Talking Points

How should the U.S. respond to the coming Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Before this week, I'd never heard of Dmitri Alperovitch or Silverado Policy Accelerator, the nonprofit think tank for which he is co-founder and chair. But Alperovitch is on my radar now, thanks to a viral tweet thread about Russia's intentions in Ukraine that is at once smart, highly informed, and chilling.

Alperovitch's core assertion is simple: The Kremlin has already "made a decision to invade Ukraine later this winter." The evidence he marshals in defense of this claim is overwhelming. Alperovitch points to Russia's massive troop deployment to the Ukraine border, increased acts of cyber intrusion into Ukraine, the issuing of diplomatic ultimatums and public demands that would be extremely difficult to walk back, and several other recent moves on Russia's part.

He then pivots to listing the reasons he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided on this bellicose course of action. These range from internal conflicts within Ukraine that threaten Russian interests to longstanding concerns about NATO expansion into Russia's near abroad, which the Kremlin considers a serious danger, to the waning effectiveness of economic sanctions from the West as a deterrent. All of it builds to a prediction: Putin "is unlikely to invade western Ukraine but can relatively easily split the country in half along the Dnieper [River] and establish a permanent buffer zone between Europe and Russia, as well as a land bridge to Crimea."

Since we're making predictions, I'll propose my own: If Alperovitch is right and Putin launches an invasion of Ukraine, the United States and NATO will raise rhetorical hell about it from Washington and Brussels, but they will do nothing to stop it militarily. And that, as Alperovitch points out, "would put a permanent end to all talk of Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, or any Central Asian states of ever joining NATO."

Since I think America's finite attention and resources should be focused on the vastly greater threat of an ascendant China, such a scenario doesn't directly alarm me. But how would a dramatic American capitulation to Russian ambitions in its near abroad affect our ability to contain China's ambitions in its near abroad, especially in Taiwan? Might Beijing conclude we'd respond with similar passivity to an invasion of the island? And could such a calculation on China's part bring about the very scenario American policy in the region is intended to prevent?

In this respect, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would propel the United States and the world into an era of geopolitical risk unlike any we've seen in several decades. And if Alperovitch is correct, that era may poised to begin in a matter of weeks.