The United States’ Message to Russia: Prove Us Wrong

So there is no real debate about what is happening on Ukraine’s borders. The firepower is there to see, and that is part of Mr. Putin’s coercion strategy. The only remaining mystery is what Mr. Putin plans to do with them. At first, U.S. officials thought he planned to use them to intimidate Ukraine’s government, force it to abandon its ambitions to join NATO at some undetermined time in the future, and stop its drift toward the West.

Then, after Mr. Putin issued a proposed “treaty’’ in December, it seemed he had a bigger plan: to evict the United States and NATO forces from former Soviet bloc nations that have joined NATO, and roll back the world order created after the Soviet collapse 31 years ago. Two weeks ago, the American assessment changed again: Mr. Putin, intelligence and military officials said, was aiming at Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, after concluding that cyberattacks and subversion alone were unlikely to displace the government. Only a full-scale invasion would do that.

So the Biden administration is trying to test Mr. Putin’s bottom line. If the issue can be resolved by negotiating a new arms control pact that addresses Mr. Putin’s concerns about two antimissile emplacements in Poland and Romania, or rules around military exercises held by Russia and NATO, then there is room for deal making, the two men have said. And they have said there is room to renegotiate the Minsk agreement, a set of commitments made by Ukraine and Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Those have been selectively ignored, on both sides.

But it seems unlikely to longtime American officials and many of the European diplomats filtering into Munich that Mr. Putin has gone to all this expense and all this effort, and put his legacy on the line, just to paint inside the lines of the existing order. He wants to upturn it.

Since Mr. Putin came to power 20 years ago, “Russia has been challenging that system,’’ Angela Stent, a Brookings Institution scholar and the former national intelligence offer for Russia and Eurasia, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs. “The current crisis is ultimately about Russia redrawing the post-Cold War map and seeking to reassert its influence over half of Europe, based on the claim that it is guaranteeing its own security.”

That does not mean there is no way out.

In the Cuban missile crisis, the closest the world came to nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, Mr. Khrushchev ultimately took his missiles home, in return for a secret promise — which Mr. Kennedy delivered on months later — to take American Jupiter missiles out of Turkey, where their nuclear warheads were in easy range of the Soviet Union.

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