The West’s response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been resolute, unified and consequential. But it is inadequate to the task of deterring and containing Vladimir Putin’s designs on Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s frontline states. Sanctions alone are insufficient to deter Mr. Putin, who, like countless European tyrants before him, recognizes only strength. If Western leaders want Mr. Putin to sue for peace, they need to increase troop levels on NATO’s eastern flank and introduce a robust defensive military presence in western Ukraine and the Black Sea.
At present the West is allowing Mr. Putin’s illegal invasion and saber-rattling to define the battlespace. This is wrong: Western militaries can and should operate inside western Ukraine, far from Russia’s ground operations in the east of the country. A decisive show of force inside Ukraine would signal to Mr. Putin that the West will not tolerate Russian attempts to redraw borders by force. It will also stanch the worst bloodletting in Europe since 1945 and forestall future Russian aggression in Europe.
Western politicians recognize that we are at a pivotal moment in history. Mr. Putin seeks to upend the European order forged by American-led victories in World War II and the Cold War. Whether he is nursing old grievances or trying to rebuild a czarist empire is beside the point. If his scorched-earth tactics yield victory in Ukraine, he will stir up trouble in Moldova, the Baltic states or Poland. It is ahistorical and unwise to assume otherwise. Hitler’s 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland is an imperfect but instructive analogy.
Article 5 of the NATO charter obliges the whole bloc to come to the defense of member nations that are under attack. Western resolve in the current crisis will shape Mr. Putin’s willingness to gamble on such a response in any future showdown. His successes in Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015-16 were key factors in his decision to invade Ukraine.
The US and Europe have risen to the occasion. They have imposed crushing financial penalties on Russian firms and rushed materiel to Ukraine. But bloody history shows that strategic patience pays off for Russia. Mr. Putin will likely gain sway over much of Ukraine, remain ensconced in the Kremlin, and plot his next moves westward. Western politicians, understandably wary of military commitments after long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have ruled out sending troops. But forgoing a defensive humanitarian deployment in western Ukraine brings significant risks, including months of horrific bloodshed and, down the road, an emboldened Russia.
There are no international treaties or laws preventing a military deployment now that Mr. Putin has invaded Ukraine. The democratically elected government of Volodymyr Zelensky would welcome such a troop presence. Mr. Putin believes he is dictating events, and so far Western nations are going along. That dynamic should be reversed.
Western powers have dispatched thousands of troops to frontline NATO states for humanitarian purposes. But these forces’ impact would be far more consequential inside Ukraine. Western powers should insert heavily armored forces into pockets of western Ukraine, making clear that such deployments are at the invitation of the sovereign government, are designed to safeguard humanitarian operations, and will not engage offensively with Russian forces.
Such forces, drawn from NATO states and possibly other allied countries, could be structured similarly to NATO-led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. If Mr. Putin’s ground forces remain bogged down in eastern Ukraine, this humanitarian-oriented force could gradually move east. The recent uptick in airstrikes in parts of western Ukraine underscores the need to deter Mr. Putin bringing his indiscriminate bombing campaign to towns and cities on NATO’s periphery.
This plan requires hard-nosed leadership, but it does not mean automatic war with Russia, let alone a nuclear conflict. Mr. Putin is fond of saber-rattling, not least because it has worked as a deterrence thus far. The Russian leader, whose forces are being stymied by an outgunned but determined Ukrainian military, is unlikely to risk skirmishes with better-equipped Western divisions on the other side of Ukraine who aren’t shooting at him. Mr. Putin may be a zealot and a gambler, but he and his generals remain rational. They are not looking to trigger a nuclear armageddon.
Western deployments in and around Ukraine would signal to Mr. Putin that the US and NATO will no longer tolerate attempts to violate the post-World War II rules-based order. They would also temper Russian gains in Ukraine, helping ensure the country’s survival, even if de facto partitioned in the near-term. Countless lives would be saved.
This moment calls for decisive action, well-planned and calibrated to avoid a shooting war. Politicians must cast aside straw-man arguments and what-if scenarios and make clear to Mr. Putin’s aggression must end.
Mr. Hood, a foreign-policy practitioner since 2001, worked for the United Nations, 2001-06, and in the Office of Vice President Mike Pence, 2019-21.
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