Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine posed the most serious challenge to European security in decades. In one stroke, he thumbed his nose at the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the Paris Charter of 1990, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, and other agreements and commitments that had kept the peace in Europe—with the exception of the Balkans—since the end of World War II. Suddenly, the post–Cold War order was torn to shreds, and many worried that if Putin’s brazen act was left unchallenged, other authoritarian regimes would think they, too, could get away with aggression against their neighbors.
On balance, the Western reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was much stronger than Putin anticipated, even if it was less than what many advocated. At the time Putin made his move, few would have thought that a year later the West would have in place a harsh sanctions regime against Russian officials and entities. Russia was too big and important, both strategically and commercially—or so Putin and others assumed. But Putin left the West little choice. His thuggish treatment of his own population belied his claims that he cared about the plight of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine. His cold-blooded reaction to the tragic shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 turned around the mood in Germany, among other places, overnight.
The combination of Putin’s misplaying his hand numerous times during 2014 and the resolve of the West to take a stand against his aggression has left the Russian leader facing the gravest crisis of his presidency. There is some talk that Putin might not even serve out his current term, which runs until 2018.
After President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine on February 22, 2014, Putin apparently panicked, fearing that what happened in Ukraine could spread to other countries, including his own. By first invading and annexing Crimea with stealth forces and then moving into and occupying eastern parts of Ukraine, Putin was sending clear signals to his neighbors that attempts to democratize, liberalize, and integrate more closely with Western institutions like the European Union—NATO was not an issue at that time—would not be permitted. Moscow would decide what was best for Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, and others, denying them the right to choose their own destiny. And the West, Putin thought, would do nothing about his efforts to carve out a real sphere of influence.
At first it seemed that he was right. The West was slow to understand the gravity of the threat Putin posed to European security and to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and other countries. Europe was reluctant to lose business opportunities in Russia and feared a tough response would mean a new cold war, for which none on the continent had an appetite. After all, the West had done very little after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and in fact the Obama administration came to office five months later eager to “reset” relations with Moscow.
As Crimea fell, the West, instead of implementing hard-hitting measures at the outset of the crisis to preempt and prevent further Russian aggression, took only limited steps and let Putin set the agenda. As a result, Putin decided to parlay his success in Crimea by moving into eastern parts of Ukraine. But he overreached, underestimating Ukrainians’ willingness to fight for the Donbas region (in contrast to the conscious decision by Kyiv to not resist the takeover of Crimea) and overestimating the interest of those living in the east to join Russia. At the same time, Putin was less interested in taking over more of Ukrainian territory—after all, he had no plan for assuming responsibility for Crimea and has since discovered how costly it is at a time when Russia can least afford to absorb such costs—than in simply destabilizing Ukraine, quarantining the threat it posed to his regime, and turning it into a basket case in which the West would lose interest.
But instead of halting Ukraine’s westward shift, Putin has accelerated it. While still facing huge challenges, Ukraine has never been more united. The December 23rd vote in the Rada (three hundred and three to ten) in favor of revoking Ukraine’s “non-bloc” status and enhancing cooperation with NATO never would have happened had Putin left Ukraine alone. Similarly, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan, founding members of Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union, visited Kyiv in December to express support for Ukraine, worried that they could be next on Putin’s hit list. Instead of winning over his neighbors, Putin is repelling them—and badly damaging Russia’s standing and national interests in the process.
And yet pursuing Russia’s national interests has never been at the forefront of Putin’s thinking. His only real objective is staying in power no matter the cost, even at the risk of harming Russia’s interests. His return to the presidency in 2012 was driven by his lack of confidence in the ability of interim president Dmitri Medvedev to sustain the corrupt, authoritarian regime Putin had built up over the years. The ill-gotten accumulation of wealth and assets of Putin and his clique were threatened by any domestic liberalization or tolerance for Russia’s neighbors to pursue closer ties with the West.
To justify his way of governing, Putin has needed to perpetuate the myth that the West, and the United States in particular, represented threats to Russia. As far back as his speech following the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004 and continuing with his Munich speech in 2007, Putin has hyped the threat of outside powers. Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine cites NATO enlargement as the greatest military danger, a theme repeated in the Military Doctrine that Putin approved in December 2014. (The reality is that NATO enlargement has provided Russia with its most secure, stable borders.)
