Crimea is now annexed. Eastern Ukraine awaits an impending Russian invasion. Rumors swirl around Russian designs on Moldova. The Baltic states nervously anticipate their time of reckoning in the Russian crosshairs. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other former Soviet satellites shudder at the thought of once again living under the Russian boot.
How should a resolute United States and Europe respond in Ukraine? First, we must acknowledge the very limited military options at our disposal. Neither the United States nor Europe will countenance a shooting war between NATO forces and the Russian military over Ukraine. That much is clear. We must also acknowledge the deep historic ties between Russia and Ukraine. That said, we must insist on a sovereign, independent and territorially secure Ukraine that is respected by Russia. Shame on President Vladimir Putin for violating the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, in exchange for Ukraine’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal to Russia. For this betrayal, Putin’s Russia must pay a heavy price. If not, Putin’s territorial appetite will only be further whetted.
The West has far more economic leverage over Russia at this moment than it does military possibilities. After all, although Russia has First World military/intelligence capabilities, it has a Third World economy. America’s best opportunity to counter Russian aggression is through economic means, and it is clear that Putin has subordinated his nation’s economic interests to his personal political agenda of an ill-conceived restoration of the former Soviet/Russian sphere of influence. Putin’s longing for a return to the Cold War should surprise no one based on his 2005 declaration that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century.” The 2008 invasion of Georgia should have erased any doubts about Putin’s intentions. Russia’s territorial ambitions will be contained most effectively if its economy suffers. President Obama and Congress have taken a few steps in response to the Crimean annexation: The imposition of limited economic sanctions and asset freezes; travel restrictions against a small number of Russian powerbrokers and oligarchs; a $1 billion economic assistance package to Ukraine; and the suspension of Russia from the G-8, an organization to which Russia was never worthy of being admitted in the first place. These actions will have some impact to be sure.
While additional economic actions are essential, a smarter and more muscular military posture by NATO is an immediate imperative. Specifically, President Obama should reverse his naïve, unilateral withdrawal from the missile defense agreement previously negotiated with Poland and the Czech Republic. In addition to sending fighter aircraft to the Baltic states, America can start planning joint military maneuvers with eastern and central European NATO allies to reassure them. Send a signal to Putin that if he invades eastern Ukraine, NATO will answer immediately and affirmatively to the Ukrainian government’s inevitable request for arms to defend itself. I do not advocate for the admission of either Ukraine or Georgia into NATO because that would place US troops in danger of being drawn into direct conflict with Russian forces should Article 5 of the NATO Charter be invoked. NATO collective defense obligations to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and other former Soviet satellites will be challenging enough to honor and those treaty commitments must be guaranteed. Otherwise, the NATO alliance will dissolve through fecklessness, shattering decades of American human and financial investment in a peaceful, prosperous and secure Europe – a Europe which had been the center of America’s national security attention for most of the last century. The United States and Europe must insist that Russia afford the same territorial and diplomatic respect to Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet Republics that it affords to the fiercely independent and non-aligned Finland.
In case these actions don’t get Putin’s attention, further robust economic measures will. For example, establish an economic NATO by completing negotiations on the pending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP - the US-EU free trade agreement), and give President Obama strict parameters for those negotiations through trade promotion authority. The United States and European Union represent 45% of global GDP and 43% of global trade. This strategic economic realignment will only strengthen and enhance transatlantic military and security cooperation. Let’s watch Putin’s anemic Eurasian Economic Zone try to compete against an economically aligned, mighty transatlantic partnership. The TTIP agreement will facilitate American liquid natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe and Ukraine, lessening their dependence on Russian energy sources. President Obama’s administration must immediately approve the 24 pending LNG export terminal applications. And for good measure, we could consider releasing a portion of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) that some experts tell us will drop the price of oil enough to cause further harm to Russia’s budgetary situation. A commodities driven economy largely dependent on oil and gas exports to provide so much of the revenue needed to meet its financial obligations, Putin’s Russia will not be able to recover this lost energy revenue through increased vodka production.
Military aggression in an age of complex global economic interdependence will cost an economically weak and fragile aggressor dearly. The oligarchs must experience pain and they’ll make sure Putin does as well.
Finally, President Obama should stop minimizing Russia’s unprovoked aggression and cease waxing philosophical about Russia as a “. . . regional power” acting out of “weakness.” Such words provide absolutely no comfort to frontline NATO allies in eastern Europe and may invite more Russian “regional” adventurism. And, Secretary Kerry’s statement regarding Putin’s actions that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion” speaks to a level of disconnectedness and dismissiveness of the very Russian history that drives Putin’s political calculations and territorial designs.
What a tragedy it would be to see European political freedom, economic prosperity and continental security – shaped, directed and supported by the blood and treasure of America’s greatest generation -- undermined by a ruthless, calculating autocrat. Now that would be a real geo-political catastrophe constituting a supreme global emergency.
Congressman Dent is Vice-Chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.