity.
The West should aim to penalize Russia and to discourage it from further aggression. Germany’s suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a strong start, as are the financial sanctions targeting two Russian banks and Russia’s sovereign debt announced by President Biden on Tuesday. Additional targeted measures ought to follow, and the military capacities of both Ukraine and NATO, particularly in countries close to Russia, should continue to be enhanced. Mr. Putin must be made to understand that the moves he’s already made will have meaningful consequences.
But if the Russian intervention is a prelude to an attempt to assert control over the entirety of Ukraine and oust its government, as it’s likely to be, the United States and its NATO allies must go much further. The aim then should be to expand support to Ukraine — military, intelligence, economic and diplomatic — to such an extent as to significantly raise the costs of any Russian occupation.
That should be possible, not least because Russia’s approximately 190,000 troops and Russian-backed separatist forces that are in or near Ukraine are unlikely to be able to readily pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population. For Russia, the costs will already be high. Though far from a panacea, sanctions against a wider set of people and financial institutions close to Mr. Putin and critical for Russia’s economy can raise them higher still — as would increasing oil and gas production in the United States and the Middle East. Removing the Kremlin’s cushion of high energy prices, which have long been a windfall for the government, would be the best sanction.
The United States should also continue to make public its intelligence that sheds light on Russian intentions to spoil surprises. Traditional and social media with the potential to reach Russian journalists and civil society should counter the Kremlin’s narrative. And images of what is taking place inside Ukraine should reach the world, leaving no doubt about the toll in innocent lives caused by Mr. Putin’s adventurism.
On a more strategic level, the United States should try to build some distance between China and Russia. That won’t happen overnight, but the Biden administration should step up its private diplomacy with China, highlighting the economic and strategic risks — including financial punishment and increasing anti-China sentiment in the West — of it being closely associated with an aggressive Russia. Now would also be a good time to restart a high-level strategic dialogue with China and search for issues, on Afghanistan, say, and climate change, where the two governments might cooperate.
On the international stage, governments everywhere ought to be discouraged from following Russia’s lead in recognizing the independence of the two Ukrainian regions. And Ukraine and its friends should make their case not just to the United Nations Security Council but also to the General Assembly, where Russia has no veto. What’s more, European governments need to prepare their publics for major increases in refugees fleeing Ukraine and make the case for why they must be supported. And citizens of both Europe and the United States need to be warned about the potential for cyberattacks and energy shortages. Facing down Russia will not be painless.
But the history of wars of choice offers some useful perspective. While many start well, most — particularly those that are ambitious — end badly. Intervening countries tend to underestimate the difficulty of prevailing or of translating battlefield successes into lasting gains. Gradually, those at home tend to grow weary of shouldering the mounting costs tied to the pursuit of elusive objectives. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, which began in 1979, dragged on for a decade and badly damaged the state’s authority, is a case in point.
Yet Mr. Putin is determined to upend European stability. Like others before him, he is initiating a war of choice in the belief that the benefits will outweigh the costs. It is up to the United States and its partners to prove he got his calculations badly wrong.
Richard N. Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of, among other books, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars and The World: A Brief Introduction.