And yet it is Putin himself, notwithstanding his high levels of support, who poses the greatest danger to Russia by pursuing policies against Ukraine that have led to Russia’s isolation as a pariah state; by failing to diversify Russia’s economy (a problem that became clear with the significant decline in the price of oil); and by insisting on increases in defense spending at a time when the country cannot afford them. Under Putin’s watch, Russia’s economy is in deep crisis: by the end of 2014, the value of the ruble dropped by roughly half, capital flight was more than twice that of 2013, inflation and interest rates were up, and hard currency reserves had fallen below $400 billion. Because of Western sanctions, Russian companies are unable to refinance the massive debt they owe to Western banks—roughly $150 billion in 2015 alone, and Russian banks are turning to the government for bailouts, further draining foreign currency reserves. Things got so bad by the end of the year that China offered Russia financial assistance in December, a gesture that many Russians must find humiliating. The drop in the price of oil accounts for much of Russia’s current problems, but there is no denying that Russia’s economic situation at the end of 2014 was far worse than it was at the start of the year due to Putin’s decisions (or lack thereof).
One wouldn’t know that, however, from watching Kremlin-controlled television. On a daily basis, Russians are reminded how wonderful Putin is, which accounts for his strong poll numbers. Meanwhile, domestic critics and opponents face spurious charges and trials, such as the one that opposition activist Aleksei Navalny and his brother Oleg endured. (Oleg was sentenced to three and a half years in December, and Aleksei’s house arrest continues). Nongovernmental organizations are branded “foreign agents,” and journalists and foreign diplomats are constantly harassed and monitored. But to many of his supporters in Russia, Putin was reestablishing Russia as a global player to be taken seriously and, in invading Crimea, righting a historical mistake made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 when he gave Crimea to Ukraine.
If the drop in the price of oil has been the main factor in Russia’s economic crisis, it must be acknowledged that Western sanctions have played a key role, too. Even Putin admitted in his end-of-year news conference that they were responsible for twenty-five to thirty percent of Russia’s troubles. While Russia still claims control over Crimea and occupies parts of eastern Ukraine, many believe that further Russian aggression—not just against Ukraine but toward Moldova—was prevented by the sanctions imposed by the West. The sanctions may have started small in March, primarily targeting Putin cronies, but over several rounds they were ramped up to include a number of large Russian entities and sectors and have made refinancing of Russian debt virtually impossible.
The last major round of sanctions, imposed in September, likely would not have happened, however, had Russian-supported forces not shot down the Malaysian airliner on July 17th, killing all two hundred and ninety-eight persons on board. Putin’s callous reaction to that tragedy elicited a disgusted response in the West—in Germany, fairly strenuous opposition to more sanctions disappeared almost overnight—and led to the toughest set of penalties against Russia. Until then, President Obama had refused to move ahead with unilateral sanctions, insisting that the US and EU act together in dealing with Russia. But this was a time that called for stronger American leadership and less “strategic patience,” as the president put it later.
Thinking the sanctions would be merely symbolic and face-saving, Putin had essentially dared the West to respond to his brazen moves, and he was surprised when the West rose to the challenge, albeit not as quickly and aggressively as some would have preferred. Indeed, there is no denying that the sanctions in place against the Putin regime represent a sea change from where the West’s relations with Russia were when the year started.
Another unintended consequence of Putin’s moves is that NATO has beefed up its defenses along Russia’s borders and found a new purpose in defending its member states from Putin’s potential aggression. The European Union has proceeded with free trade and cooperation agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova despite Russian threats (although Ukraine’s deal will not take effect for another year). Russia has been kicked out of the Group of 8, and Putin left the November Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, early after receiving a browbeating from other leaders. All of this is due to his decision to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea.
Yet while Putin has edged Russia onto shaky ground and the West has reacted more strongly than anticipated, questions abound about the EU’s ability to maintain unity when sanctions are up for renewal in the summer of 2015, and about those in the West who think we have made far too much of the Ukraine situation at the expense of the more important issue of relations with Moscow. Maintaining a hard line toward Russia will require continued engagement not only by the Europeans but by the American president and his top officials, which is in no way a given. (Indeed, the February 12th Minsk cease-fire deal, which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was pressured into signing, augurs badly for Western support for Ukraine and reveals an unwillingness to stand up to Putin.)
