When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia in August 2008, I felt only slightly less impotent than I do today as residents of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv fight off another invasion from the North. Then I was a political appointee on the seventh floor of the State Department, stunned by the Russian barbarism, but painfully aware of our limitations to help.

Luckily for Georgia, Western powers moved swiftly to stop the advancing tanks before they reached the capital of Tbilisi. Russia still felt it had something to lose, and agreed to a ceasefire (after seizing 20% of the country). It could have been worse. I’d spent the first half of that year in Georgia, and when I returned after the war, I found the country nearly drained of its famous vitality – but still alive.

A European Union investigation into the Russian aggression in Georgia showed that the pro-American president of Georgia, Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili, had at least a partial share of the blame for goading Russia. Georgian rocket fire into South Ossetia preceded the Russians shooting back – and then launching a long-planned land invasion. The Georgians did not invade themselves, but they did give Russia the pretext it was seeking.

Misha, diplomats fretted, was an excitable boy. When she flew into Tbilisi to ink the ceasefire agreement, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs that he had angered her more by his foolhardy behavior than anyone ever had. When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, Misha was captured on camera manically chewing on his tie (and later quivering under a mass of bodyguards).

By stark contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has earned the world’s admiration for his bravery in the midst of overwhelming Russian military might. When the U.S. government offered to ex-filtrate him from Kyiv this weekend, he scoffed: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Similarly, Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko, a former world heavyweight champion in boxing, has taken up a rifle and a uniform.

On my first visit to Ukraine in 2007, after its Orange Revolution had snuffed out a Russian-led effort to fix its presidential election, the fear of Russian tanks was already in the air.

For those who pray for Ukraine’s survival in the face of a vicious Russian rape, it is important to understand how we got here. In fact it is necessary to finding a way out.

Looking back over the past 14 years, one sees a gradual uptick in the boldness of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Consider:

  • At its outset in 2009, the Obama Administration pursued a “reset” with Russia, but somehow misspelled the word in Russian belying right there what a farce the policy was;
  • In 2012, President Obama is caught on hot mic telling faux Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to convey to the actual boss Putin that “we can be more flexible after the election.”
  • Later in 2012, Obama threatens “red lines” over Syria, but then fails to back up the words with action, his administration essentially deferring to Russia there more than it cared to publicly admit;
  • When Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 by use of “little green men,” as Putin snickered, they faced no serious consequences. Only today do we see how weak the sanctions of that day were;
  • In 2016, the American press and one of its political parties claim that Putin has “installed” an American president – a claim that a two-year, massive investigation debunked. Nonetheless, if the Americans “think” he’s that powerful, he certainly must be, no? And,
  • In 2019, the American Congress impeaches President Donald Trump for “abuse of power” with respect to Ukraine. Trump stood accused of using the Javelin systems as reward for dirt on Hunter Biden’s shady dealings after Biden threatened the Ukrainians with no aid if they didn’t fire the prosecutor investigating Hunter. In either case, Americans treat the fate of Ukraine like a cheap political football to be tossed in the bushes when no longer useful.

Interestingly, Joe Biden owes his very job to Russian aggression. In August 2008, Democratic nominee for president Barack Obama chose Biden as his running mate. Why? Because for the first time in his otherwise expertly run campaign, Obama saw his poll numbers fall more or less even with those of John McCain, who until that point had been running the worst campaign in U.S. history.

In the face of a Russian invasion, the young law professor was seen as weak, and crusty old McCain as better suited for the moment. No Drama Obama panicked and told his team to get him the toughest foreign policy running mate they could. Ironically, they came up with Joe Biden.

The trick worked. In reality, Biden’s instincts on foreign policy have always been consistently bad, according to Obama Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. But it didn’t matter, because we were actively easing out of the role of a world leader.

Regardless of how it may read, I’m not trying to indict the Biden administration on incompetence. I’m just saying America now needs a radically different approach than what the Biden administration has offered to date, and they need to accept that much of their thinking was wrong.

Men like Putin know only two things: weakness and strength. They fear the American cowboy, they do not fear powers that halfheartedly slouch while signaling they no longer wish to be powers. Regardless of our true intentions, now is the time to act as if we actually give a you-know-what.

To better understand Putin, look at his first example of on-the-job training: Chechnya. There he doubled down on anti-Moscow insurgents and subjected the breakaway territory to a heavy-handed form of what he might call chemotherapy. He created an enforcing monster in the form of local warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Since then, Chechens have been his willing instruments of political murder.

Because it worked in Chechnya, he assumed variation of his remedy would elsewhere in “Moscow’s sphere of influence.”

Remember, Putin is a spy, not a soldier. He believes in “special operations,” as he’s called the Ukrainian invasion. Like a violent predator, he is accustomed to eventual submission. Denied these things, he will act out and we should be prepared for that.

As it was with Georgia in 2008, the democratic world’s priority right now is to repel the invasion of Ukraine. If we fail, the consequences are dramatically bad. We haven’t walked into this particular crisis like the Lone Ranger, but when it really matters, America seldom does. We tend to do better in the second and third acts.

For Ukraine’s sake, let’s hope we pull it together. We must deal with the Russians as they are, not as we wish or pretend them to be. We have not made this monster, but we have enabled him. It’s time for a new approach.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.