Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his brazen disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and his threats to defend Russian-speakers beyond Crimea, in other parts of Ukraine and in other neighboring states, represent an assault on the very concept of freedom and the ability of people to choose their own political destiny. The democratic community of nations has faced no greater test since the end of the Cold War.Not since World War II has one European country seen its territory forcibly annexed by another, as Putin did with Crimea and may be trying to do with parts of eastern Ukraine. Putin has shattered numerous treaties and agreements and sought to unilaterally alter the international system that has been in place since the collapse of the USSR more than two decades ago. Full-blown war between two of the largest countries in Europe cannot be ruled out, and the spillover effects of that are incalculable, given the common borders that Ukraine and Russia have with several NATO member states.The current crisis is Putin’s creation, and his goals are to: retain Crimea (though Putin may rue the day given the costs involved), destabilize Ukraine to make it unattractive and unappealing to the West, and force postponement of the Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for May 25.The Western Response to RussiaOverall, the West has been far too reactive to events on the ground and letting Putin set the agenda. We need to take a more proactive stance to prevent and preempt further Russian aggression, punish Putin and his regime for the terrible damage they have already caused in Ukraine, and seek to return to the status quo ante, difficult as that may seem. For decades, the United States never recognized the absorption of the Baltic states into the USSR, and now those countries are members of the European Union and NATO. We must take a similarly principled stand on Crimea even while currently focused on the eastern and southern parts of the country.The problem with the current Western approach is that we have not done well at anticipating what Putin will do next. Let’s recall that there were many Western observers as late as February and into March saying that Russia would not move against Crimea. Then, in late March and into April, some analysts were arguing that Putin wouldn’t move into eastern and southern Ukraine. Here we are in early May with Crimea having been annexed and the situation teetering on the edge in places like Slavyansk, Donetsk, and Odessa—all as a result of Putin’s further efforts to destabilize the situation and stir up unrest.U.S. strategy should shift to preventing Putin’s next moves by imposing crippling sanctions against more Russian banks, energy firms, and state-owned entities; I support broader sectoral sanctions as well. It is a mistake, in my view, to wait either for Putin to move Russian tanks across the Ukrainian border or for him to disrupt the May 25 election, as President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in their joint press conference on May 2; Putin has already done the latter. We have set the bar too high, for Putin has found other means short of full-scale invasion (though that cannot be completely ruled out) by which to accomplish his goals.The outcome of the Russia-Ukraine crisis—and the response of the West—may determine the prospects for democracy for Russia’s neighbors and well beyond Eurasia. While Western states have shown some resolve through imposition of visa bans and asset freezes on a limited number of Russian government officials, businessmen, and a number of Russian entities, what has been done so far is simply not enough and is taking too long. We must go after more high-level officials and more businessmen close to Putin such as Aleksei Miller, head of Gazprom, Vagit Alekperov, head of Lukoil, Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s security services (FSB), and Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Defense. Sanctions against Russian banks and state-owned enterprises, especially any doing business in Crimea, should be adopted, and broader economic sanctions should be considered. As part of an informal Friends of Ukraine Task Force, I joined a number of colleagues in recommending to officials at the State Department and White House the following companies to be targeted:
- Vneshekonbank (VEB)
- Vneshtorgbank (VTB)
All members of the Federation Council beyond those already sanctioned who voted for the use of force against Ukraine and all members of the Duma beyond those already sanctioned who voted for annexation of Crimea should be included. Finally, Putin himself needs to be added to the list if he refuses to stop his aggression and return to the status quo ante. By imposing further sanctions now, we would aim to preempt, rather than react to, the possibility that Putin will invade other parts of Ukraine, or even Moldova, Kazakhstan or even stir up trouble in the Baltic states. Sanctions could be lifted in return for the status quo ante.In response to criticism that his Administration’s sanctions have been too mild so far, President Obama has cited his desire to avoid getting too far out ahead of the Europeans on sanctions and instead present a united U.S.-EU response to Putin. I, too, would like to see the United States, along with Canada, in closer coordination with the European Union, but the simple reality is that it is much more difficult for the European Union to get agreement among its 28 member states to impose tougher sanctions for various reasons, not least the fact that EU-Russia trade is more than ten times that between the United States and Russia. A number of European countries are heavily dependent on Russia for their energy needs, and others simply want to continue business-as-usual and not let the events in Ukraine get in the way of making profits.For all these reasons, the United States has to take the lead. The extra-territorial nature of U.S. sanctions has an impact in its own right: European companies and financial institutions would have to choose between staying in the good graces of the U.S. Treasury Department and doing business with sanctioned Russian enterprises; my bet is that they would choose the former. Thus, while joint U.S.-EU sanctions are naturally preferable, unilateral American sanctions can deliver a solid punch. We must not let the aspiration to have U.S.