March 03, 2014

U.S. Should Resist, Reinforce and Reassure in Face of Ukraine Crisis

By Richard Fontaine

In invading Crimea and pushing Russia and Ukraine to the brink of war, President Vladimir Putin has issued a profound challenge to the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace.  Moscow's vision appears to be a continent – or at least a Russian "near abroad" – that is divided, unfree and at perpetual risk.  At issue is not just the future of Ukraine but also the trajectory of European security and the strength of norms barring the use of force to seize territory.     

In the face of this crisis, the United States should pursue a policy aimed to simultaneously resist Russian domination of Crimea and expansion of its military presence into eastern Ukraine, reinforce the Kiev government through economic aid and diplomatic support, and reassure NATO allies who are watching these events with alarm.

In his phone conversations with President Obama and other world leaders this weekend, Mr. Putin articulated a dangerous concept – the right of Russia to intervene militarily to "protect" Russian-speaking populations outside its borders.  Given the tens of millions of Russian speakers living abroad, such a doctrine threatens to radiate tension and instability in numerous countries.

It is clear that Russia's interest in dominating Ukraine and its willingness to use force vastly exceeds the West's will to resist these moves.  As a result, the United States and its partners will have to employ diplomatic and economic measures in order to exact a cost on Moscow.  These measures, however, if implemented in coordination with European partners, can have a significant impact.

American policy should revolve around non-recognition of Moscow's attempts to establish facts on the ground in Crimea and opposition to further expansion of the Russian military presence in Ukraine.  The statement issued by G7 countries suspending preparatory meetings for the G8 summit in Sochi should be just the beginning.  The G7 countries should expel Russia from the broader grouping unless and until the situation in Crimea is reversed.  The U.S. Congress and the administration should expand the application of Magnitsky Act sanctions to any Russian individuals responsible for this act of aggression.  And they should seek other financial and diplomatic penalties.

At the same time, the United States and Europe should step in quickly, via the IMF and through other channels, to bolster the bankrupt government in Kiev.  Economic support should be coupled with a strong message that the new government must be inclusive of both its Ukrainian and Russian speaking populations.  And Washington should engage in urgent consultations with nervous NATO allies in Eastern Europe in order to demonstrate the credibility of the alliance.

Washington and its partners must think more than one move ahead; Moscow may respond to any punitive actions by cutting off gas supplies to consumers in Europe, disrupting Afghanistan's northern distribution network, or taking other measures.  It is time to begin considering plans for each of these contingencies.

Ten years ago, I visited Crimea with a congressional delegation that met with Viktor Yushchenko during his campaign for Ukraine's presidency.  We heard at that time of the many obstacles in the way of his team as they contested the election against the Yankovych campaign.  Yet when we returned to the country just six months later, the Orange Revolution forces were triumphant, and the people of Ukraine had pulled off something remarkable. 

It has been a long road for Ukraine since then.  That country has known more than its share of disappointments and tragedies, and events there have a way of taking on large, even historic significance.  Russia's latest move marks a new chapter in the long story of Ukraine.  It will not be the last one writtten.