Russia has created a crisis by deploying more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern, northern and southern borders.
Talks to defuse the tension have included multiple Russian demands, including that NATO forces retreat to mid-1990s status before eastern expansion of the alliance. Not only is that a nonstarter with allied leaders, but the opposite could — and should — happen, with several countries considering bolstering forces in Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere.
Among these nations are the United States, which on Monday put 8,500 troops on alert that they may soon be quickly deployed to Eastern Europe, with some of them perhaps part of a special 40,000 multinational-member unit called the NATO Response Force. Other members are also taking action, including sending naval vessels and aircraft.
President Joe Biden has already stated that no American forces would be sent to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance. So no U.S. troops would directly fight any Russian troops if they invade Ukraine and attempt to build on its 2014 illegal cleaving of Crimea and backing of a separatist movement in eastern portions of the country.
Instead, this would be a defensive deployment, meant to shore up nations that could be the next target of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. and NATO not only have every right, but the responsibility, to prepare for further Russian aggression. Indeed, doing so lowers the likelihood of such an escalation.
"We're not talking about fighting in Ukraine against Russian forces, we're talking about strengthening our NATO allies who we're pledged to defend," John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told an editorial writer.
Herbst, now the senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, added that "putting more forces there reduces the risk of Moscow attacking our Baltic, our Polish, our Romanian allies." And "it also demonstrates to the Kremlin that their aggression in Ukraine weakens their geopolitical position."
That's the trap that Putin, ever the aggressor, may create — revitalizing NATO, which former President Donald Trump once labeled "obsolete" but now seems more important than ever. To be sure, there still are divisions within the alliance, on its direction generally and its Ukraine policy in particular, but for the most part there has been appropriate alacrity and necessary cohesion on responding to this latest crisis of Russian revanchism.
There's also been U.S. and European unanimity on diplomacy as the best method out of this crisis. Efforts at defusing the tensions and giving Putin an off-ramp should continue. But when as expected the Biden administration gives a written response to Russian demands later this week, it should not yield on the sovereign right of countries like Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance, or for eastern members to have a substantial NATO presence.
Putin himself is making the justifications more obvious by the day with his threat to Ukraine and by reasserting of influence in Belarus and Kazakhstan, whose authoritarian leaders both turned to him to help crush legitimate dissent.
Troop deployments aren't the only methods being pursued. "The administration has laid out three elements to responding to the criminal buildup; all are good," said Herbst. "One, serious sanctions; two, weapons to Ukraine; and three, the buildup of NATO in the east."
The Kremlin absurdly blames the West for the tensions. But it's protective, not provocative, to prepare, and such prudent measures should actually reduce the risk of U.S. troops ever engaging with Russian ones.
"American strength leads to American peace," Herbst said, reflecting a sentiment that should guide the Biden administration's measured response to this Russian-made crisis.