Economic sanctions are not stopping Russia’s assault on Ukraine, and the West’s feeble response may well encourage Russian aggression elsewhere.
At the recent G-20 summit, Western leaders personally threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin with further sanctions, if he did not cease his aggression and withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Western leader closest to Putin, met with him for over six hours. Afterwards, she spoke with unprecedented pessimism, warning: this “isn’t just about Ukraine.”
Russian actions have “called the whole of the European peaceful order into question,” she said. Yet Russia’s Foreign Minister disingenuously claims that the sanctions aim at “regime change” in Moscow, while Putin, himself, has thrown down the gauntlet, declaring his actions in Ukraine “strategic” and asserting that he has no hesitations about them: “Truth is power. When a Russian feels he is right, he is invincible,” Putin told TASS, Russia’s official news agency.
It has been over eight months since the first sanctions were imposed. Why should further sanctions produce any other result except further emboldening Putin? Generally speaking, armed aggression is met best by an armed counter-force — not that of the United States nor any other Western power, but rather of a properly equipped Ukrainian army. That is what Ukrainian leaders have asked for and what the Ukrainian people say they want.
Western leaders have consistently underestimated Putin’s determination and ruthlessness in Ukraine. Russia’s assault on Crimea, which began in late February, just days after the Sochi Olympics, caught the West by surprise. So, too, did the highly capable Spetsnaz forces that seized the peninsula. They are the product of extensive military reforms, which involved replacing poorly performing senior officers and thereafter developing a new doctrine of hybrid warfare and training troops to execute it.
Russia’s assault on Crimea was not just an ad hoc response to the eruption of political unrest in Kiev. It was the product of years of planning. Already in 2005, Putin asserted — to the shock of Western observers — that the break-up of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He then proceeded to develop the means to reverse the humiliation of that catastrophe. Thus, Russian forces fought far more effectively in Ukraine than they did in the Chechen wars, or even in Moscow’s brief 2008 war with Georgia.
Since the Ukraine crisis began, President Obama has operated on the assumption that Putin is a “rational actor” who seeks international respectability for his country and prosperity for his people. The White House believes it can lead the West in manipulating various sticks and carrots, until Putin recognizes that his aggression is counter-productive and takes the “off-ramp” which the West holds out. However, this is a gross misunderstanding of Putin and those historical figures he resembles. The United Nations reports that over 4,300 people have been killed and nearly 10,000 wounded by Putin’s acts of war.
Putin and his progenitors in soi disant pan-nationalism are not shop-keepers, narrowly calculating profit and loss. In this world wretched leaders bent on violent irredentism do exist. Putin exploits a toxic mix we have seen before: a fatigued and distracted West, enamored with politically fashionable appeasement in the face of repeated evidence of its inexorable failure; and a Russian propaganda media state, which fires up his base support with ever more fervor with each perceived injustice.
Putin’s perceived injustices are just that; they are built on wounded national pride, and Putin has gone far in restoring it for a large number of Russians. In the months following the seizure of Crimea and then the aggression in Eastern Ukraine, Putin’s popularity soared to new heights. It peaked in August with an 87 percent domestic approval rating and remains high. Of course, Putin stifles dissent, imprisons and even murders his opponents, but the Russian media is now tightly controlled, and authoritarianism—not liberal democracy—has been the norm in Russian history. If sanctions were to really bite, as Western leaders hope, Putin’s best counter might well be more confrontation.
Indeed, confrontation seems to be coming in any case. In early November, Ukrainian authorities warned that Russia forces were again pouring across the border, as NATO subsequently confirmed. Another Russian-backed rebel offensive is feared, perhaps aiming at grabbing a land bridge to Crimea. It is the most blatant violation to date of the Sept. 5th cease-fire, which Ukraine reluctantly concluded the last time Moscow dispatched forces into Ukraine. This, while Putin consistently denies — as he did at the G-20 summit — that there are any Russian forces in Ukraine.
Why should anyone believe or trust him? Ukrainians certainly do not. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Ukrainians overall do not believe Putin to ever be honest when he asks for a ceasefire, according to a recent study of over 2,500 respondents from within Ukraine, conducted by these authors. Almost half (46 percent) of Eastern Ukrainians — where pro-Russian sentiment is strongest — express the very same opinion.
In September, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Washington and asked for lethal military aid, a request that Obama denied, offering non-lethal military aid instead. Nonetheless, Poroshenko made an impassioned plea before the U.S. Congress, affirming, “One cannot win the war with blankets. Even more, we cannot keep the peace with a blanket.”
Most recently, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has affirmed that Ukraine’s top priority is building an army capable of stopping Russia’s aggression. Indeed, this is what Ukrainians say they want: in the same study, over 54 percent of Ukrainians said they wanted more US arms and munitions to defend themselves. Among predominantly Ukrainian-speaking respondents, this rose to 76 percent.
Michele Flournoy, briefly the leading candidate to replace Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, supports arming Ukrainian forces, “so they can defend their territory and their sovereignty.” It is unfortunate that she has pulled her name from consideration for the post. That is precisely what the Ukrainian government has asked for and what the Ukrainian people want.
The U.S. Congress, particularly its Republican members, generally support the notion of arming Ukrainian forces. Last week, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, testifying before Congress in nomination hearings for his new position as deputy secretary of state, raised the possibility of supplying Ukraine with “defensive lethal equipment.” That is a very small category, but one item that does fit is counter-mortar radar. Vice President Joe Biden just visited Kiev and brought the first three of 20 such systems that the U.S. will provide Ukraine. The new radar will allow Ukrainian forces to pin-point the source of incoming shells and facilitate accurate retaliatory fire.
However, this falls woefully short of what the Ukrainian military needs. Effective military action requires seizing the initiative, hitting hard and fast. Kiev cannot defeat the Russian-backed rebels if it remains on defense.