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Russia Challenge Remains Even as Ukraine Crisis Abates

Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces drive armored vehicles at fighting positions on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Shyrokyne in Donetsk Region, Ukraine, April 21, 2021. (Reuters)

For weeks, the world watched with apprehension as Moscow stationed troops, aircraft, and military equipment on Russia’s border with Ukraine and in Crimea, a buildup larger than the one that preceded its 2014 annexation of the peninsula.

Then, last week, everyone could breathe a guarded sigh of relief. The more than 100,000 soldiers amassed there had begun their return home, the Russian defense minister said. They had only been placed there for “snap checks,” he claimed.

The true extent to which the Russian troops, and the equipment they brought in tow, will return remains to be seen, but provided that they do, and that the immediate crisis has been averted, the episode reveals much about the opportunism at the heart of Vladimir Putin’s outlook, Joe Biden’s management of the threat, and the particular nature of the challenge facing the West in Europe today.

Moscow backed down following a concerted diplomatic effort. Although Biden had not spoken with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky earlier in his term, he finally placed a call to the country’s leader, emphasizing America’s continued support “in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.” This was part of an extensive intragovernmental and transatlantic diplomatic campaign that included calls by U.S. officials to Ukrainian and NATO leaders, a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Brussels, and statements by the German and French governments.

Meanwhile, for all the worries about the Ukrainian government’s competence and corruption, Zelensky pulled his weight, making appearances on the frontlines of the conflict that has wrought destruction on Eastern Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow started backing separatist groups there. Donning a helmet and flak jacket, Zelensky led his troops through the trenches, running to avoid sniper fire. The message was clear: Ukraine would fight.

That the buildup took place in plain sight also helped matters. The Russians didn’t disguise it, and for weeks, provided Western media alarming headlines and U.S. diplomats ample fodder with which to make their case for deterring what seemed to be a potential attack.

The Russian president was likely probing for weakness without a clear strategy in mind, seeking an advantage amidst other challenges to his position in Russia and throughout Europe.

Putin’s growing insecurity can’t be overlooked, and it should be exploited. This month, the Czech Republic struck a heavy blow against Moscow’s spy network in Central Europe. Following revelations that Russian agents were responsible for deadly 2014 explosions in the country, Prague ordered the expulsion of 18 Russian spies posted as embassy staffers. Concerningly for the Kremlin, there’s been a ripple effect, as others have heeded the Czech government’s calls to do the same. The Baltic states, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Poland followed suit.

Worse for the Kremlin, all eyes are on Alexei Navalny. The dissident’s condition continues to be tenuous; just days from death, he ended a hunger strike. Putin had assiduously avoided even uttering his chief antagonist’s name in public, but in recent months, the U.S. and its European allies imposed new sanctions for his continued detention.

The Europeans have been slow to impose more punitive measures but have said, like the Biden administration, that they would unleash a furious response if Navalny were to die in custody. Of course, that would be of little comfort to Russia’s aspiring democrats, whose movement would be struck an enormous blow.

The Navalny affair poses a particular danger for Putin, which is all the more reason for the White House to double down on its advocacy for him. Nonetheless, even as Jake Sullivan and other top administration officials promise to punish Putin and his cronies if Navalny is killed, a sanctions wish list provided to the White House by Navalny’s associates — which includes a number of oligarchs — seems to be collecting dust. During short White House remarks on Russia last week, Biden made no mention of the dissident.

And for all of Biden’s previous efforts to highlight Navalny’s case and show a united transatlantic front against Russian aggression, his administration has failed to leverage congressionally mandated sanctions to try to kill the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a Russian project with significant German backing, for fear of antagonizing the Merkel government.

But these baffling oversights are exceptions to a broadly tough-minded approach. By maintaining a Trump-era policy backing the export of lethal weapons to Kiev, Biden has avoided the pitfalls of feckless Obama administration policies. His administration should intensify its efforts to equip Ukrainian forces with adequate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and ensure that Ukrainian forces are armed to the teeth with weapons capable of deterring a future Russian assault. And when Biden dangled the possibility of a bilateral summit during a call with Putin, which the deeply insecure leader covets, he followed up two days later with that brief White House speech hitting Russian officials with new sanctions and calling for de-escalation of tensions. (It’d be best if he met with Zelensky before Putin, and any summit would have to be carefully planned).

This time regarding Ukraine, fortunately, the Kremlin seemingly backed off. The challenge for the U.S. and its allies of responding to Putin’s brutal rule at home and deterring his destabilizing misadventures abroad will remain.

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