Russian incursion into Ukraine ‘very likely,’ says John B. Bellinger III ’86

Bellinger, a former State Department and national security legal adviser, sees ‘echoes of the Cold War,’ and says Biden should make ‘crystal clear to Putin’ the consequences of an invasion

For weeks, the world has been on edge as Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed more than 100,000 troops at his country’s border with Ukraine in what many believe could be preparations for an invasion. And while Putin denies that he is planning an offensive on the former Soviet republic, the United States has sent 3,000 additional troops to Eastern Europe to strengthen NATO’s position there, and has warned that Russia could face sanctions and other serious consequences if it attacks.

To learn more about the crisis and how the U.S. should respond, Harvard Law Today spoke to John B. Bellinger III ’86, former legal adviser to the National Security Council and to the U.S. State Department under President George W. Bush. Bellinger also represented Ambassador William B. Taylor, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, during President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry in 2019. Today, Bellinger is head of the Global Law and Public Policy Practice at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Harvard Law Today: Do you think an invasion of Ukraine — on some scale — is likely to happen, or is President Putin eyeing other strategies, as some have recently suggested? 

John B. Bellinger III: At this point, it seems very likely that the Russians will launch some kind of incursion into Ukraine. It’s hard to imagine that Putin will amass more than 100,000 Russian troops and military personnel around Ukraine, and then do absolutely nothing. This is the largest Russian military buildup in Europe since the Cold War. Putin doesn’t have enough troops right now for an invasion of the entire country, but he’s got plenty of troops for a partial incursion. And frankly, it would be difficult for him to just back down entirely and say, “Oh, never mind.”

We hope through diplomacy that Putin can be deterred, and will in fact, do nothing. But if I had to guess, we may see him move into some part of Ukraine and bite off another chunk of the country, the way he did in Crimea. I’d be more surprised if he were to launch a full invasion of the country.

John B. Bellinger III, former legal adviser to the National Security Council and to the U.S. State Department under President George W. Bush

HLT: President Biden has already deployed 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe. What is the strategy behind this, and do you think it was the right move?

Bellinger: I certainly think it was the right move for President Biden to move some U.S. military personnel from the U.S. into Europe. Biden has made clear that the U.S. troops are not there to fight in Ukraine. Ukraine is not a NATO member, so the U.S. does not have a legal obligation to defend it. Biden has made clear that’s not the purpose of the U.S. troops. The troops are being sent to deter Putin and reassure European allies that the U.S. still cares about Europe’s security.

HLT: What else can — and should — the Biden administration do to respond to the situation as it exists right now? 

Bellinger: The main thing that the Biden administration can do is to make crystal clear to Putin what the consequences would be for any kind of incursion in Ukraine and what those implications are going to be for Russia. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said there will be massive consequences. But the U.S. has been and should make clear that there would be extensive financial sanctions on Russian banks, Russian companies, even Russian officials – much more extensive than the sanctions that the Obama administration imposed in 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea. In the last few days, we’ve seen the U.S. government making clear what the actual bloodshed would be – not because there would be U.S. troops – but because of the likely costs in Ukraine and to Russians. At this point, it’s hard to tell whether Putin is going to be deterred, but there would be very substantial financial costs and probably a substantial cost in terms of bloodshed for Russians.

This is the largest Russian military buildup in Europe since the Cold War.

In addition, the Biden administration needs to try to keep Europe together, because Putin continues to try to divide the Europeans, both the E.U. and NATO, between Western Europeans and Eastern Europeans and even in Western Europe. The Germans have a different view from the French and from the British, and the Western European countries have a different view from the Eastern European countries. The Biden administration needs to try to get the Europeans to pull together to make clear to Putin that the United States and Eastern and Western Europe are united against Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and will together make the consequences for Putin severe.

The Biden administration also needs to make this a big issue in the U.N. and around the world. This was Fiona Hill’s point [in a recent op-ed]: we need to take this to the Security Council, take this to the U.N. General Assembly, and try to put pressure on Putin and Russia in all the international fora that we can.

That is important now, not only because of the threat from Russia, but also after the four years of the Trump administration in which President Trump withdrew troops from Germany and suggested that he might even pull out of NATO. The purpose of these troops is primarily to reassure Europe that the United States is still invested in their security.

HLT: If, as seems more and more likely, an invasion happens, what tools can the administration use to respond? 

Bellinger: Sanctions would be the biggest one — to make an invasion of any kind extremely financially and economically painful for Russia. The first thing that the U.S. would almost certainly do would be to cut off all the Russian banks from the global financial system so they couldn’t clear financial transactions through the U.S. at all. The U.S. could also provide increased military support to Ukrainian resistance and opposition so that they can fight the Russians better and grind the Russians down in Ukraine. And the United States can raise this very loudly in international fora by sponsoring a Security Council resolution that would condemn the Russian invasion as a violation of the U.N. Charter. Russia, of course, would veto a resolution. But if there is a resolution in the Security Council that’s voted on by everybody — but vetoed by Russia — that isolates Russia. The United States and the West can make this very costly for Putin. 

