The New York Times – Opinion
Mr. Putin Launches a Sequel to the Cold War
By The Editorial Board – February 24, 2022
The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.
Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is advancing from the east, the south and toward Kyiv in the north. As fighting raged on Thursday, President Biden ordered a harsh round of sanctions, and a fateful new East-West struggle is underway with no indication of where it might lead or how long it might last.
It is imperative to state clearly that none of the pretext for war that Mr. Putin churned out in recent days and weeks contained much truth or any justification whatsoever for waging war on a weaker neighbor. This is a war of choice for all the wrong reasons, and Mr. Putin and his coterie are solely and fully responsible for every drop of Ukrainian — and Russian — blood, for every livelihood destroyed and for all the economic pain engendered by this conflict.
It is also important to acknowledge that no one, save possibly Mr. Putin, has any idea what will happen in coming days, weeks, months and possibly even years. The Russian president said he had no intention of occupying Ukraine, yet he intends to oust its leadership and round up his enemies. But what does that mean? How did he intend to plant a puppet regime without seizing Kyiv, or to kidnap people without taking the whole country? How long does he intend to occupy the country?
Does the United States or its allies and friends have the levers, and the will, to punish Russia sufficiently to stymie Mr. Putin’s ambitions? In announcing new sanctions, trade restrictions and measures against Russian oligarchs, Mr. Biden said they would impose “severe costs” on the Russian economy “both immediately and over time.” But while a serious fall in the Russian currency and stock market suggest this could be so, the sanctions also demonstrated the limitations of what the West has done so far.
Mr. Biden announced sanctions on several large Russian banks, major state-owned enterprises and Mr. Putin’s lieutenants, and restrictions on high-tech exports to Russia. Those had all been threatened over many weeks. That the threat failed to deter Mr. Putin indicates that he was prepared to absorb the costs, and to wait and see whether the West could do the same.
Mr. Biden stopped short of two especially tough punishments — personal sanctions against Mr. Putin and excluding Russia from the SWIFT system of global money transfers. The latter in particular would do immediate and grave damage to the Russian economy. But it would also damage the countries with which it trades, including the European Union members and the United States. Mr. Biden said that all such sanctions remained on the table.
The president also effectively acknowledged that the sanctions would further increase energy costs for Americans at a time of steep inflation. He said the administration would do what it could to bring down oil and gas prices and warned American energy companies against profiteering.
Mr. Biden insisted that the United States and its allies and partners were in full accord on the response to Moscow, and for now there were no evident holdouts. Even Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, an unabashed fan of Mr. Putin, fell in line with E.U. sanctions.
It is less certain whether a politically divided American public will support Mr. Biden if, for instance, gas prices skyrocket. In keeping with his inexplicable fawning over Mr. Putin while he was president, Donald Trump issued more outrageous appreciation of the Russian’s actions even as the invasion was about to start, saying, “He’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart.”
Among many other questions around the invasion was the reaction of the Russian public. Thousands of Russians courageously took to the streets in Moscow and other cities on Thursday to protest the war and were met with a fierce police crackdown. How deep the resistance goes, or what it could achieve against Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule, is unclear. It is also not known whether the antiwar outpouring had any tacit sympathy in the upper echelons of government.
There is also the matter of how the Chinese government may respond. The world inadvertently caught a glimpse when official guidance to the media on how to treat the Russian invasion was briefly posted online. A senior editor at Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, wrote on social media that China has to give Russia emotional and moral support but to refrain from “treading on the toes” of the United States and the E.U. In the future, the editor added revealingly, China will need Russia’s support on Taiwan, the independent island-state Beijing is determined to bring under its control.
These and other questions were certain to foment debate as the invasion unfolded. What is clear now is that Mr. Putin has thrust Europe into the most dangerous conflict since World War II, acting on a combination of misguided grievances, flawed history and illusions of grandeur. He has launched a sequel to the Cold War, a potentially more dangerous one because his claims and demands offer no grounds for negotiations, and because along with its nuclear arsenal Russia is capable of launching a massively destructive cyberwar.
Mr. Biden and other Western leaders are justified in saying they did all they could to try to deter Mr. Putin, meeting with him many times and searching for ways to meet his demands in ways that would not clash with their obligations and principles. But this is just the beginning: In coming days and weeks as Ukrainians fight for their lives, the West will also be sorely tested, and its leaders will need the utmost flexibility and strength to persevere and to guide their publics.
In his two televised addresses this week, Mr. Biden displayed the resolution and calm of a tested leader, and the Western alliance demonstrated a rare unity in the face of Russia’s attack. The West is strongest when it stands together for its shared values and against a common enemy. However difficult it may be, our pain will be nothing compared with the agonies of the Ukrainian people at the hands of an invading army.