The United States and other Western nations have limited options in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Acquiescing in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression isn’t among them. President Obama’s warning that “there will be costs” for Russia’s outrageous military intervention must amount to more than a mere rhetorical threat.
Ukraine’s interim government effectively deposed the country’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych — a Putin ally — after recent anti-government protests in the capital of Kiev resulted in the killings of scores of civilians. Last weekend, Russian forces seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, where Russia maintains troops and military facilities.
After Russia’s parliament “authorized” President Putin to use military force elsewhere in Ukraine, there were conflicting reports Monday about whether he was preparing to do so. But Mr. Putin’s pretext for his invasion — that Ukrainians loyal to Russia are at mortal risk — is a cynical fraud reminiscent of his similar invasion of neighboring Georgia in 2008, to which then-President George W. Bush did not respond forcefully enough.
No one would credibly suggest that Mr. Obama should deploy U.S. troops to Ukraine, even if war should break out there. But there is plenty that he and other Western leaders can and should do, short of a military response, to isolate Russia economically and politically.
Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Kiev today for talks with Ukrainian leaders; that’s a good start. Mr. Kerry warned of possible U.S. withdrawal from a summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations scheduled for June in Sochi, Russia, the site of the recent Winter Olympics. That is necessary but hardly sufficient: Russia’s aggression warrants its expulsion from the G8 and the loss of economic benefits that membership confers.
Secretary Kerry has outlined other steps the United States is prepared to take against Russia, such as asset freezes and travel bans, Washington can do more: U.S.-Russian trade negotiations should be put on hold while the occupation of Ukraine continues. Economic sanctions should be applied to Russian banks and companies that do business in Crimea.
If that doesn’t work, Mr. Obama should pursue tougher steps to exclude Russia from Western investment and trade. At the same time, Washington and other western capitals must provide Ukraine’s new government with adequate economic aid and trade assistance to compensate for Mr. Yanukovych’s looting of the country’s resources and Mr. Putin’s withdrawal of promised financial help.
Such actions would have trade-offs. Diplomacy to resolve Syria’s civil war and prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons likely will require Mr. Putin’s participation, however self-serving. Since Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Western Europe, its nations may not want to alienate Mr. Putin; increasing U.S. exports of gas could help overcome that reluctance.
The alternative, though, is to give Mr. Putin a green light for similar aggression within Russia’s self-perceived sphere of influence. Rewarding an extortionist invariably invites new demands.
Ukraine’s new government, which includes ultra-nationalists, has made mistakes. It rejected Mr. Yanukovych’s agreement to some reforms. Its repeal of a law granting legal status to languages spoken by minorities in Ukraine, including Russian, was needlessly provocative.
But such errors in no way validate Mr. Putin’s annexation of part of Ukraine. The United States and other Western nations must remain willing to work with Russia to ensure that scheduled elections in Ukraine are free and fair. They can cooperate to help restore political and economic stability to the country and to protect the welfare of Russian-speakers.
At the same time, the United States and its allies must make clear that Mr. Putin cannot use force to keep Ukraine under Russian control, rather than allow it to explore closer ties to the West. If Russia tries to do so, the price it pays for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty must be prohibitive.