In 2000, I was the first senior U.S. official who met with Vladimir Putin in his new role as acting president of Russia. We in the Clinton administration did not know much about him at the time — just that he had started his career in the K.G.B. I hoped that the meeting would allow me to get a better understanding of him and help me assess the implications of his sudden rise for U.S.-Russia relations. These relations had been in decline since the war in Chechnya. I was immediately struck at the stark contrast between Boris Yeltsin, his bombastic predecessor and Vladimir Putin, as I sat across a small table in the Kremlin.
Whereas Mr. Yeltsin had cajoled, blustered and flattered, Mr. Putin spoke unemotionally and without notes about his determination to resurrect Russia’s economy and quash Chechen rebels. I wrote down my impressions as I flew back. “Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.”
Recent months have brought back memories of the almost three-hour-long session with Putin, when he assembled troops at the border to Ukraine. In a bizarre televised address he called Ukrainian statehood a fiction and issued a decree recognizing the independence of two regions in Ukraine and sending troops.
Mr. Putin’s revisionist and absurd assertion that Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia” and effectively robbed from the Russian empire is fully in keeping with his warped worldview. Most concerning to me was his attempt at creating the pretext to a full-scale invasion.
If he does so, it will be a historical error.
In the 20-odd years since we met, Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for Stalin’s playbook. He has collected political and economic power for himself — co-opting or crushing potential competition — while pushing to re-establish a sphere of Russian dominance through parts of the former Soviet Union. He, like other authoritarians also sees his well-being as a matter of national security and the opposition as treason. He believes that Americans mirror his cynicism as well as his lust for power. In a world that is filled with lies, he does not have to tell the truth. He believes Russia has the right to be ruled by the United States, as it does in its own country.
Mr. Putin has for years sought to burnish his country’s international reputation, expand Russia’s military and economic might, weaken NATO and divide Europe (while driving a wedge between it and the United States). All of this is centered on Ukraine.
Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance.
He’s already set that in motion by announcing on Monday his decision to recognize the two separatist enclaves in Ukraine and send in Russian troops as “peacemakers.” Now he has demanded that it recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea and relinquish its advanced weapons.
Mr. Putin’s actions have triggered massive sanctions, with more to come if he launches a full-scale assault and attempts to seize the entire country. These would devastate not just his country’s economy but also his tight circle of corrupt cronies — who in turn could challenge his leadership. What is sure to be a bloody and catastrophic war will drain Russian resources and cost Russian lives — while creating an urgent incentive for Europe to slash its dangerous reliance on Russian energy. (That has already begun with Germany’s move to halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.)
This act of aggression would almost certainly force NATO to significantly strengthen its eastern flank and to contemplate permanent stationing forces in the Baltic States and Poland. (President Biden stated Tuesday that he was sending more troops to the Baltics. This would lead to a fierce armed resistance from the Ukrainians, supported by the West. Already, bipartisan work is underway to develop a legislative response to Ukraine’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. It would be far from a repeat of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; it would be a scenario reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
This is what Mr. Biden and other Western leaders made very clear…