In January 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Casablanca, Morocco. They agreed that the objective of the war was unconditional surrender. This week, President Biden is meeting with leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels. His objective in imposing sanctions on Russia was to deter an invasion of Ukraine. It failed. So what should Mr. Biden’s goal be now? The NATO meeting is the perfect setting to announce it.
Mr. Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have different goals. Ukraine is fighting alone because NATO refused its membership. It is understandable that Ukraine comes to terms with the departure of the Russians, while Ukraine accepts a kind of neutrality. Mr. Zelensky’s goal is to end the destruction of his country, while maintaining his freedom.
Mr. Biden’s goal must be broader. Mr. Putin challenged America as a defender of democracy and Western values. NATO provides assistance to Ukraine, within timid limits. After Mr. Putin muttered threats, Mr. Biden banned the transfer of MiG-29s, which would be flown by Ukrainian pilots over Ukrainian territory. The president said adding these MiGs to the Ukrainian Air Force would aggravate the conflict. The administration clearly covers itself. Satellite images show Russian warships gathered off Odessa. They are legitimate targets. Yet anti-ship missiles are absent from the weapons the administration has approved for Ukraine.
President Biden has called Mr Putin a “war criminal”. According to Ukrainian sources and communications intercepts, it is highly likely that the Biden administration and NATO know the identities of all Russian generals in Ukraine and commanders of units accused of war crimes. Yet the administration has not publicly named them or banned them from the West. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, President George HW Bush said, “This won’t hold.” Such a robust statement from Mr. Biden is conspicuous by its absence.
Why the shyness? In 1991, US forces easily drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. This option is not even considered today because Russia has nuclear weapons. A troubling lesson is that having nuclear weapons enhances an aggressor’s propensity to attack with conventional forces. In any putative attack on Taiwan, Xi Jinping is likely to threaten to use nuclear weapons to deter the United States from intervening with conventional force. That Mr. Putin emerges intact after tearing Ukraine apart sets a terrible precedent.
If Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine but Mr. Putin is still in charge in Moscow, it will be a serious defeat for America. During his meeting with the 30 NATO countries, Mr. Biden must cross his Rubicon. He must declare that the sanctions crippling Russia will remain in full force, with no exit ramps, as long as Mr Putin remains in power. America’s goal is not a return to the status quo ante; it requires removing Mr. Putin in order to strengthen, or perhaps restore, America’s role as a defender of freedom. If Mr. Biden does not state that goal clearly at this week’s NATO meeting, with the world united behind him, he will not do so in the future.
Mr. West, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, is the author, most recently, of “The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War”.
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Appeared in the March 21, 2022 print edition.