The West's efforts on Ukraine: Out from behind the potted plants?

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2014 - 6:04 PM

Putin is serious about his territorial ambitions. Are the U.S. and E.U. becoming serious about countering him?

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President Obama with actor-comedian Zach Galifianakis during an appearance on “Between Two Ferns,” the digital short with a focus on reaching people aged 18 to 34.

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Rhetoric from the United States and the European Union about Russia’s illegal and destabilizing actions in Crimea has been encouraging. But words must be backed by deeds.

After Monday’s limited, tepid sanctions that were openly mocked in Moscow, President Obama took a harder line on Thursday by imposing new sanctions on 20 additional insiders connected with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as a supportive bank. Obama also signed an executive order allowing him to levy more sanctions on Russia’s economy, including the energy industry.

Whether the additional steps are enough to get Putin to recalculate his aggression remains to be seen. But it’s an improvement over the actions, and the optics, of Obama’s initial response. The feeble first round — as well as his decision to appear the previous week on the droll online interview show “Between Two Ferns” pushing his health care plan — sent a signal seen globally. At a time of increased international anxiety in Europe, Asia and the Mideast, it was an unforced foreign policy error.

The images may be more reassuring next week as Obama travels to Europe. That’s assuming that E.U. sanctions hit just as hard. But signals are mixed in Europe, too. The seriousness of a sovereign territory taken by Russia, despite a treaty explicitly guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders in exchange for relinquishing nuclear weapons, is well beyond incremental steps and G-8 membership. The question should be if it’s in the West’s best interest to treat Russia with the same severity as world powers — including Russia — did with Iran. While it’s unlikely that Crimea will soon, if ever, return to Ukraine, reversing Putin’s illegal move should remain the West’s stated objective, along with thwarting any Putin move on eastern Ukraine.

E.U. countries may have to decide if they are willing to impose sanctions that might slow their own economies. Many E.U. nations have deep trade and energy ties to Russia, and a rupture would further shake Europe’s recovery. But military aggression is even more destabilizing, and no one should trust Putin after he lied about Crimea.

Here at home, Congress needs to get serious, too. Responding to Russia should bring about bipartisanship. Instead, a bill to aid Ukraine is held hostage to differences in House and Senate versions. Congress is once again about to take a weeklong recess, having accomplished nothing. Campaigning can wait. This crisis can’t.

The rigidity in Congress is partly a reflection of societal splits on many issues that may need to be reconsidered if a response to Russia is to be effective. For instance, inflexibility on extracting and exporting U.S. energy may have to be rethought. America’s natural-gas revolution can be a key strategic asset. Another issue that needs reconsideration is the proposed trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Understandable but bridgeable concerns from the left and right have stalled a deal that would intertwine allied economies the same way NATO does with defense.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday that “our concern is that Russia will not stop here.” Chiding many European NATO nations for dramatically slashing military spending, Rasmussen said it was a “wake-up call.”

This does not suggest that there is a military solution to Crimea. Instead, deterring Putin will be best accomplished through economic means. While it won’t be easy, the West has all the tools. NATO economies dwarf Russia’s GDP. And unlike the Cold War, this crisis isn’t about a global ideological struggle. Communism doesn’t define Russia: Kleptocracy does. The West needs to dramatically ratchet up the cost to Russia.

Russia won’t roll over easily. On Thursday, it announced travel bans on nine Americans, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner. More ominously, Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned that the country may alter its position on negotiations with Iran over its potential nuclear program.

Sacrifices were made during the Cold War’s “long twilight struggle.” There were spats over tactics, but for the most part, Western resolve was unwavering. Putin seemingly believes that just as with Georgia, the West isn’t serious enough to levy penalties that would derail his territorial ambitions. U.S. and E.U. leaders should show him otherwise.

  • A fragile situation

    “We’re one incident from being in a very different security environment in the world.”

    BARRY PAVEL, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council

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