Yesterday’s comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine appear to represent a promising turn in the crisis. Putin’s remarks represent a change in tone, even if his purpose is not yet clear. He may be seeking to disassociate himself from what pro-Russian separatists do next and to downplay Russia’s role in recent events, or he may be simply taking the next step in a strategy to use the leverage he has developed by destabilizing Ukraine to secure long-term Russian influence in the country.
But it may also be that he is responding to Western pressure. The crisis in Ukraine initially caught Western officials off-guard, as did Moscow’s tactics. Where Putin has been reckless and quick to act, the Western response was reactive, cautious, and disunited. In seeking to avoid escalation and cost to our own economies, we risked achieving the opposite: emboldening Putin and inviting instability elsewhere through our under-reaction. Indeed, the West’s initial response raised more questions about our own willingness and ability to endure costs than about Putin’s. U.S. and EU sanctions were mild, with the second round representing only an incremental step beyond the first. Diplomats tend to prefer this sort of slow ratcheting up of sanctions, yet there is no evidence that doing so is effective.
Recently, however, two important shifts in Western policy occurred. First, a consensus seemed to be building toward broader, sectoral sanctions on Russia, both between the United States and European Union and because of behind-the-scenes U.S. actions affecting Russian banks. For all of the worry about the “boomerang” effect of sanctions on Western economies, it is Russia’s economy that is most vulnerable. Second, other steps beyond sanctions were taken to broaden the U.S.-European policy response. These were sensible shifts, not only wielding pressure in concert with diplomacy but also escalating that pressure rapidly and with a range of tools.
It is far too early, however, to declare success. Russian statements have proven unreliable in the past (to put it mildly), diplomatic talks will be difficult, and events on the ground may cause Russia’s position to shift again. Until Putin’s actions inside Ukraine, on its borders, and on Russia’s airwaves match his words, skepticism is warranted. Furthermore, the Ukraine crisis has exposed vulnerabilities and shortcomings in the transatlantic alliance that should be addressed energetically to deter future aggression. Western policy from here should follow at least four lines of action.
First, sectoral sanctions on Russia should remain on the table even as we pursue a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. If sanctions ultimately prove necessary, pains should be taken to counter the narrative of disunity that has dogged earlier sanctions efforts. The United States and the European Union should act in concert by agreeing on a common base of sanctions that significantly increases the economic price paid by Russia. Then, just as we did in the case of Iran, the United States can build upon that base with additional unilateral steps.
Second, we should assist Ukraine in order to build its capacity not only to defend itself, but to meet the expectation of the Ukrainian people, who have risked much in hope of a freer and more prosperous future. Much focus has appropriately been placed on the question of security assistance for Ukraine; the United States should indeed be more forthcoming with such aid, with a focus on helping Kiev reestablish and maintain law and order.
But Western aid for Ukraine must go well beyond the security sphere if it is to accomplish its aims. Ukraine is facing a dire economic crisis due to years of corruption and mismanagement and the fiscal fallout of conflict with Russia. The $17 billion in aid recently approved by the IMF is a welcome step, but Kiev will need help putting into place the macroeconomic and good-governance measures upon which the package is predicated, and fending off Russian efforts to interfere by raising gas prices or demanding debt repayment. Western assistance should be a long-term partnership rather than simply a crisis response.
Third, NATO should step up its efforts to bolster vulnerable allies. Enhanced air and sea patrols as well as the U.S. deployment to Estonia were good first steps. However, American troops in the Baltics should be joined by those from other NATO member states so that they represent a multilateral presence rather than a bilateral gesture.
In the longer term, more ambitious and difficult steps are needed. The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that Vladimir Putin—along with many other world leaders—does not share the norms and principles so often cited by Western leaders, and is prepared to challenge them opportunistically and vigorously. With this in mind, the crisis should spark a serious effort to revitalize the NATO alliance.
As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out in 2011, NATO is placed at risk by under-investment in defense by its European members. Speaking in the wake of a Libya operation in which few NATO members actively participated, Secretary Gates lamented that the situation seemed unlikely to change. Russia’s actions in Ukraine should alter this calculus. The crisis should serve as a filip for these states to bolster their defense capabilities—both individually and collectively—and to participate more broadly in NATO operations.
At the same time, the crisis should lead the United States not only to reconsider cuts to our own defense, but to expand our investment in diplomatic personnel and capabilities. Tensions are high right now not only at the edge of Europe, but in the Middle East and in Asia; we must maintain our ability to respond to simultaneous crises in disparate theaters. It would be misguided to attempt to force a solution to perceived free-rider problems in our alliances by cutting back on our own capabilities. Doing so would only leave a security vacuum rather than force collective action. To the extent this is the case in Europe, it is even more so in other regions.
Finally, we should take steps economically and diplomatically to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance. These should include speedy progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations, as Phil Levy has argued. TTIP would not only draw the United States and the European Union closer economically; its benefits would also offset the costs of sanctions against Russia.
The other threat arising from those sanctions is to Europe’s energy security. This should be addressed by liberalizing and accelerating U.S. energy exports, and by pursuing a European “energy union” that would negotiate energy purchases from Moscow and other suppliers as a single entity, as proposed by Polish PM Donald Tusk and endorsed by Chancellor Merkel.
Even if Putin’s comments represent a policy shift by Russia and open the door to more productive diplomacy, the crisis in Ukraine is far from over. Lasting success will require more than episodic attention from the West, especially as Putin’s focus is sure to be sustained. A proactive, multi-pronged response by the United States and Europe stands the best chance of defusing the crisis and deterring further Russian aggression. But it would do even more than that. It would once again transform the transatlantic alliance—which in recent years has seemed almost an anachronism as U.S. foreign policy focused heavily on the Middle East and Asia—into a source of strength and stability for the world.