One of the important takeaways from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that once again the Western world had dangerously failed to appreciate the limited utility of its traditional military defense model. Just as the Vietnam War experience made plain that the WWII-era blueprint of overwhelming force was not a good fit for countering well-organized local insurgencies, so too was there a total lack of understanding of what it would take to meet the aggressive challenges Russia would present in the decades following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

It is time we got with the program.

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Improvident as it may have been to express it publicly at the time, President Joe Biden was right on the money when he pointed out with characteristic frankness that the U.S. and its allies would “have a fight about what to do and not do” depending on the seriousness of a Russian attack on Ukraine. Of course, the President gave assurances that if any of the assembled Russian units moved across the Ukrainian border, it would result in a “severe and coordinated economic response” that he had discussed with allies. Clearly, however, there is presently no agreed-upon military option; only an economic one of indeterminate scope and largely untested as a deterrent when applied to a world power.

The present problem did not come upon us all at once, either. The Soviet Union officially dissolved in 1991; but the alliance of Western nations known as NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), established specifically to contain Soviet expansionism after WWII, was not disbanded. To Russia, this was and continues to be a provocation and threat to their homeland. Combined with homegrown aspirations, goaded on for decades by Vladimir Putin, to return Russia to its Soviet Union glory days, Western leaders should have known what to expect from the Putin crowd.

Indeed, in 2008 and 2014 Russia launched small-scale invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The response from the West was exclusively economic – and half-hearted and ineffectual at that, despite American military, political, and economic dominance over Russia and China at the time.

Today, the U.S. is no longer the world’s undisputed leader. Russia and China are quickly closing that gap. Moreover, the internal strife in America complicates any notion of restraining Russia’s designs on countries that were part of the Soviet Union. Before pulling the trigger on Ukraine this month, Putin doubtless took into account the chaotic scene in the U.S.: its national government wracked by immobilizing political partisanship; its borders no longer enforceable; its fundamental unifying myths and traditions abandoned at every turn; its citizenry without faith in their elected officials. It is a country whose military is seemingly preoccupied with notions of racial and gender justice rather than the projection of military power. It is a country in which economic strength must take a second seat to environmental concerns, even when its fiercest competitors are not so limited.

Interestingly, Putin’s aggression against Ukraine seems to have inadvertently triggered a wave of unity among other Western allies, all amenable to fully cooperating in a plan to seriously drill down on the Russian economy. Perhaps severely crippling Russia’s ability to participate in the international banking system will make a difference in ways that imposing this or that sanction on Russia like President Biden just did will not. A marked increase in U.S. military spending to create a credible military option against Russia, and a movement towards a more robust foreign policy consensus with our allies, would also seem to be in order.

At the risk of hyperbole, there is nothing less at stake than a situation where Vladimir Putin demands that European countries jump and they ask how high on the way down.

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