3 March 2014

Nicholas Burns

Panel of Senior Advisers


President of the European Commission Jose-Manuel Barroso, President of the US Barack Obama and President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy pose for photographs at the European Summit 26 March 2014, Brussels, Belgium. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun/Get
President of the European Commission Jose-Manuel Barroso, President of the US Barack Obama and President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy pose for photographs at the European Summit 26 March 2014, Brussels, Belgium. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images.


This article was originally published in the Financial Times

By sending troops across Ukraine’s borders, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, aims to weaken and destabilize the struggling new government in Kyiv and coerce it to stay within Moscow’s orbit. Thus begins the opening act of a dangerous crisis that risks dividing Ukraine along ethnic and geographic lines. It is the most serious threat to Europe’s security since the end of the Cold War.

America and Europe have few real tools to limit Putin’s troop movements and prevent him from destabilizing the rest of a poor, divided and weak Ukraine. That leaves only one real option: to follow a persistent diplomatic strategy to outmanoeuvre Putin in a lengthy struggle over Ukraine.

NATO has no legal security obligations to Ukraine in this crisis. A US and European military counterpunch to Putin’s Crimean land grab would risk a major continental war among nuclear powers. That is not going to happen. The West will not fight Putin for Ukraine and he knows it. That is why, in part, he felt emboldened to act. Americans and Europeans must therefore go on the offensive in another way – by raising the costs to Putin for his reckless actions.

First, they can start by assembling a chorus of global leaders to denounce Putin for breaking Europe’s long peace since the end of the Cold War. Public criticism, of course, will not change Putin’s course. But it could begin to isolate him and cost Russia some of the soft power strength it gained from the Sochi Winter Olympics. That is important to Putin.

Obama has already spoken out. Other leaders, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, and from India, Brazil, Japan and South Korea, should now follow to defend the most sacrosanct principle of the international system: the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders, territorial integrity and a country’s right to choose its own future.

Second, the US and NATO must begin to sanction and repudiate Putin. The White House has all but said Obama will not attend June’s Sochi G8 Summit. The other leaders should announce they will also boycott. In addition, they should expel Russia permanently from the group.

Third, the US can take further concrete measures on its own. Washington can suspend negotiations on agreements important to Putin such as the Bilateral Investment Treaty. In addition, Obama should encourage Congress to enact additional sanctions on Russian leaders under the Magnitsky Act, and to look for other ways to end a business-as-usual attitude with the Russian Federation. The EU can suspend some of its own economic agreements with Russia to hit Putin where it will really hurt.

Fourth, the US and Europe need to act quickly to provide concrete support to the shaky new government in Kyiv. Together, they should announce an economic assistance package backed by a long-term IMF agreement to support the nearly bankrupt Ukrainian economy.

They might consider a creative way to demonstrate that support – a visit to Kyiv by the foreign ministers of the US, Poland, Germany, the UK and France to stand with the new Ukrainian leaders. They should also give them some frank advice: go out of your way to signal acceptance and inclusiveness to the millions of ethnic Russians who were alienated by the revolution in Kyiv. Do not give Putin a rationale for further military adventures in Ukraine’s east.

Fifth and finally, NATO should reaffirm publicly its core promise to all members, the Article V pledge of mutual defence in a crisis. Mr Obama should call an emergency meeting of NATO leaders to reassure, in particular, the 10 new members from central Europe who were not so long ago part of the Warsaw Pact or the USSR itself. NATO, if necessary, should build up the collective defence of these countries. NATO, after all, is the only reason Moscow has not set its sights on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in particular.

Putin chose this fight on ground familiar and advantageous to him. He won round one and is still on the move. But it is not clear if even he knows how the crisis may end. And his blunt use of force will not play well with the majority of Ukrainians or the world beyond.

The struggle for Ukraine is shaping up to be the kind of contest for power with the Russians that Cold War US presidents managed so effectively. Advantage in such a long, twisting contest should shift, in the end, to the stronger, more mature and democratic governments. Putin’s Russia is not among them.

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