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West needs stronger response to Russian transgressions

By Ted Terpstra
On March 9, 2014

Tensions on the Crimean peninsula were high Saturday after about 100 armed gunmen stormed a military office in the city of Simferopol. Incidents like these show just how precarious the situation in Crimea is. One incident could quickly become a flashpoint, igniting a larger conflict. Yet with the situation as serious as it is, the United States and the European Union have yet to take concrete action. Both the United States and the EU should focus their efforts on making the occupation of Crimea the costliest mistake Russia has ever made. This cost must be imposed through economic means, as a military response is implausible.
To put it plainly, the United States has no military options. Aside from a handful of fighter aircraft in the Baltic States and one or two U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea, the United States has no military assets in the region. For comparison, Russia has 25 ships in the Black Sea and over 15,000 troops in Crimea. A military response from the United States is not only unlikely, but also not possible. Yet Russia is hoping for a military response, not from the United States, but rather from Ukraine.
In 2008, Russia invaded the small nation of Georgia. Days before the Russian invasion, the Georgian military launched an offensive into South Ossetia, a region inside of Georgia that wished to become an independent state. By initiating the conflict, the Georgians allowed Russia to justify its invasion as a defensive action to protect the people of South Ossetia. In Ukraine, Russia is trying to create a favorable pretext for war similar to the 2008 Georgian conflict. By isolating Ukrainian military forces in Crimea and seizing Ukrainian military installations, Russia is attempting to provoke Ukraine into taking military action. If Ukraine responds, Russia can then claim that Ukraine fired the first shots and the conflict that followed was simply the Russian response to a Ukrainian offensive. However, the Ukrainian leadership is much more measured than the aggressive Georgian leadership was in 2008. Instead of a war, there is a standoff, as Ukraine recognizes that any military response would play into Russia's stratagem.
So what should the West do to end the occupation? First and foremost we must make it clear that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. Allowing Ukraine to join NATO would exacerbate Russia's fear of the military alliance and be seen by Moscow as encirclement. Russia is already wary of the West's intentions after years of American efforts to build a ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The West must try to understand the Russian perspective of the world.
Next, the United States should make good on its threat to kick Russia out of the G8. Putin values Russia's standing as an economic power. Expulsion from the G8 would send a stronger message than sanctions ever will. Greater isolation of Russia would shrink their influence on the world stage and show Moscow that unilateral military action is a dangerous route to igniting a new Cold War.
Lastly, as Henry Kissinger noted in a piece for the Washington Post, the United States and Europe need to realize that demonization of Putin is not a policy. There is no concerted policy for dealing with Putin's transgressions, instead the West moves from crisis to crisis without any strategy. Crisis management is not a policy. The United States and its allies must recognize that Putin is a strategist and respond in kind.
So far, the American response has been weak. Visa bans and limited sanctions are not going to affect Putin's strategy. There also seems to be a dangerous possibility that many nations in Europe fail to recognize the severity of Putin's actions and, in the coming weeks or months, allow relations with Russia to return to normal. The United States has to consider the global message that would be sent if Putin is allowed to seize Crimea with little repercussions. China may feel emboldened to take a stronger stance on Taiwan and disputed islands in the South China Sea. North Korea could feel similarly about their disputed territories. Now is not the time to make idle threats or muster a weak response. Both the stability of the world and American interests are at risk.  


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