President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a virtual summit on Dec. 7 to address the Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine. While the details of the discussion remain confidential, the Biden administration said the president warned Putin not to invade Ukraine or face severe economic sanctions.
One thing we do know: Sanctions do not deter Putin from his stated goal of reassembling the Russian empire. In February 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and has since supported separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Also in 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, a sovereign Ukrainian territory, and purported to annex that territory. Sanctions have not deterred Russia from its aggression in Ukraine.
From 2019 until 2021, I served as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Essential provisions of the Helsinki Accords of 1976, which OSCE stands for, is that no nation will invade another, every country is entitled to territorial integrity, and every country can decide what alliances it will join. Putin's demands are directly contrary to the OSCE principles and the Helsinki Accords. Russia seeks to rewrite the rules of European stability and declare its ability to threaten any country by military force.
As the military threat has grown in recent weeks, Putin has chosen to confront Biden, as a NATO leader, and demand that a binding commitment be made that Ukraine will never be permitted to join NATO. Ukraine is now a hostage. The invasion threat will be removed if Russia gets what it demands.
But NATO is not a threat to Russia. NATO is a defensive alliance. During my two years in Vienna as ambassador to OSCE, and on my additional trip to Ukraine in May 2021, Ukraine consistently asked to be made a part of NATO. Ukraine knows its security rests on an alliance with the United States and the other Western powers. Likewise, Ukraine outside of NATO is vulnerable to the intimidation we see right now.
My experience at OSCE tells me that no country once occupied by the Russian army wants to be a part of Putin’s new Russian empire, including former states of the Soviet Union. Recently Putin wrote an article explaining that Ukraine should not exist as an independent state. His article revealed that Putin’s goal is not Russian security, which is threatened by no one, but a new Russian European hegemony, as his idea of restoring Russian “greatness.”
In February 1945, as Nazi Germany was being defeated, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin met at Yalta in the Crimean Peninsula. That conference in effect designated “spheres of influence,” which legitimated Russian dominance over the countries of Eastern Europe. In 1976, because of the Helsinki Accords, agreed to by Russia, it became possible for those captured nations to become free and independent. Many are now members of the European Union or NATO. We don’t know what discussions were in the Biden-Putin phone call, but we know Putin would like to convene a new “Yalta" conference and reestablish a sphere of influence like the worst days of the Cold War. If Ukraine falls under Russian domination, the independent countries of Eastern Europe are not safe from Russian military pressure. In fact, no country is safe.
Most importantly, if Ukraine is compromised, the U.S. will surrender its role as an advocate and guarantor of European democracy and safety. This loss has worldwide implications, including in the threat to Taiwan from China today.
So far, the Biden administration has communicated weakness to Russia. Biden warns only of economic sanctions. Biden withdrew sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump on the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Biden administration gave in on the “New Start” nuclear weapons negotiations. The Biden administration extended that arms control agreement without insisting that Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe be a part of that negotiation. Finally, the Afghanistan catastrophe demonstrated the willingness of the U.S. to abandon friends who put their faith in America. What do our European friends think? What do the Russians, or the Chinese, think?
It is high time to reassert U.S. commitment to European stability. In 2014, the U.S. passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act. It is time to revisit that commitment and make Ukraine a “major non-NATO ally.” That action would send a message at this time of crisis. Biden should send weapons and supplies right now to raise the risk to Putin of an invasion. All of this should be strongly asserted at the OSCE in Vienna, an international forum that listens to America’s positions.
Is it worth it? Should we care about Ukraine's safety and independence? For that matter, what do we care about Europe’s sovereignty? We should care, as our war against Hitler demonstrated. A lot of Americans and allies shed blood to prevent a hostile power from dominating Europe. It is a matter of America’s safety.
American policy is not to start or engage in European wars. Our goal should be to deter Russian aggression in Europe. Sadly, the choice to start another war against Ukraine is in Russia’s hands. Only U.S. resolve and leadership have any hope of keeping the peace in Europe and in the world.
James S. Gilmore III is the immediate past ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was the 68th governor of Virginia.