The West tries containing Putin, but it only has so many tools

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When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The maxim goes for Vladimir Putin, commander of a million-strong army who, eager to erase what he sees as the disgraceful collapse of the Soviet Union, has invaded Ukraine. The maxim also goes for the leaders of the United States and its European allies, who, beside themselves about what President Biden called “naked aggression” but fearful of engaging in a European war with a nuclear power, will settle for a proxy battle with a large side of economic sanctions to try to punish a man who speaks a very different language.

The genuinely harsh financial penalties Biden unveiled Thursday should bite Russian oligarchs and Putin’s inner circle, along with Russian banks and exports. Good. But it will take time: Biden, essentially admitting his weapon of choice has no chance of forcing Putin’s hand today, tomorrow or next week, acknowledged that the West will have to wait months for the vise to tighten. And while it does, Americans and Europeans will feel some of the pain themselves.

Why Putin himself continues to escape sanctions — that option is still “on the table,” said Biden — we can’t understand. Maybe they’re waiting for him to gobble up Sudetenland.

What’s at stake here is not merely the fate of a country of 44 million souls. It is, no exaggeration, the international order established since World War II, in which nations have with very few exceptions respected one another’s borders rather than using force to claim territory or settle scores.

What Putin engages in is a pure power play, the type many strong countries could inflict upon their neighbors in a world without rules; they are limited only by their nominal respect for international norms and the global order. No wonder it titillates a certain former U.S. president, who, even as the invasion was in process, praised his former counterpart for being “smart” while, of course, blaming Biden — who built a resilient coalition to stand against Putin — for weakness. The failed demagogue has a fetish for the one who’s still in the game.

We’d never tell people to shut up and salute the American commander-in-chief just because there’s a war that’s testing our national resolve. But to see a former U.S. president reflexively do the opposite, excusing someone who’s laying waste to the peace and security of Europe, still takes the breath away.

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