KOLB: Mobilize NATO Now

Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Charles Kolb Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House
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When the Soviet Union collapsed and some of its archives became public, one of the most important revelations was the impact of President Ronald Reagan’s March 1981 decision to fire several thousand striking American air-traffic controllers. Kremlin leaders realized that our new president was not easily deterred or intimidated. Reagan stood firmly on principle.

Now, compare what Vladimir Putin saw when Joe Biden became president in 2021: immediate cancellation of the Keystone energy pipeline (thereby launching Biden’s assault on America’s fossil-fuel industry); giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel a green light to finish Russia’s NordStream 2 pipeline; and agreeing to a five-year extension with Russia of the START nuclear-arms treaty.

Biden caved but got nothing from Russia.

In March 2021, Secretary of State Blinken received a dressing down in his first meeting with Chinese officials. Blinken appeared surprised, weak, and feckless.

Then came Biden’s disastrous August 2021 departure from Afghanistan.

While civilized Western nations have expressed outrage at Putin’s savage aggression against Ukraine, there has been little appetite to confront Russia militarily. Economic sanctions are mounting. NATO emphasizes its “defensive” posture, while many NATO members deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine’s freedom fighters.

While laudable, these efforts won’t stop Putin. We now have a massively destructive European land war, accompanied by daily Russian criminal outrages that violate the norms of warfare and international law.

The West must take Putin seriously. His aims are clear; virtually no one believes his aggression will stop in Ukraine. The three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all NATO members — will surely be next. Then what?

We keep dreading the “unthinkable,” and then the “unthinkable” happens. As longtime Putin observer Bill Browder says, Putin has no “reverse gear.” He will continue his aggression until he runs out of resources.

Putin surely must be amused by Western efforts to read his mind, to assess his mental state, to determine whether he’s bluffing, sick or bonkers. Reading Putin’s mental tea leaves is irrelevant: his behavior is reckless; that’s all we need to know.

NATO must mobilize immediately and put “boots on the ground” in the alliance’s easternmost borders. That means, at a minimum, the Baltics plus Poland and Hungary. We should stop assuming that Putin will not trigger NATO’s Article 5 collective-defense provisions and proceed on the assumption that he will.

After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, President George H.W. Bush moved some 500,000 American troops halfway around the world to the Middle East. He assembled an international coalition that restored Kuwait’s sovereignty in a matter of days.

Iraq, of course, did not possess nuclear weapons as Russia does, and today’s Ukraine conflict risks escalating out of control and involving two nuclear-armed adversaries. A timely show of massive strength is not risk-free, but it may convince the Kremlin that its continued escalation will mean the annihilation of the Russian army.

We keep thinking that Putin will not do the “unthinkable.” We should prepare, however, that he will.

Waiving the Ukrainian flag and wearing lapel pins bearing the Ukrainian and American flags are symbols of solidarity. We applaud from afar the courage of President Zelensky, the Ukrainian military and Ukraine’s volunteer fighters.

Talk is cheap, and Putin knows it. Meanwhile, innocent Ukrainian men, women and children are dying. Atrocities multiply by the hour.

“Beasts in Human Form” is the title of chapter one in Richard Evans’s comprehensive study entitled “The Third Reich at War.” Wherever Evans mentions “Poland,” replace “Poland” with “Ukraine,” and you’ll have a frightening appreciation of what Russian occupation of Ukraine will entail.

Is this a situation that civilized nations are willing to accommodate, tolerate and tap-dance around?

Ukraine is a red-hot proxy war challenging everything the West cherishes. Today, on live television, we see Putin’s efforts to extinguish freedom in a Western-oriented nation. Make no mistake: the three Baltic nations are next. They border Russia and are part of Putin’s goal of restoring the former Soviet Union.

Estonia is but a short distance from Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg, and has a significant population of ethnic Russians. What’s to stop Putin from occupying Estonia on the pretext of protecting Estonia’s Russophile population? After all, that’s how he entered Crimea, Donbass and Luhansk.

President Zelensky urgently requests a “no fly” zone over Ukraine. NATO and the European Union should grant his request immediately. There are creative ways to do this. While there’s considerable risk, isn’t it time for Western leaders to tell the world that Russian aggression “will not stand?”

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House