How Reagan and Thatcher would have defeated Putin in Ukraine

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A bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress recently took the noble and necessary action of devoting a fresh round of aid worth $61 billion to Ukraine. Now that the U.S. has stepped up militarily, the West needs to ramp up a line of effort that has been lacking in its Ukraine strategy: intensifying economic warfare. It’s a tactic that President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would have embraced — and one that will undermine the Russian military and the Vladimir Putin’s regime’s stability.

Reagan came into office perceiving the Soviet Union’s economic weakness, and resolved early in his presidency to use American economic power to bring down the USSR. In 1982, National Security Advisor William Clark said in a speech, “We must force our principal adversary, the Soviet Union, to bear the brunt of its economic shortcomings.”

Later, the seminal National Security Decision Directive-75 of 1983 articulated the need “to seek to minimize the potential for Soviet exercise of reverse leverage on Western countries based on trade, energy supply, and financial relationships.” Hence, throughout the 1980s the vast majority of U.S-Soviet trade was dominated by agricultural products. American machinery and equipment composed 13 percent of U.S-Soviet trade totals in 1981, but fell to 5 percent by 1985.

Today, the Western war effort is hamstrung by Kremlin leverage over the West in the form of continued oil and gas exports. John McCain’s jab that Russia is a “gas station masquerading as a country” rings true, as oil and gas exports fund between 30 percent and 50 percent of the Russian government’s budget. The West is missing an opportunity to turn the tide of the war by driving that number toward zero.

Just as economic competition with the U.S. in the 1980s hastened the collapse of the Soviet system, a cutoff of Putin’s top source of revenue would spell disaster for his regime, fomenting a destabilizing economic crisis and mass domestic anger capable of toppling (or at least severely weakening) it.

Sadly, many Ukraine-supporting democracies have not done enough to wean themselves from Russian energy — a work Donald Trump started as president by sanctioning the now-defunct Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Hungary, Slovakia, Belgium, Czechia and France were the largest buyers of Russian fossil fuels within the European Union in February 2024.  

Last June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India made a flowery speech about democracy on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, acknowledging that the Ukraine conflict is “causing great pain in the region.” What he didn’t say is that India received more than one-third of its oil imports from Russia in 2023, after buying no Russian oil before the war.

No free nation would have tried to purchase iron ore or ball bearings from Hitler during World War II. Tougher sanctions requiring democratic nations to turn off the spigot of Russian energy are the first step to breaking the Putin regime economically and quickly ending the war. The U.S. should also be open to cutting the levels of foreign aid it sends to countries that continue buying Russian energy.

The West must also ramp up sanctions and export controls targeting China, the leading nation supplying Russia the funds and technological capacity to wage war. Ninety percent of Russia’s 2023 microelectronics imports came from China, and China was likewise responsible for 70 percent of Russia’s machine tool imports in the last quarter of the year. Russia is also meeting China’s thirst for oil, surpassing Saudi Arabia in 2023 to become its largest supplier. And last January, Russia’s state-run Gazprom broke its daily record for gas supplies flowing to China.

Countries must expand the dragnet of international sanctions to cut off foreign materials flowing to Russia and the revenue the Kremlin earns from energy exports. Taking Russian oil and gas off world markets will undoubtedly cause global energy price spikes. But the Biden administration has a powerful card to play to mitigate the damage: It can end its ridiculous moratorium on new liquified natural gas exports, which only helps Russia gain global market share.

The second pillar of economic-driven victory over Putin’s Russia is boosting military spending. Reagan knew during the 1980s campaign that “it would be of great benefit to the United States if we started a buildup.” Reagan’s budgets proposed increases in military spending of 7 percent per year between 1981 and 1985. The resulting appropriations created the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history.

Similarly, recognizing how austerity-driven defense cuts early in her premiership had helped provoke the Falklands War, Thatcher increased the UK’s defense budget by 15 percent between 1982 and 1985.

These decisions pressured the USSR to spend on its own defense at an unsustainable rate, and siphoned resources from the rest of the Soviet economy. High levels of defense spending pressure adversaries like Russia to keep up in ways they cannot afford. Unfortunately, President Biden’s 2025 defense budget only calls for a meager 1 percent increase over 2024 spending. Congress should revise that number upward in its final appropriations.

Robust American defense budgets are also an act of leadership that can help push allies to increase their own military expenditures. In the salons of Washington, the success of the war effort has been unduly framed as resting on a singular disbursement of American aid. Just remember the era of Winston Churchill, when defeating Nazi Germany required the combined efforts of all allies. Victory over the Russia-China alliance will require no less effort.

U.S. allies need to take on a much larger share of responsibility than they do now, including matching American levels of defense spending and assistance to Ukraine. Prior to the passage of the new aid bill, America, currently more than $34 trillion in debt, had provided almost $45 billion in military assistance, more than twice the amount that Germany has provided, even though Germany is only $3 trillion in debt, according to the Kiel Institute’s Ukraine Support Tracker. U.S. allies should keep up and support alliance relations by increasing their responsibilities. Germany, to name one country, can set an example by delivering Taurus long-range missiles. As Thatcher observed in her famous 1988 speech to the College of Europe, European defense is ultimately “a question of political will and political courage, of convincing people in all our countries that we cannot rely forever on others for our defense, but that each member of the Alliance must shoulder a fair share of the burden.”

Reagan’s Soviet policy was captured in a simple phrase: “We win, and they lose.” His decision to attack the Soviet economy while building up American defense led to the achievement of this desired end state, which ultimately liberated hundreds of millions of people with the dissolution and collapse of the iron curtain.

The West should once again remember that dismantling the Russian economy is as essential to victory as providing arms. May history enable us to be wise and capture the discernment of Winston Churchill, as he defied the appeasement measures of Neville Chamberlain.

Robert Pittenger is chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence-Security Forum. He represented North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019. Oleg Dunda is a member of the Servant of the People party in the Ukrainian Parliament, specializing in international security and hybrid threats.

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