The crisis is far from over for Ukraine, much less for Russia, but there are conclusions one can draw that will be important for the remaining two years of the Obama administration, for the new Congress, and for 2016 American presidential aspirants.
The first one is that Vladimir Putin is a threat to virtually everything the West stands for. The system he has overseen at home for the past fifteen years is antithetical to our own; the effects of his foreign policy have been damaging to Western interests. Putin has consciously supported Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of the Syrian people by arming Syrian forces; he has agreed with the mullahs to construct new nuclear reactors in Iran; he has menacingly reminded the world of Russia’s nuclear weapons capability; and, continuing his energy blackmail by other means, he has challenged NATO states and others with provocative military flights and submarine maneuvers. Given these challenges, we should set aside the reset button as long as he’s in power.
Second, we are in a crisis because of Putin, not because of us. We should stop seeing him as anything other than a paranoid authoritarian leader who oversees one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. Preventing his corruption from infiltrating and infecting our own systems should be a top priority. The West had no interest in picking a fight with Russia and turned to sanctions reluctantly. While Western policies over the years have not been perfect by any means, those who argue that NATO enlargement, EU outreach to Russia’s neighbors, or American policies over the years are to blame make an unconvincing case.
Moreover, the problem has not been lack of engagement or dialogue with Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel particularly, who has been a strong leader on sanctions, has spent many hours on the phone and in person with Putin—to no avail. Other Western leaders, including Obama, have tried and failed to talk sense into the Russian leader. There is no need for special channels, as some have suggested, since Henry Kissinger, Gerhard Schröder, and others already see Putin whenever they want—and have nothing to show for it.
It is also true that we’ve seen now that Putin only understands strength and views Western weakness as an opening to exploit. He thought that he was stronger than all the other Western leaders, and for a while, he appeared to be right. But by the end of 2014, in one of those about-faces that make history, Putin’s position was much weaker than that of many of his Western counterparts. Despite his efforts to sow divisions in Europe (it remains to be seen whether he has made lasting inroads there), Putin faces a West less inclined to back down (though developments in early 2015 suggest Putin might be snatching victory from the jaws of defeat).
The West should understand that it is time to stop talking about easing sanctions—US Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are especially guilty of such talk—unless and until there is a real change in Russian policy. Sanctions are as much psychological as they are punitive, and loose chatter about lifting them prematurely will indicate to Putin a lack of resolve on the part of the West. He knows what he needs to do to ease the sanctions—he simply chooses not to do it. Rather than step back, Western leaders should instead tell him that more sanctions are coming unless he reverses policy, including, it bears remembering, on Crimea.
And we should see our support—not only of Ukraine, but also of Moldova, Georgia, and other neighbors of Russia—as critically important in the period ahead. The first Obama administration ignored these states while it focused on the reset with Russia. But the US should stipulate that supporting these countries’ efforts to democratize and create market economies is in the US national interest and helps to advance the decades-old vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Along these lines, we should not close the door to NATO for Ukraine or to any other potentially qualifying country that meets the alliance’s standards. The December 23rd Rada vote signaled Ukraine’s rejection of those in the West who want to rule out membership in NATO and “Finlandize” the region.
A major mistake on the part of the West, and especially of the Obama administration, has been the refusal to provide Ukraine with the means to defend itself. Indeed, the public and repeated rejection of Ukrainian requests for antitank and antiaircraft weapons, among other things, sent Moscow a green light. An opportunity was missed when Congress unanimously passed legislation in December authorizing the provision of such military assistance to Ukraine, and the White House failed to say anything about its intentions in this regard in the signing statement. Since the onset of the crisis, Ukrainians have been disappointed by the Obama administration’s lack of support in this area, and they are right to feel so. Had we provided such assistance soon after Russia’s aggression, Putin might have thought twice before he sent in Russian forces in late August as the Ukrainian military was making headway in retaking parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. It’s important also to remember that the Russian public lacks the stomach for major casualties from fighting in Ukraine, as is clear from the Kremlin’s efforts to censor coverage of fighters’ funerals.
Finally, it is important that we not telegraph the boundaries of our policies. Too often, American officials, including the president, would indicate what the United States will not do instead of leaving Putin wondering what we might do. He should ponder our intentions with fear and uncertainty.
David J. Kramer is the senior director for human rights and human freedom at the McCain Institute, in Washington, and previously served as the president of Freedom House and, before that, as an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the George W. Bush administration.