Hudson Institute

Getting Serious about Putin’s Aggression

Charles Fairbanks on how the West should respond.

Former Senior Fellow
US President Barack Obama (L) holds a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) holds a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Harry Houdini invented ever-more ingenious ways of trapping himself, immobilizing himself, and wrapping chains around himself, to make his escape more dazzling. Western governments and opinion-makers are doing the same in responding to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But we seem to have forgotten the part about the escape. Everywhere you hear the conventional wisdom: we don’t have any levers. Such a conclusion should be the end of an analysis, not the beginning. If any Western government does want to do something that will change Putin’s fait accompli, in responding to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, here are some directions in which they ought to begin thinking. There surely are others. The beginning of wisdom is to question the paralysis of “few effective levers.” Leverage flows from vulnerabilities of the adversary. Russia certainly has some.

One. Russia fears marginalization and humiliation. Russia still enjoys treatment as a major power after losing the larger part of the strengths (economic might or the illusion of it, territory, usable military power, the prestige given by ideology) that the Soviet Union had. That great power status is a gift we gave the Russians in spite of their repeated misbehavior and obvious hostility. We invited Russia into the G-8, although South Korea has a better economic claim to that status, and regularly invite Russia into almost every Middle Eastern negotiation, in spite of its marginal influence there. We rush into nuclear arms control negotiations where we and Russia are the sole partners, like two superpowers, negotiations that Russia needs much more than we do. Russia, however, simply does not have the weight internationally that China, Germany, France, Britain, and perhaps India have, to say nothing of us. Russia is at best the “least of the great powers,” as Italy was from 1870 to 1943, before giving up its uphill effort to claim that status. The facts themselves threaten Russia with the loss of great power status. Russia cherishes that status, and a threat to it will weigh on Putin. In diplomatic contacts, then if necessary in public declarations, we can make clear that Russia will get no more signs of status or invitations it does not earn by effective power and respectable conduct. Ouster from the G-8 is only a beginning. Of course, Germany shudders at the thought of expelling Russia from the G-8. But any American President can simply tell the Germans they can do as they wish, but personal repugnance will impede his meeting with Vladimir Putin as long as he occupies Ukrainian territory. End of discussion.

Two. The lack of legitimacy of a regime that is neither democratic nor Communist is the deepest root of Russian weakness, because kleptocracy and monopoly are impeding the free market and keeping Russia a petro-state. In fact the current regime is a gang of robbers that have seized on a great nation and are sucking its blood like a bloated deer tick. Years ago more people finally acknowledged that Putin’s rule is not democratic, but our government still does not acknowledge this fact publicly as we do with the Iranian mullahs or Syria’s Assad. We can do much more to call the regime what it is and to help the struggle of Russian democrats against it. We have to be careful not to expose democratic activists there to Putin’s retaliation, but he has reason to fear our appeal to freedom.

Three. Everyone is chanting the mantra, “military force is not an option.” Of course, any military clash between Russian and American forces would be very dangerous; it is not in our interests at all. But is it, then, in Russia’s interest? Here we need to think through the correlation of forces in a hardheaded way. Putin has allowed Russian military forces, except nuclear forces, to deteriorate to a point where many Pentagon planners no longer worry about them as a threat. America’s tremendously capable military, in contrast, has been freed by President Obama’s withdrawals for other contingencies. Any military encounter between Russian military forces and those of the major NATO countries would be likely to end in a disastrous defeat for Putin’s side. And any defeat would be likely, as so often in Russian history, to trigger major political change. Putin could lose everything if he ever dared attack Western forces. Putin has forced Ukraine and the West on the defensive by playing a risky game, but he is holding a hand that is weak in crucial cards. That does not mean we should challenge him militarily, far, far from it. It does imply, however, that the West could accept an invitation to deploy forces in the Western part of Ukraine to defend its independence if a desperate Ukrainian government were ever to request them. It would be insanity for Putin to attack them. While it is not prudent policy to move troops, it is certainly in our interest to let him know that we are not afraid of his underfunded, unreformed and corrupted army if the situation were unfortunately to evolve to such an extremity. And who could object to routine naval visits to the Black Sea, as the George W. Bush administration ordered during Russia’s invasion of Georgia?

Four. Putin now has the option of gnawing off other Russian-majority morsels of Ukraine or of using the crisis to undermine the reformist Kiev government. The crisis can get much worse. Realizing this, many diplomats are eager to negotiate some compromise that will leave Putin a partial victor at the expense of international standards of conduct. Such a course assumes: the worse it gets, the more Putin gains. Quite the contrary. The Russian-populated areas have acted to retard the return of Ukraine to the European family of nations. If Ukraine effectively loses them, the part that is left loyal, which probably would comprise three-fifths of the country including the capital, will be radicalized in a nationalist direction and turn far more unanimously toward Europe. Gaining some border areas, Putin has to calculate, would mean losing the larger Ukraine for good. We can never advocate for any change that compromises Ukrainian sovereignty. But it is important to show we are aware that a worsening crisis is, past a certain point, not in Russia’s interest either. The possibility of escalation does not give Russia leverage against us.

The EU and the United States, if necessary the latter alone, need to negotiate with the new Ukrainian government two distinct packages of Western measures to bring Ukraine closer to the West. The more moderate package should include the agreement with the EU Yanukovich aborted, much economic aid, and other things we should be doing anyway. The deeper package of measures should unfold unless Putin withdraws his forces from Ukrainian territory. It should begin with massive Western aid to improve the quality of the Ukrainian army, modeled on what the Clinton and Bush Defense Departments did for Georgia. Knowledge of the existence of such a package should be an effective deterrent to further Russian aggression. If it does not, its actualization helps Ukraine and the West.

Five. Putin’s biggest weakness is the divergence between his personal motives and Russia’s interests. He cares about restoring the Soviet Union under another name, to the extent possible. But his whole history shows he cares more about getting rich and staying rich. Some former high officials estimate that he is the richest man in the world. He could have acted much more effectively to restore the U.S.S.R. by creating a nationalist, authoritarian but law-governed regime that strictly limited corruption. Instead, he channeled it to himself and his friends. Putin and his friends are extraordinarily vulnerable to measures that publicize and sanction individual dictators and war criminals of the kind now being widely used. The United States government needs to inform Putin that we are ready to publish everything we know about his riches and how they were stolen; identify and seize his many offshore bank accounts; apply a “stolen property” designation to business transactions involving these assets—and declare associated contracts invalid; and ban Putin’s international travel. If Putin continues to occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory, these threats should be carried out. We should act similarly, perhaps first, with the members of his corrupt elite as well as Yanukovich’s embezzlers. For Putin and his friends this is the biggest danger. Unlike many plundering dictators and warlords, we have carefully shielded him from exposure so far. Why? Like so much of our Russian policy, our complaisance about Putin’s charade of patriotic self-sacrifice suggests we are not serious. We need to get serious.