Biden's Bold Gamble Might Just Save Ukraine | Opinion

The Ukraine War is only a week old, so it's far too soon to make any judgements about its outcome. One thing is clear, though: Russian President Vladimir Putin badly miscalculated. He is facing two tactical surprises at the moment that may prove to have dire consequences.

Putin was clearly not prepared for the fight that the Ukrainians have put up to his invading forces. It's the only explanation for the logistical failures and enormous reported losses (even discounting for the obvious exaggerations): The Russian Army expected to meet a Ukrainian opposition similar to what it saw in Donbas in 2015 or even in Crimea in 2014.

But the Ukrainians have spent the past eight years learning the lessons of those earlier defeats. They have built a diplomatic network of support they didn't have a decade ago, and they have purchased arms and developed tactics to make the most of the weapons they have been able to obtain.

Which leads me to the second surprise Putin is facing, namely, the intensity of global sanctions against Russia. He no doubt expected some Western actions, but nothing like the rapid cutoff of Russia from banking, trade and aviation that took place in the past week.

The first surprise fed the second: The failure of Russian forces to extract a quick surrender from the Ukrainians meant the battle would be bloody, heightening outrage. It also meant that opposing Putin would not be seen as hopeless posturing.

This provided the groundwork for the response of the international community, which has been harsher than anything seen in modern diplomacy. It's harsher than any reaction to Soviet invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, harsher than the global response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, harsher than any sanctions or weapons embargo on South Africa or Iran or Burma. The only precedent for anything remotely like this is the global reaction to the last time a regional power endeavored to invade and occupy whole a neighboring state: when Iraq conquered Kuwait in 1990.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia, on March 3, 2022. ANDREY GORSHKOV/Getty

Putin probably expected a more severe form of the sanctions Russia has already been facing since 2014. What we've seen instead is a quantum leap of non-military offensive action that has cut Russian banks off from the global financial system, cut Russian airlines out of the airspace of much of the world, and stands to leave the Russian economy permanently hobbled unless it is reversed in the next few months.

And this was all made possible by a bold decision of the Biden administration to share intelligence information regarding Russian invasion plans with the world—repeatedly, in detail, and over a sustained three-month long period beginning last November.

It's hard to exaggerate just how unprecedented and risky this decision was, and impossible to overstate its impact on the course of events. Already in November, intelligence officials were sharing with the media serious concerns about Russian war plans. These were not couched in equivocal language about "doubts" or "mobilizations" or "operations" or "possibilities." On the contrary, big words like "invasion" were freely bandied about in background briefings, then by senior officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the President himself.

Much of the world and most of the commenting class did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation. The risks of being wrong, of having exaggerated, to say nothing of the risks of burning sources or helping a rival formulate a better plan, were huge.

So Biden amped things up. Beginning in January, the Biden administration started sharing specific intelligence warnings that the Russians would seek to engineer some sort of provocation in the Donbas region that would result in a firefight between Russian and Ukrainian forces. A danger to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine would serve as a pretext for violating the lines of control from 2015 and pushing Russian forces into Ukraine and beyond those lines, at least to the internal Ukrainian boundaries for Luhansk and Donetsk. As Ukrainian forces would not doubt react, this then would be the casus belli for a full-scale assault on Ukraine as a whole.

It's tempting to think that this would not have mattered. After all, who would have believed such an obvious Russian lie? Not readers of this magazine, to be sure. And not leaders in major Western capitals either. And yet, those leaders would have faced loud dissenting voices from precisely the fringes of Left and Right that the Russian disinformation machine has cultivated in the last decade, crowding the space and slowing down a consensus within countries and subsequently among them.

Everyone from Corbynites to Trumpkins and their legions of keyboard warriors would have railed against Western hypocrisy and double-standards, questioned whether Ukrainians really are Nazis, and screamed into the wind "What about Palestine?" An atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty would have blocked the most severe actions, or at least delayed their implementation long enough that they would have become meaningless.

The tailwinds wouldn't have just come from the fringes either. The first morning after the war broke out, former French Prime Minister François Fillon tweeted out a throat-clearing condemnation of Putin's action which nevertheless managed to lay all the blame on Western powers and NATO expansion. This talking point could have been a major distraction, but it simply gained no traction; a day later, Fillon severed his business ties with Russia.

Instead, for the first few days of the war, there was only silence from the assorted agitators that acted as spoilers when global powers nearly stepped up to enforce the famous "red line" on the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons in Syria. What came instead was a tidal wave of unanimity that has been, if anything, a bit frightening (a topic for another essay). It enabled the kind of offensive non-military action that probably won't be enough to reverse the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but may very well deter future actions—by Russia or other large nuclear powered states resentful about the de facto independence of territories they think belong to them.

Kudos to Biden for taking such a risk. It has already paid off.

Shany Mor is an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a lecturer at IDC Herzliya.

The views in this article are the writer's own.