On Ukraine, There Is Just One Way To Handle Putin

Europe and the U.S. must respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin with neither war nor capitulation. There is a third option: total isolation.

Russian President Vldimir Putin in February 2014
Russian President Vldimir Putin in February 2014
Daniel Brössler


BRUSSELS — Europe is accustomed to being pursued by ghosts from the past, but they are now finally catching up with her. When a world power sends troops into a neighboring country in response to a carefully orchestrated invitation, claiming to act in defense of the people, and seizes control of a region, alarm bells start to ring.

No, 2014 is not 1938, nor 1968. Crimea is not the Sudetenland, and Kiev is not Prague. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not only acted in breach of international law — he has also made it clear that his desire for power in the region of the former Soviet Union knows no limits.

After more than two decades, it looks as if the relative peace that has reigned in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall may be in danger. As we often hear Russian voices lament, the country is humiliated, its interests neglected; the West has played the victor and a latent Cold War mentality is to blame.

And yet, indeed, this argument only makes sense within the logic of the Cold War.

According to such logic, certain nations are not free to determine their own fate because they lie within Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin has described the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest geostrategic catastrophe of the 20th century. Anyone who claims that the deeper motivation behind Russian aggression in Ukraine lies in the West’s supposed arrogance would do well to remember that.

The end of an illusion

The time has come for the West to stop laboring under the illusion that Russia — a country whose internal politics are marked by authoritarian rule, despotism, abuses of power, nationalism and mourning for an empire lost — can outwardly be a reliable partner for the European Union and the United States.

This illusion has persisted even after the war in Georgia in 2008, when former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili bore the brunt of the blame, and even while the West has looked on in disbelief as Russia has supplied Bashar al-Assad with arms throughout the conflict in Syria.

Now, however, the crisis in Crimea shows that internal and external politics in Russia cannot be separated. In both spheres, Putin respects only power, not justice.

The United States and Europe are faced with a difficult decision. The situation in Ukraine is threatening to develop into a war where the West will not intervene militarily. Although Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty is guaranteed on paper, for example in the Budapest Memorandum signed when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, NATO cannot offer the country any assistance against nuclear Russia.

But for this reason, the West cannot afford to be passive right now. Moscow’s aggression must be stopped without resorting to military threats.

That will require a level of determination that Putin obviously believes is lacking in the West. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be completely severed. The only permissible negotiations should be those focused on finding a solution for the Crimean crisis. Summits like the planned G8 meeting in Sochi in June cannot take place. The aim is not to impress Putin — but to avoid all semblance of normality.

The Russian president’s assumption that the West will be outraged for a while but then settle down must be proven wrong. Otherwise there can be no guarantee that Putin’s eye will not turn to other countries in Eastern Europe and central Asia.

The difficult question of sanctions

This poses one of the most difficult questions to arise from the crisis: the question of sanctions. They have been the West’s weapon of choice when dealing with tyrannical rulers and have sometimes met with success. But Russia is a special case: a nuclear power, a member of the United Nations Security Council and a vital energy provider. Sanctions against Russia could prove very costly for the West.

If Russia were to cut off the gas supply to Europe, that could have devastating consequences for many countries — but first and foremost for Russia itself. The country’s economy is already struggling, its development stunted by corruption. If Putin does not come to his senses, the European Union must find the courage to put him and the oligarchs who support him under economic pressure.

In 2014, a century after the start of World War I, which would tear the continent apart, the European dream is once again in danger. Europe must face up to the ghosts from its past. It has no other choice.

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