There’s a saying in foreign policy circles that when Wendy Sherman walks into a room, the ghost of Neville Chamberlain stirs. Sherman, the Biden administration’s chosen negotiator to sit down with her Russian counterpart in Geneva this week, has in the past been criticized for weakness in her dealings with Iran and North Korea. For America’s sake, and that of restraining a revanchist Russia, let’s hope she’s learned from the past.

Going into much-anticipated talks this week, it is important to remember what is at stake. Whether or not Russia invades Ukraine is not a top concern in our country today given all we’ve got going on, but an obscure Bosnian-Serb’s decision to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 wasn’t much on anyone’s minds at the moment then, either. Showing weakness to a regime that draws its strength from depriving the weak is always a bad idea.

While it is not in Russia’s interest to invade Ukraine, pointing that out (as one of Ambassador Sherman’s previous bosses, Barack Obama, was find of doing), doesn’t do much good. Smart Russians know there is no upside to taking on Ukraine’s problems, but a successful Ukraine is also not good for Moscow. All we really can control is how they view us.

That is why, when approaching the crisis posed by over 100,000 sets of Russian boots on Ukraine’s border, it can be useful to look at ourselves the same way Russian President Vladimir Putin does.

Though technically Bill Clinton was president when Putin became Russia’s head honcho, it was George W. Bush who was the first example of an American president the former KGB officer had to confront. In Bush he saw reckless unpredictability. Also during Bush’s time, he saw Moscow-friendly regimes in Ukraine and Georgia overtaken by people power, which he attributes to us — regardless of how great or small a role external actors played in those popular revolutions.

This gave Putin pause, but when he saw the West distracted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he took a chance on invading Georgia at the very end of Bush’s second term and was never seriously punished for that.

In Obama, he saw an administration that came of out the gate talking about “reset,” and then using the wrong Russian word to explain it. Putin saw an American president talk about “red lines” (in Syria) and then fail to defend them. And he even got to listen to Obama tell his number two, Dmitry Medvedev, that we’d be “more flexible” in Obama’s second term. During that administration, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

With Donald Trump, confusion returns. The Americans are so dumb they’re saying I installed Trump, but hell, I’ll take it, Putin half-smiles to himself while wondering whether a gift or a Trojan horse has fallen into his lap. First Trump arms the Ukrainians with Javelin anti-tank systems and then gets impeached for talking to the Ukrainian president on the phone. Putin can’t quite wrap his head around any of this except to conclude, as many of us have, that things are just plain nuts.

And now there is the soporific Joe Biden, whose son was paid millions by a shady Russian businesswoman connected to a former bigwig. In Biden, he sees a man who sends a woman, tailed by Neville Chamberlain’s ghost, to tangle with his deputy foreign minister in Geneva. This is the administration whose opening line was to sign off on a pipeline deal that allows more Russian gas into Europe. We’ve threatened more sanctions, and more military aid to Washington’s “friends” in Russia’s peripheries. What more (or less) should we be doing?

In order to stop Putin from doing what he really doesn’t want to do in the first place, there is only one effective approach: be strong, and be crazy. The doctor-turned-playwright Anton Chekhov once observed that if a pistol appears in the first act of a play, it will go off in the third. Remind the Russians of how this plays out in other contexts.

The United States cannot, in good conscience, deny any sovereign, qualifying democracy the chance to join NATO, and its umbrella of support against totalitarian, expansionist regimes. Doing so would make the carving up of Czechoslovakia by gun-shy appeasers in 1939 look like a child’s game. At the same time, consider who respects our Monroe doctrine — and who doesn’t. (Nikita Khrushchev didn’t in 1961, and look where that got him.)

Putin’s Russia depends in many ways on a defensive, often deferring, and in the end demurring Washington. If we could surprise him, that would be good. He expects more talk than action. The only thing that stopped his troops from marching on Tbilisi in 2008 was not threats, but rather reports of American warships crossing the Bosporus. We need to be able to go one step more than we’ve already threatened.

Just as Putin expects Biden to be a paper tiger, recent events in his own neighborhood suggest he is the one with a problem. Better not to forget that, and keep pushing. Unless Sherman wants that Chamberlain schtick to stick, retreat is not an option.

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