'A Stiff Warning' Is On the Way
Editors, The Wall Street Journal
Vladimir Putin's Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean peninsula by force on the weekend and now has his sights on the rest of his Slavic neighbor. The brazen aggression brings the threat of war to the heart of Europe for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The question now is what President Obama and free Europe are going to do about it.
With a swiftness and organization that suggests the plans were hatched weeks ago, Mr. Putin is moving to carve up Ukraine after Russia's satrap in Kiev, former President Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed in a popular democratic uprising. Russian troops have invaded Ukraine's territory and now control all border crossings, ports and airports in Crimea. The Kremlin's rubber-stamp parliament on Saturday approved Russian military intervention anywhere in Ukraine, which is nothing less than a declaration of war. The new government in Kiev responded by putting forces on high alert.
This is a crisis made entirely in Moscow. Speaking the day Mr. Yanukovych fled his palace in Kiev, Mr. Putin lied to President Obama about Russia's actions and intentions. So did his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in calls with Secretary of State John Kerry. If the blitzkrieg succeeds, Russia's assault could end Ukraine's 22-year history as a unitary independent state. The peaceful European order that the U.S. has paid such a high price to establish after the collapse of the Soviet Union is also in danger.
Entering his 15th year in power, Mr. Putin has never concealed his ambition to recreate Russia's regional hegemony. He has replaced Soviet Marxism with ultra-nationalism, contempt for the West and a form of crony state capitalism. He bit off chunks of Georgia in 2008 and paid no price, but Ukraine's 46 million people and territory on the border of NATO are a bigger prize. His updated Brezhnev Doctrine seeks to entrench authoritarianism in client states and prevent them from joining free Europe.
By Saturday, it was clear that a Russian-held Crimea is only stage one. The upper house of parliament in Moscow unanimously approved the declaration of war, and thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators turned out in the industrial cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine to demand Moscow's protection. As in Crimea on Thursday, armed men stormed local government buildings and replaced the Ukrainian flag with Russia's.
The eastern regions of Ukraine are Russian speaking but they voted handily for Ukrainian independence in 1991. No serious separatist movement existed there before this weekend. The local business tycoons, who run politics there, had dropped their support for Mr. Yanukovych and backed the new national government. But Kiev has limited control over military units and police, making the east a tempting target for Mr. Putin to install his own men in power.
Ukraine borders four of America's NATO allies, who are watching closely how the U.S. and the rest of Europe respond. The U.S. has for more than two decades championed Ukraine's independence as crucial to European security. In exchange for Kiev's difficult decision in 1994 to hand over its nuclear weapons to Russia, the U.S., along with Britain and Moscow, promised to assure Ukraine's territorial integrity in the so-called Budapest Memorandum. Russia is now in breach of this agreement.
Ukraine has neglected its military, spending a little over 1% of GDP on defense, and would be an underdog against Russia. But with some 150,000 soldiers and a million reserves, it wouldn't be a pushover. The interim government in Kiev, which was appointed by the elected parliament on Thursday, needs to establish control over the chain of command and mobilize forces. Any attempt to retake Crimea would likely fail, but the imminent threat is in the east.
Mr. Putin spoke by telephone to President Obama for 90 minutes on Saturday and was bluntly honest for a change. "In case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas," the Kremlin said in its readout of the conversation.
A White House statement on the call said the U.S. "condemns" the Crimean takeover and called it a "breach of international law." That will have the Kremlin quaking. The only concrete U.S. action was to suspend participation in preparations for June's G-8 summit in Sochi. Seriously? Mr. Obama and every Western leader ought to immediately pull the plug on that junket and oust Russia from the club of democracies.
There's more the West can do, notwithstanding the media counsel of defeat that it "has few options." Russia today is not the isolated Soviet Union, and its leaders and oligarchs need access to Western markets and capital. All trade and banking relationships with Russia ought to be reconsidered, and the U.S. should restrict the access of Russian banks to the global financial system. Aggressive investigations and leaks about the money the oligarchs and Mr. Putin hold in Western banks might raise the pressure in the Kremlin. The U.S. should also expand the list of Russian officials on the Magnitsky Act's American visa ban and financial assets freeze, including Mr. Putin.
The U.S. can also deploy ships from the Europe-based Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea, and send the newly commissioned George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean. NATO has a "distinctive partnership" with Kiev and in 2008 promised Ukraine that it could eventually join. It's impractical and risky to bring Ukraine in now. But the alliance should do what it can to help Ukraine and certainly boot the Russian mission, a well-known den of spies, from NATO headquarters in Brussels and shut down the useless Russia-NATO Council.
Mr. Obama and the West must act, rather than merely threaten, because it's clear Mr. Putin believes the American President's words can't be taken seriously. After the 2008 invasion of Georgia, President Obama pretended the problem was Dick Cheney and tried to "reset" relations with Moscow. Mr. Putin has defied the civilized world on Syria and Mr. Obama rewarded him by making Russia a partner in phony peace talks. Mr. Putin gave NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum over U.S. objections, and he got away with that too.
In the brutal world of global power politics, Ukraine is in particular a casualty of Mr. Obama's failure to enforce his "red line" on Syria. When the leader of the world's only superpower issues a military ultimatum and then blinks, others notice. Adversaries and allies in Asia and the Middle East will be watching President Obama's response now. China has its eyes on Japanese islands. Iran is counting on U.S. weakness in nuclear talks.
The Ukrainians can't be left alone to face Russia, and the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea can't be allowed to stand. Ukraine must remain an independent state with its current borders intact, free to follow its democratic will to join the European Union and NATO if it desires. The world is full of revisionist powers and bad actors looking to exploit the opening created by Mr. Obama's retreat from global leadership, and Mr. Putin is the leading edge of what could quickly become a new world disorder.
this article was originally featured in The Wall Street Journal. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
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