When I visited Kyiv in September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a worried man. No one seemed to care, he told a gathering of European officials and foreign policy experts, that Russia had invaded Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 and occupied it for eight years.
His Western allies seemed insufficiently alarmed by the 100,000 Russian troops on his border and Moscow's constant provocations aimed at destabilizing his government and sparking civil unrest. Few outsiders mourned the more than 13,200 Ukrainians who had already died fighting Russian-backed separatist forces in the eastern region of Donbas or the two million who had been displaced by the low-intensity war, a conflict that even then was claiming a Ukrainian soldier's life every three days.
The West's seeming indifference to the specter of an escalating full-blown conflict on the European continent for the first time since the Cold War, he complained, left him feeling politically isolated and Ukraine increasingly vulnerable. When it came to battling Russia or the deadliest global pandemic in modern times, the gap between the West's rhetorical support for his country and its actions led him to conclude that Ukraine was on its own. In such crises, he lamented, "it's every man for himself."
However belated, the U.S. has finally made it clear that Zelenskyy is not on his own. While President Joe Biden has repeatedly ruled out a military response by the U.S or its NATO allies should Russia invade Ukraine again, he has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that further military aggression will result in what he recently called "massive consequences and severe economic costs." Paradoxically, some of Biden's toughest measures to date – i.e., the actual delivery on Saturday of long-promised weapons to Kyiv and the threat to possibly deploy some 8,500 U.S. forces to bolster front-line Russian NATO members – came after Biden stumbled badly by saying that a "minor" Russian incursion into Ukraine might not trigger a painful economic and diplomatic response.
And paradoxically, Biden's blunder may inadvertently have toughened America's policy. "Of course, talking about possibly sending additional troops to Eastern Europe is not the same as actually sending them," said John Herbst, a veteran diplomat, former ambassador to Ukraine, and current senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. "But it may be significant enough to do the job."
Although Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday there was "every indication" that Putin was preparing to use more force against Ukraine – though not during the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, which he is planning to attend and which would embarrass his rival/ally China – Herbst said he believes that Putin may ultimately decide not to do so. While Putin has repeatedly argued that Ukraine is linguistically, culturally, and historically an integral part of "Russia's world" and that Russian national security is threatened by Ukraine's desire to join the European Union and NATO – neither of which is likely to happen any time soon – Herbst argues that Putin probably knows how risky such a course might be.
For one thing, as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dimitri Kuleba said this week, if one of Putin's major foreign policy goals is getting NATO forces to withdraw from Eastern Europe, a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would only "accelerate what he fears." Second, Herbst and others argue, Putin knows that apart from its nuclear prowess, Russia is economically weak and that sanctions could further depress his economy and intensify political pressures on his regime whose popularity is dropping.
Russia is already suffering economically from the threatened economic sanctions. As the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, Russian stocks fell eight percent this week and the ruble dropped to a 14-month low. JPMorgan Chase bank has already stopped handling the ruble and closed all its positions in Russian currency, saying the possibility of war makes trading in rubles too risky.
Even if Washington cannot persuade Germany to cancel the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will deliver to Germans Russian natural gas, by-passing Ukraine, and fails to persuade other European allies to expel Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which facilitates international money transfers, the U.S. could increase financial pressure on Russia by sanctioning companies and countries that buy Russian debt.
But perhaps one of the most potent deterrents may be Ukrainians themselves. Although Ukrainian forces are no match for the Russian army, "this is not the Ukraine of years ago," Wendy Sherman warned Putin in her remarks to a forum sponsored by the Kyiv-based Yalta European Strategy (YES). "This is a country that will stand up for itself. Russia needs to know," she warned, that an invasion "will cost Russian lives." While that may matter little to a brutal autocrat like Putin, video on TV and social media of Ukrainians fighting and killing Russians is likely to undermine his argument that Russians and Ukrainians are "brothers" and that Russophobia is the handiwork of U.S. and NATO plotting.
Indeed, Moscow's seizure of Crimea and the ongoing war in the Donbas have sparked a sea change in Ukrainian attitudes toward Mother Russia. Whereas young Ukrainians once spoke to one another in Russian, Ukrainian is increasingly their language of choice. Whereas pro-Russian political parties once won presidential elections and formed majorities in parliament, they now struggle to secure the 20 percent required for participation. Although Russia has been conducting intensive destabilization operations in Ukraine for eight years, it boasts few successes. If anything, loyalty to Ukraine, especially among young Ukrainians, who lack their grandparents' nostalgia for Soviet rule, has been reinforced by Putin's autocratic rule at home and his aggression towards them and other former Soviet republics abroad. Though it might pain him to acknowledge it, said Herbst, "Putin is the father of Ukrainian nationalism."