-EU unity on sanctions impede us, the United States, from doing the right thing now. I dare say that the European Union will follow, but only if the United States leads; naming and shaming those holding the European Union back should also be considered.Since Putin’s move into Ukraine, the Russian economy, already facing serious problems, has seen the ruble drop sharply, the Russian stock market fall some 20 percent, capital flight soar—possibly as much as $70 billion this quarter alone, compared to $63 billion all of last year—and Russia’s credit rating lowered to near-junk status. Investor confidence is badly shaken. Putin and his circle are vulnerable to imposition of such sanctions, given that many of them keep their ill-gotten gains in the West. Closing that option to them is certain to get their attention and possibly lead them to rethink their position, even if it may not lead to an immediate turnaround in Putin’s takeover of Crimea. Russia is significantly integrated into the global economy, particularly with Western states, leaving them vulnerable and giving us leverage over Russia, if we choose to exercise it.This is no time for business as usual. It was appalling to see the leadership of the German conglomerate Siemens travel to Moscow to meet with Putin in mid-March when its own government in Berlin was supporting the first round of sanctions, essentially embracing the Russian leader and reassuring him of their continued business no matter what steps the West might take. Other corporate executives should think twice before doing the same.Putin’s appetite will show no limits unless we impose a serious price for his aggression. Many more countries with sizable ethnic Russian populations, including Moldova, Kazakhstan, and even the Baltic states, will be at greater risk unless Putin suffers serious consequences for what he already has done and is deterred from going further.Helping UkraineAddressing the Putin challenge is critical, but no less important is the need to help Ukraine recover from the turmoil of the past few months, the corrupt leadership of the past two decades, and the economic crisis that it faces right now. Making life doubly difficult for the interim authorities in Kyiv are three facts: the threatening presence of tens of thousands of Russian forces along the border, the instability in the industrially important east, and the loss of Crimea. Nevertheless, the interim government and parliament have no choice but to adopt various reforms required by the IMF and to ensure that Ukraine advances toward democracy and rule of law. The West can and must help. Over the next weeks and months, the United States and the European Union can best aid Ukraine by taking these steps:
- Pressing for the Ukrainian presidential election slated for May 25 to stay on schedule. Some parties in Ukraine, and in Moscow, are urging postponement of the election, arguing that the country needs more time to prepare and cannot hold them as long as Russia occupies part of the country. This would be an enormous setback to Ukraine’s need to elect a legitimate, new leadership as soon as possible. The sooner Ukraine votes for a new President in a credible, democratic fashion, the better off the country will be.
- Aiding local civil society organizations that do election-monitoring kinds of work as well as long- and short-term observers, working closely with the OSCE/ODIHR. Independent media must be able to operate during the electoral period to ensure that the public is informed both about the conduct of the elections and the important policy issues around which the elections revolve; this is especially needed in the regions where information is scarce and violations plentiful. Special scrutiny should be devoted to the formation of an impartial election commission and unhindered participation in the voting process by all registered Ukrainian voters wherever in the country they may be located.
- Assisting development of real democratic institutions so that Ukraine doesn’t squander yet another opportunity, as it did after the 2004 Orange Revolution, for lasting rule of law and liberalization. This would include strong support for Ukrainian civil society and a free press, both of which played critical roles in the protests. It would also entail protecting the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, combatting hate crimes, and promoting tolerance. The presence of some radical elements in the opposition movement and the new governing structure should not give license to any extreme statements and actions by radical groups.
- Refusing to give up on Crimea by demanding a return to the status quo ante. Conducting a rushed referendum under the barrel of Russian guns, without any efforts to involve Ukraine’s central government, is both illegal and illegitimate. No reputable government or body has recognized the referendum, and none should give the impression that this issue is settled.
- Disbursing funds from the financial package that the United States, European Union, Canada, IMF, and World Bank have put together, totaling more than $25 billion, to help stabilize the Ukrainian economy. The release of more than $3 billion in IMF money in early May is a positive start. Adding to the challenge is Russian economic pressure, trade cutoffs, and a spike in the price for Russian gas. Equally important is assistance in recovering stolen assets from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, and assistance with energy reforms and development of alternate energy sources.
- Providing military assistance beyond MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) to include night-vision goggles as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles; none of this would involve actual troops on the ground. We should also be sharing intelligence so that the Ukrainians pushing back against Putin’s aggression literally have a fighting chance.
- Preparing for delivery of humanitarian assistance to Crimea, especially on behalf of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars living there, who together constitute some 35 percent of the region’s population. They effectively have been disenfranchised from their country. The Crimean Tartars in particular, whom Stalin exiled to Siberia in 1944 and only returned to Ukraine’s Crimea as the Soviet Union was collapsing, are distraught at falling under Russia’s thumb once again.
There are some who have argued that the best way to respond to Putin is to help Ukraine succeed, implying that sanctioning Putin is unnecessary. I strongly support doing what we can to help Ukraine, the interim government, civil society and soon a newly-elected leadership, but helping Ukraine requires simultaneously pushing back firmly against Putin and his regime. Ukrainian authorities would have their hands full without having to worry about further Russian aggression and territorial loss. That they are confronted with a massive threat from Putin requires us to both support Ukraine and push back on Putin.As events were unfolding with Russia’s invasion of Crimea, I wrote in the March 2 Washington Post:
President Obama faces the gravest challenge of his presidency in figuring out how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How he responds will define his two terms in office, as well as determine the future of Ukraine, Russia and U.S. standing in the world. After all, if the authoritarian tyrant Vladimir Putin is allowed to get away with his unprovoked attack against his neighbor, a blatant violation of that country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, then U.S. credibility…will be down to zero. Allies won’t believe in us, enemies won’t fear us and the world will be a much more dangerous place.
If Ukraine, with Western help, is able to fend off Putin’s aggression, then freedom in Ukraine and, for that matter, around the globe, will have scored a major victory against one of the most threatening authoritarian regimes in the world and one of the biggest challenges to confront the democratic community of nations. This is about Ukrainians’ aspirations to be free, Putin’s efforts to deny them that possibility, and the West’s willingness to rise to the challenge.