Reviews | The West should no longer underestimate Putin

The White House issued its most stern warning yet about the threat to Ukraine on Friday, saying Moscow could invade any day. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stressed there was no way to predict what Russian President Vladimir Putin might do – but history shows we should not underestimate Mr. Putin to violate the sovereignty of another country.

At the end of February 2014, Russian troops invaded Crimea, Ukraine. They seized government buildings and airports. With Ukrainian military units effectively surrounded, Russian reinforcements consolidated Moscow’s control over the Crimean peninsula in early March. The Ukrainian army could do nothing – years of corrupt management had left it ill-equipped and unprepared. Attempts to take over Ukrainian bases and rescue their personnel would have inevitably led to bloodshed.

As the senior Pentagon official in charge of Russia and Ukraine, I was stunned by the invasion. I remember going to bed praying that the besieged Ukrainian naval, air and sea forces in Crimea would still be alive when I woke up. My colleagues in the White House Situation Room were also horrified. Even if we had seen troop movements weeks or months in advance, we would never have imagined that Mr. Putin would take such a risky and blatantly illegal action.

At the time, we debated how forcefully to confront Mr. Putin. In retrospect, we failed. We, and the administration that followed, finally seem to have emboldened Mr. Putin. It brought us to where we are today – with Mr Putin mustering some 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, threatening to invade and reshape the world map. To stop it, we must learn the lessons of Crimea and resist Russian aggression. The cost of not doing so would be catastrophic.

By the end of 2013, my colleagues and I had met almost daily after Ukrainians took to the streets to demand that their leader, President Viktor Yanukovych, take action to bring Ukraine into the European Union. By the end of February 2014, more than 100 anti-Yanukovych demonstrators had been killed in cold blood. As the protests grew and the government lost control of the situation, Yanukovych fled to Russia. While we were focused on this situation, Mr. Putin made his cheeky move on Crimea a few days later.

It was the first time since World War II that a European country had annexed part of another. The United States had to react vigorously. And we did – at first.

At the United Nations, we condemned the Russian annexation and the General Assembly declared this decision illegal. Along with several other countries – including members of the European Union, Canada, Japan and Australia – the United States has imposed sanctions on individuals and entities supporting the annexation of Crimea.

Yet Mr. Putin continued. In the spring of 2014, pro-Russian separatists unleashed a bloody war in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Responding to this Russian-led insurgency has become the daily focus of the Obama administration’s Russia-Ukraine team.

As Russian-led forces took more Ukrainian territory, we staged another round of sanctions against Moscow as well as military assistance to Ukraine. These sustained efforts may have prevented Russia from gaining ground in 2015. Yet it was because of our focus on Donbass that the United States and the international community effectively set aside the situation in Crimea and prepared the ground for today’s crisis.

Of course, at the same time, the administration was also struggling to conclude the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, manage the escalating civil war in Syria, and try to shift the focus to Asia. Crimea would get only intermittent attention from US authorities.

We took the international pressure off Mr. Putin’s revenge violations of sovereignty in Ukraine – just as we did following Russia’s invasion of another neighbour, the Republic of Georgia, in 2008 (Russia still occupies 20% of its territory.) Each time, the United States has done just enough to respond with sanctions and diplomacy aimed at containing the immediate transgression. But we have failed to maintain global pressure on the source of every crisis – Mr. Putin’s aggressive and illegal foreign policy.

This trend continued in the Trump administration and was even intensified by the president’s unseemly deference to Mr. Putin. Donald Trump played down Russian interference in our elections and was prepared to break US law to suspend aid to Ukraine, an action that led to his first impeachment by the House of Representatives. He also questioned the value of NATO, the alliance protecting Eastern European states from Russian violations of their sovereignty.

The United States must not repeat this mistake. Now that an invasion seems imminent, the Biden administration must immediately treat Russia as a rogue state and aggressively isolate Moscow.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the United States and its allies send troops to push Russia out of Ukraine. But a diplomatic pressure campaign can help stop Moscow’s aggression. Yes, Russia is a nuclear power and Europe depends on its energy supplies, but the world should stop being bullied into excusing Moscow’s actions.

What is at stake is more than expanding Mr. Putin’s sphere of influence. It is about defending the principles of the post-World War II order – and more specifically the right of a country to its territorial integrity. If Mr. Putin is allowed to invade Ukraine unscathed again, then what will prevent other authoritarian powers from doing the same elsewhere?

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s speech at the United Nations last month denouncing Russia’s aggressive actions was a good step and must be the start of a sustained strategy against Mr Putin. Mr Biden must rally an international coalition of the willing for weeks, months and years if necessary to contain threats from Russia, similar to the US-led coalition that reversed the illegal annexation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Biden’s other initiatives – the drafting of strong economic sanctions, the increase in military assistance to Ukraine and the recent decision to send American troops to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank – are strong and would benefit from concerted diplomacy at the United Nations.

To underscore the pariah treatment, the Biden administration should, along with its allies, expel Russia from international forums and impose export controls on every continent, as we are doing to confront Iran and North Korea.

Certainly, Russia’s deep integration with Europe and the global financial system makes isolation difficult. But there are some avenues: the United States should work with European allies to impose sanctions on Russian banks, even if it is to the detriment of our economic interests, as well as on financial institutions that manage Russian sovereign debt. It could also cut Russia off from the SWIFT interbank messaging system.

And Washington must continue to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy by facilitating increased deliveries of liquefied natural gas from the United States, Japan and elsewhere. Forcing the Russian treasury to strain to meet domestic demands may be the only way to increase pressure on Mr Putin from the public and powerful oligarchs.

The United States has succeeded with similar campaigns: Washington’s pressure on big energy consumers helped force Iran into negotiations that ultimately led to the 2015 nuclear deal, for example.

Washington has been much more aggressive in exposing Russia’s various disinformation campaigns with this crisis – such as citing intelligence on a Russian plan to create a pretext to justify invading Ukraine. But the Biden administration can and must do more.

Mr. Putin wants to be respected on the world stage. Further exposing Russia’s global interference – including its support for authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa – will put Russia on the defensive. It could also prompt leaders accepting Russian support to step down, fearing public backlash could undermine their own grip on power.

The strategy will not fully pay off overnight. But Mr. Putin has created an imperative for Mr. Biden to lead all nations in their efforts to avoid war.

Evelyn N. Farkas (@EvelynNFarkas) was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia in the Obama administration. She is also President of Farkas Global Strategies, an international business development company.

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