by Mark N. Katz
America, Europe, and some other countries have imposed numerous economic sanctions against Kremlin insiders as well as Russia as a whole in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. These Western sanctions, though, have not succeeded in getting Moscow to reverse course. Indeed, Western governments believe that Moscow has been violating the most recent cease-fire accord by sending more weapons and “volunteers” to help the separatists in eastern Ukraine. During a recent visit I made to Paris and Berlin, officials and observers there told me that they fear Putin may push even further into Ukraine, and perhaps elsewhere.
Many American politicians and officials, Republican and Democrat alike, now believe that since sanctions have not stopped Putin, the time has come to provide military assistance to Ukraine so that it can better defend itself against Russia. Doing so, they argue, would at least raise the cost of aggression for Moscow. And the more costly Putin’s venture in Ukraine becomes, the more likely they believe it will undermine domestic political support for Putin inside Russia. Besides, they see it as immoral not to help Ukraine defend itself against aggression.
French and German—as well as many other European—observers, though, are strongly opposed to any such move. They fear that the U.S. (and perhaps others) arming Ukraine would lead to an even greater degree of Russian intervention in Ukraine and perhaps even to an expanded conflict. Europe would suffer far more from such an escalation than America, and Europeans do not appreciate that so many American politicians and officials cavalierly (in their view) advocate a policy that risks jeopardizing their peace and well-being. Further, they fear that the U.S. might simply ignore these European concerns and send arms to Ukraine unilaterally.
Whatever the moral argument for providing military support to Ukraine, there is a strong possibility that doing so would lead to a division between Washington and most (though not all) of its European allies even greater than that which occurred over the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq in 2003. Such a development would be at least as welcome to Putin as acquiring more of Ukraine. And a trans-Atlantic cleavage would likely help Putin with his territorial ambitions as well. As a result, for Washington to send arms to Ukraine at this time would be highly inadvisable.
So what, then, should be done? Most of the French and German observers I spoke with indicated that the West will need to do something more if Moscow persists in violating the present ceasefire agreement. But nobody I spoke with was willing to articulate what measures should—or even could—be taken.
I would suggest that America, Europe, and others concerned about Russia’s actions in Ukraine do the following:
- Encourage Ukraine to focus on internal political and economic reform rather than attempt to regain lost territory;
- Expand the Western economic sanctions enacted against Putin’s closest associates to Putin himself;
- Begin to seize (not just freeze) the assets of Putin and his cronies in the West and use them to set up a fund to compensate the victims of Putin’s policies in Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia itself;
- Impose travel bans on Putin and his close associates, as has been done vis-à-vis especially offensive dictators and their henchmen in other countries.
In short, America and Europe should adopt policies that make it clear to Putin and (perhaps more importantly) his associates that they can either continue to enjoy the enormous wealth they have stored up in the West, or they can continue trying to expand Russian influence forcefully. But they can’t do both.
Finally, even if it doesn’t follow my suggestions Washington should respond to Russian encroachments in Ukraine not with policies that would divide America from Europe and so strengthen Putin, but policies that can unite the West as well as divide Putin from his greedy associates.