Responding to Putin—Again
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
May 2021 - After weeks of military buildup on Ukraine’s border—including deployment of 100,000 troops, repositioning dozens of attack aircraft and moving warships from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea—Russian strongman Vladimir Putin appears to be pulling back from yet another invasion of Ukraine. “Appears” is the operative word here. Putin can easily and rapidly muster his troops for another snap exercise—setting the stage for another crisis, another bout of brinkmanship, another invasion, another war against democratic Ukraine. Whether Putin is muscle-flexing to intimidate Ukraine, to take the measure of President Joe Biden or to test NATO’s reflexes, Washington must prepare for—and seek to prevent—the worst: Putin’s seizure of more Ukrainian soil. Two of Biden’s predecessors offer a playbook for defending Ukraine’s democracy and confronting Putin’s aggression.
Eleven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, as democracies fell and dictatorships surged around the world, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered what’s commonly called the “Four Freedoms” speech. He asked Americans to “look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world…freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world…freedom from want…freedom from fear.” What’s striking about FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech—and relevant here—is that the main focus of the speech was his description of “unprecedented” threats to “American security.” Put another way, FDR understood that America’s interests and ideals were self-reinforcing—that defending and supporting the ideal of freedom “over there” serves American interests.
Thus, FDR called for “armed defense of democratic existence,” which would be premised on “putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers” to provide fellow democracies “the strength to regain and maintain a free world.”
In a strikingly similar way, President Ronald Reagan pledged “to those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment.” Translating rhetoric into policy, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 75, which declared that America would “rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on U.S. interests and those of its allies,” support “Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures,” and “contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism.” In various ways and to varying degrees—technological assistance, covert support, weapons shipments, direct U.S. military intervention—what