Commentary Magazine


There’s Plenty the U.S. Can Do About Putin

Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be terribly impressed by the State Department’s decision to ban visas for all those involved in undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity–nor by the EU’s decision to freeze the assets of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and 17 of his closest aides and family members.

The Kremlin is pushing ahead with a referendum, now scheduled for March 17. That vote is almost certain to result in the people of Crimea voting to join the Russian Federation. That is the way of votes held at gunpoint, although even without a Russian troop occupation the Crimeans, most of whom are Russian speakers, might have voted to join Russia anyway.

There is, it seems, little the West can do to evict the Russian troops—pardon me, “local self defense forces” that just happen to be wearing Russian army uniforms–from the territory they have seized in recent days. But there is much more that the West could be doing to make Russia pay a higher cost for its brazen aggression.

The Treasury Department, for a start, could ban all Russian financial institutions from interacting with the U.S. banking system and force other countries to comply on threat of being denied access to the American market as well. Britain, whose capital is home to a vast amount of Russian money (just think of how many oligarchs own fancy apartments and sports teams in Britain), could freeze the assets of many of Putin’s cronies. France could stop building two amphibious assault carriers for the Russian Navy that will allow Putin to project power more easily into places like Ukraine. NATO could announce that it is beefing up its forces in Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic Republics, including stationing US troops there for the first time, to make clear that Russia cannot invade NATO members as it invaded Ukraine. The U.S. could announce a total suspension of all diplomatic contacts with Russia and refuse to send an ambassador to Moscow to replace the recently departed Michael McFaul.

And those are just actions (with the partial exception of the NATO troop move) that could be taken by countries that are not as heavily reliant as Germany on Russian shipments of natural gas. (Although if Putin were to stop shipping the gas he would face a crippling loss of revenue, so he’s not likely to do that.) But none of this is being done, at least not yet. Instead the Europeans, who have most of the leverage here because of their greater business dealings with Russia, are as usual trying to find a way to keep talking rather than acting. At least the EU has decided to cough up $15 billion in a rescue package for the new pro-Western government in Ukraine. Washington is kicking in another $1 billion. That’s a significant step to help steer Ukraine toward the West.

But the Europeans, along with the Obama administration, are missing the imperative to inflict significant harm–economic, political, and diplomatic–on Moscow in retaliation for its aggression. This is necessary whether or not such pressure forces Russia to disgorge Crimea. It is necessary to send a signal to other countries that aggression does not pay.

That signal was sent clearly in 1990-1991 when the George HW Bush administration organized an international coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. But the signal is being attenuated as Putin continues to use salami-slicing tactics to take one bit of territory after another–first a chunk of Georgia, now a chunk of Ukraine, whatever next? Nobody is suggesting, of course, using military force: Russia is not Iraq. It is a nuclear-armed state with a large military and war would be unthinkable. But there are plenty of options between appeasement and launching World War III that could be usefully implemented, and they should be, whether Russia decides to advance beyond Crimea or not.

Putin is no Hitler but remember how in the 1930s World War II became inevitable because Hitler was not stopped in time. Every time he tried a fresh provocation–rearming in violation of the Versailles Treaty, reoccupying the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria, seizing the Sudetenland–he received no pushback from the West so he decided he could keep going. Today we should be worried about sending such a permissive message not only to Russia but also to other states such as Iran, North Korea, and China that are carefully watching this drama unfold. As Eliot Cohen notes: “If Russia can rip off a limb with impunity, why can’t China do the same with the Senkaku Islands?”

 The West needs to stop its rush to reestablish cordial relations with Russia. However discomfiting it might be to ratchet up tensions in the short term, the long-term result is likely to make peace more, not less, likely.

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