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Russia-Ukraine conflict will require American sacrifice to confront invasion

Americans deserve a fuller understanding of what is expected from them.
Photo illustration: Image of tanks moving, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin between blue and yellow strips of color.
For the second time in less than a year, President Joe Biden has been presented with a serious challenge abroad with profound implications for America’s role in the world — and his presidency.MSNBC / Getty; AP

Russia has finally pulled the trigger. At this moment, Russian forces are surging into Ukraine with what Western intelligence believes is a single objective: Crush the independent Ukrainian state, liquidate or imprison its most vocal supporters and force the nation to become a vassal of Moscow.

Even if the West succeeds in compelling Moscow to stop short of crushing the young Ukrainian state, the weeks ahead will be difficult.

That means that for the second time in less than a year, President Joe Biden has been presented with a serious challenge abroad with profound implications for America’s role in the world — and his presidency. Biden has twice warned Americans that comprehensively confronting this threat with the aim of containing it won’t be easy. Average Americans may be expected to make sacrifices if we are to be successful. But Biden has not spelled out precisely what those sacrifices could be. He should. Even if the West is resolute and succeeds in compelling Moscow to stop short of crushing the young Ukrainian state, the weeks ahead will be difficult. If we fail, however, the future could be indefinitely bleak.

Events in Eastern Europe moved faster than even Western intelligence predicted they would. As if on cue, the Russian-backed proxy forces that occupy the so-called breakaway provinces in Ukraine’s Donbas region unleashed a flurry of military activity. They shelled the “line of contact,” bombed their own infrastructure, manufactured the rushed evacuation of civilians and appealed to Moscow for help. Russia responded, as expected, by recognizing the legitimacy of the statelets it fabricated in Ukraine. But Russia’s actions both before and after that inflammatory maneuver revealed just how high the stakes of this crisis are about to become.

Early Sunday, Moscow announced that the military exercises it was conducting inside Belarus, which provided political cover to the Russian forces amassing around Ukraine, would not end as scheduled. Moreover, Minsk announced, Belarus would host a permanent Russian military presence. Thus, without its own independent foreign policy, domestic policy or military and with the illegitimate Alexander Lukashenko regime wholly reliant on Russian support, Belarus became a Russian vassal state.

Next, just before Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s sovereign borders for the second time since 2014, Russian television broadcast a special session of Russia’s national security council in which Putin compelled all of his deputies to go on record — some with visible reluctance — in support of recognizing the separatists in Ukraine. With that, the whole of the Russian regime is now implicated in the crimes to which we’re all now bearing witness.

Late Sunday night, in a televised address to the Russian public, Putin delivered a rambling justification for his government’s territorial ambitions in such an unhinged fashion that his remarks raise doubts about his attachment to reality. Putin took listeners on a ponderous journey though time as he recalled the origins of the Russian identity in medieval Ukraine, the 17th-century seizure of the Black Sea coast from the Ottomans, the creation of the Soviet republics by the Bolsheviks and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The arc of the Russian autocrat’s bizarre history lesson culminated in the unguarded assertion that Ukraine has no sovereignty that wasn’t gifted them by Russia — in effect, arguing against the nation’s right to exist at all.

So, when Putin responded to the manufactured crisis in Donbas by dispatching troops to the newly recognized “people’s republics,” no one breathed a sigh of relief. The Russian president’s solipsistic diatribe on Tsarist history made it clear that Russia’s territorial ambitions don’t end in Donbas. They may not even be limited to Ukraine.

On Tuesday afternoon, Biden made good on his pledge to impose sanctions on Russia if “any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border,” even the territories occupied by Russian proxy forces. Those initial sanctions include restrictions on Russian banks, including Promsvyazbank and VEB. The White House will also restrict Russia’s ability to access Western markets and float its debt in Western indexes. The U.S. will join with Britain to sanction Russian oligarchs close to Putin (and, crucially, their families). America is also working with Germany to prevent the Nord Stream II pipeline from going into service. Finally, Biden announced that the United States would rotate more troops into the NATO-aligned nations that border Belarus — now a Russian satrap and a staging area for Moscow’s military adventurism.

This is a good start, but not be a sufficient response to this level of Russian aggression. So Biden promised an escalating response from the West if Russia moved forward with a brazen land-grab in Ukraine (which, the president correctly predicted, was all but inevitable). And yet, Biden also reiterated a point he made only as an aside last week when he warned that defending U.S. interests in Europe would not be “painless.” “Defending freedom will have costs,” Biden said. “We need to be honest about that.” But the president didn’t elaborate. He only cryptically alluded to the “robust action” he would take to “limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump.”

Americans deserve a fuller understanding of what is expected from them.

Americans deserve a fuller understanding of what is expected from them. The sanctions the West is imposing on Russia will, according to The New York Times, be felt by average Russians in the form of “higher prices for food and clothing” or even devalued “pensions and savings accounts.” This will not dissuade Moscow from its present course. Only targeting Russia’s energy sector could impose a level of pain that Moscow might be unwilling to accept, and only targeting Russia’s energy sector would result in the kind of reciprocity — complicating or even choking off energy exports to the West — that Americans would feel “at the gas pump.” Biden has so far declined to target Russia’s energy sector, but if he is serious about crippling the Russian economy and reducing its capacity to project power beyond its borders, Russian oil and gas will become leverage sooner or later.

If economic warfare of that sort is in the offing, you can see why Biden would be reluctant to go into detail about it. Goldman Sachs estimates that a tit-for-tat exercise in sanctioning energy would force oil and gas prices to skyrocket. The reduced supplies would also contribute to already serious inflationary pressures in the U.S., further reducing Americans’ purchasing power and contributing to economic anxiety that is sapping this administration of support. If that is the price demanded of Americans in the face of this brazen attack on a global order that has so benefited the world’s civilized powers, Americans are most likely willing to bear that burden. But they must be asked for their participation in this exercise. Without buy-in, enthusiastic support for a campaign of economic and diplomatic warfare against Russia will rapidly dwindle.

The same could be said of Europe, which is far more reliant on Russian energy exports than the United States and which will likely waver in its resolve to confront the menace in Moscow sooner than their partners on the other side of the Atlantic. As former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev snarled, “Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2.000 for 1.000 cubic meters of natural gas!” Washington should meet this threat by seeking to fill the gaps left by Russia’s energy exports. That would likely require the Biden administration to repeal its executive orders halting oil and gas leases on federal lands and eliminating executive agency spending that subsidizes fossil fuel producers. It would commit the federal government to a crash-course program expanding our liquid natural gas export capacity, and it would involve promoting speculative investment in the development of new wells. If the president is serious in his desire to confront what promises to be a drawn-out crisis in Europe, he had better be prepared with a long-term strategy.

This is an all-hands-on-deck moment. A full-scale invasion of Ukraine should be met with all the consequences the United States can muster. Biden should declare that commitment from behind the Resolute Desk in a prime-time address to the nation from the Oval Office. The president should not assume that Americans are unwilling to hear the cold, hard truths about what is about to happen. Failing to level with the public for fear of how they might take the bad news isn’t just condescending; it risks undermining what may be a presidency-defining mission for Biden: ensuring that his name doesn’t go down in history as the American president who lost Europe.