The first thing that the U.S. would almost certainly do would be to cut off all the Russian banks from the global financial system.

HLT: How has Europe’s response differed strategically from the U.S.’s in this crisis so far, and why? 

Bellinger: Europe has been rather divided on a response. Of course, they want desperately to avoid any kind of conflict in Europe. But the countries of Europe have been divided and have had different views. Germany has always had a softer approach towards Russia. They have refused to allow the U.K. to fly over Germany to deliver military equipment to Ukraine. Of course, they get energy from Russia, including the new Nord Stream pipeline. France has tried to take a more independent approach, where they reach out independently from the rest of the Europeans to Russia. The Eastern countries, of course, who are much closer geographically to Russia, are much more agitated about the Russian threat than the Western countries.

Now, the E.U. has said in the last few days that they, too, would impose very, very serious sanctions on Russia. Germany has suggested that if Russia were to invade Ukraine, Germany might stop the Nord Stream pipeline. So the divisions seem to be decreasing, and Europe does seem to be coming together.

HLT: Regardless of what happens next, has Putin already gained ground by reminding the West of his leverage and forcing the U.S. and NATO to discuss (and potentially make concessions to) his security concerns? 

Bellinger: Yes, he has. He’s thrown the U.S. and Europe off balance even more, which is – and has always been – his goal. He is sowing divisions in Europe, he is trying to divide Europe from the U.S., and he continues to try to divide the United States at home. And so even if he were to not invade, he has been successful in that.

Now, that said, Putin may actually be causing the Europeans to come together with each other and to come together with the U.S., resulting in more troops on his border, and a greater coalescence and unity within NATO. We will have to see what happens next.

HLT: China has recently signaled an alliance with Russia. What interest does it have in all this? 

Bellinger: This is one of those cases of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The United States has angered China by boycotting the Olympics and calling China out for its human rights violations and its policies in the South China Sea. Both Russia and China reject a U.S.-led liberal international order, and so they see some value in banding together.

Putin is a Russian nationalist who is embarrassed about the Russian loss of power and prestige after the Cold War, and by the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and he wants to regain some of that former Russian glory.

That said, if Russia were actually to invade Ukraine, I’m not sure that the Chinese would support that. The Chinese are pretty much status quo in terms of not supporting invasions around the world. And it could be embarrassing for them if Russia were to invade Ukraine on the heels of Putin’s visit to China. If that actually were to happen – and as I said it does look like there could be some kind of an incursion – and the United States were to push for a Security Council resolution at the United Nations condemning that, it would be interesting to see what the Chinese would do. I don’t think they would vote to veto, and I don’t think they would vote with the U.S. – although I hope that they would. They would likely abstain.

HLT: How is this situation similar to, or different from, the Cold War? 

Bellinger: This has echoes of the Cold War, with the massing of troops on the east and the west side of Europe, and the division of Europe into spheres of influence. These are probably the greatest tensions in Europe between the West and Russia since the time of the Cold War, with the amassing of Russian troops on the edge of Ukraine. What we see Putin really doing is to try to draw a line of Russian influence in the east that divides eastern Europe from the rest of Europe. He would like to draw the line further east, including Ukraine. Putin is a Russian nationalist who is embarrassed about the Russian loss of power and prestige after the Cold War, and by the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and he wants to regain some of that former Russian glory.

HLT: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Bellinger:  I represented the former ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, in the impeachment proceedings, in which the whole issue was about U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to stand up to the Russians, which President Trump refused to give, because the Ukrainians weren’t doing what he wanted. And of course, another reason that Putin feels emboldened to do this right now, as Fiona Hill also pointed out, is that the United States has become so domestically divided and distracted over the last five years, as a result of President Trump’s political divisions of the country and his isolationist policies, including his suggestions that he would pull out of NATO and even pull troops out of Europe. So it’s a bit rich for President Trump to be suggesting that this would never have happened on his watch.

As a coda to that, precisely as I was speaking to a class at Harvard Law School, in the fall of 2019, President Trump Tweeted at me, insulting me for my representation of Ambassador Taylor. He called me a “Never Trumper” and “human scum.”  I was giving a talk to Daphna Renan’s seminar on the presidency, when the students suddenly started laughing and chattering. And I wondered whether I had just spilled down my tie or something. I finally said, “What did I say?” and the students held up their cell phones and said, “President Trump just Tweeted at you.”