What Went Wrong In Deterring Putin

President Biden, President Putin
President Biden, President Putin: Public Domain

There are a lot of people right now asking what Joe Biden should do about the situation in Ukraine. I’d like to humbly suggest that’s the wrong question. The right question is: what steps should our administration have taken to discourage the invasion?

If you have to put out a house fire, you’ve already missed the window for success. You’ve failed at prevention. No matter how capable the fire department is, you’re just in the loss mitigation business now. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the firefighting stage with Vladimir Putin. The invasion is underway, and world leadership has already missed the opportunity for the best result – deterrence. Now the world is in the mode of minimizing the damage. We’re going to have to do it. But we shouldn’t be proud of our performance so far.

Vlad was always going to make his own decisions. The best we could have done would be to have influenced his decision-making process. There is no guarantee that we could have stopped the invasion, but we certainly missed the opportunity to discourage it. So, what could our President have done to influence Vlad’s thinking.

First and foremost, he could have done a much better job of projecting strength. Projecting strength has never started a war, but presenting weakness almost always invites one. He shouldn’t have turned a strategic withdrawal into an unconditional surrender to a bunch of dark ages thugs. There was no need to bug out of Afghanistan, abandoning people and equipment to the enemy for the sake of an arbitrary timeline. We are the preeminent world superpower. We could have set the time and terms for our departure. Instead, we presented weakness as the world watched.

Our President should have immediately fired any officer that mentioned attacking racism as a key objective of the military. Its only key objective is warfighting readiness. He should have also fired any officer that set out on a white supremacist snipe hunt rather than ferreting out terrorists (e.g., Maj. Nidal Hasan) from the ranks. And while he’s at it, fire any officer that arranged participation in a gay pride parade. Xe obviously has too much time on xer hands.

Our President should have worked to strengthen our alliances (e.g., NATO). As part of that strengthening, he should have forced them to live up to their military readiness commitments. We can not defend half of the world, from the other half of the world, by ourselves. Demanding that our allies prepare for their own defense is not abandoning them. It is forcing them to acknowledge the realities of a dangerous world. It’s an act of tough love.

Our President should have built good relations with our allies by treating them like, well … allies. When we decided to end a 20-year war in which our allies helped us, perhaps we should have included them in the planning and execution. Leaving Afghanistan with little warning, and no input did not exactly fortify our alliances.

Our President should have done everything possible to deny Putin the financial resources needed for his expansionist adventures. Block any expansion of oil pipelines and sanction his oil exports. At the same time, expand oil and gas exploration in our own country. It has the double advantage of driving the cost of oil down (costing Vlad money) and making us independent from the world’s worst actors.

Our President should have done everything possible to complicate Vlad’s cost/benefit analysis. There is a certain deterrent value in unpredictability. All criminals (including international miscreants) engage in cost/benefit analysis. They constantly assess whether the gains from bad behavior out weigh the likely costs. When the gains are substantial, and the risk of loss is minimal, it’s go-time. But, unpredictability messes with the cost/benefit calculus. For example: sanctions are all well and good, but occasionally vaporizing a misbehaving general (e.g., Qasem Soleimani) with a hellfire missile tends to muck up the calculations. It makes the enemy wonder if perhaps there are some costs or risks they’ve forgotten to account for.

In short, to discourage Putin from invading Ukraine, our President needed to do the opposite of everything he’s actually done for the past year. Our President needed to be Donald Trump.

This reflection about what could have been done is not senseless crying over what could have been. As Hillary Clinton would say, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” Actually, it makes a big difference. The world needs to understand what led to our failure in Ukraine because there are important lessons to learn — and there is little time to learn those lessons. China is watching all of this as it stalks Taiwan.

As an aside, the Ukrainians are facing Russia’s best with rifles, Molotov cocktails, and rocks. I doubt that any of them are thinking about addressing racism in their ranks or getting each other’s pronouns right. As we watch China making its cost/benefit calculation about Taiwan, that should be a lesson for our command staff – but I suspect it isn’t.

Author Bio: John Green is a political refugee from Minnesota, now residing in Idaho. He currently writes at the American Free News Network and The Blue State Conservative. He can be followed on Facebook or reached at greenjeg@gmail.com.

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