No drama in Obama’s Ukraine policy

April 22, 2014

Many are asking: How can we stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from moving into Ukraine and seizing a large chunk of its territory in the east? The actions of forces that resemble the Russian special operations troops who created the conditions for annexation of Crimea suggest that other parts of Ukraine may also be in the Russian strongman’s sights.

The fact is, however, we cannot stop Putin. Or, to be more precise, we should not try to stop him physically. Doing so would require military threats or troop deployments to Ukraine. The stakes do not warrant such a step. It is not worth risking World War Three over this.

Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It does not have a formal security treaty with the United States, and its strategic importance is not great enough to warrant such escalation. Though we can feel for Ukrainians — and reject what Putin is doing — this is a classic case of where the old axiom “We can’t be the world’s policeman” does apply.

Yet we cannot be indifferent to what happens in Ukraine. The stability of the international order has been compromised by Russia’s blatant aggression. The norm against interstate violence and forceful changing of borders has been violated.

In addition, we have a commitment, dating back to the 1994 Budapest declaration, to help Ukraine defend its national security. Under that agreement, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons — which served the global non-proliferation agenda and U.S. interests. It also implied a moral commitment not to look away if Ukraine came under threat.

The current situation is complex – and, to some extent, the doing of Ukrainians themselves. The economy has been mismanaged for years by all political parties, and all sides have violated various accords reached in recent months.

So we need to find the right type of response, one that should not be based on a false sense of our ability to prevent Putin from further encroachments. What we can do, however, is make sure that he pays an increasingly high price as his shenanigans snowball.

Putin should be forced to face a choice: economic growth or further military conquests. We need to signal to him that a major military move into eastern Ukraine would be so egregious and unacceptable that Russia would pay a serious economic price for years — well beyond what it has incurred over Crimea. Putin’s presidency would no longer see the return of Russia as a major power, but instead see the great bear’s economy settle into prolonged stagnation.

The choice is Putin’s. Our job is to make it crystal clear.

If Putin still moves a large force into eastern Ukraine, I would also favor shoring up our commitments in the Baltic states. This could include the permanent basing of several thousand U.S. and other NATO ground troops — in numbers and with weaponry that signal they are not there for offensive operations or the liberation of Ukraine.

The stakes just aren’t worth the risk of doing more. But our NATO allies deserve protection and reassurance, especially if things get worse before they begin to stabilize.

So far, the Obama administration is doing a good job with this basic approach.  As bad as the Russian seizure of Crimea was, it was done with minimal violence and some plausible degree of historical and demographic logic.

I am not excusing what Putin did — it was unacceptable.  But I would call it, at some risk of using an oxymoron, moderately unacceptable. Blatant aggression against the heart and soul of Ukraine would have been far worse. And still could be.

So the modest sanctions that we have imposed on Putin’s top cronies over Crimea strike just the right balance. They are tough enough to cause people close to the Russian president to feel real pain. They are not yet enough, however, to weigh down the broader Russian economy.

Meanwhile, the Western world is signaling that it can ramp up sanctions as need be. Our record in punishing Iran for its nuclear program proves we have gotten far better at employing tough and targeted sanctions. Our conversations with Germany, Poland and other European nations about alternative sources of energy show that we are serious about upping the ante by reducing trade in Russian oil and gas if need be. Hopefully, that will not be necessary.

To be sure, given the high degree of dependence of some European countries on Russian natural gas, no economic response to Russian aggression could be extreme in the first place. We cannot simply stop trading with what remains one of the world’s top three energy producers, along with Saudi Arabia and the United States. But we can start taking major steps to reduce the trade, beginning with swifter approval of export licenses for U.S. natural gas. Over time, that dynamic could cut Russian energy exports by a significant amount— 10 percent or 20 percent or even 30 percent?

This kind of economic hit wouldn’t be enough to send Russia back to the Stone Age. But it might just be enough that the prospect of such a setback, leading to possible economic recession in Russia for several years, could get Putin to think twice now.

That may be the best Washington and the rest of the  West can do.  And it may be good enough, in terms of protecting our core national interests.


PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, April 11, 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimetyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, take cover behind an armored vehicle as they attempt to take over a military airbase in the Crimean town of Belbek near Sevastopol, March 22, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

PHOTO (INSERT 2): An armed man, believed to be a Russian soldier, stands on guard outside a military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 21, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Delegates pray during the Kurultai, the assembly of Crimea Tatars, in Bakhchisaray, March 29, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov




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