Forget sanctions, arm Ukraine

Neil Seeman and Laurie Ann Mylroie,  Washington Examiner

Economic sanctions are not stopping Russia’s assault on Ukraine, and the West’s feeble response may well encourage Russian aggression elsewhere.

At the recent G-20 summit, Western leaders personally threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin with further sanctions, if he did not cease his aggression and withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Western leader closest to Putin, met with him for over six hours. Afterwards, she spoke with unprecedented pessimism, warning: this “isn’t just about Ukraine.”

Russian actions have “called the whole of the European peaceful order into question,” she said. Yet Russia’s Foreign Minister disingenuously claims that the sanctions aim at “regime change” in Moscow, while Putin, himself, has thrown down the gauntlet, declaring his actions in Ukraine “strategic” and asserting that he has no hesitations about them: “Truth is power. When a Russian feels he is right, he is invincible,” Putin told TASS, Russia’s official news agency.

It has been over eight months since the first sanctions were imposed. Why should further sanctions produce any other result except further emboldening Putin? Generally speaking, armed aggression is met best by an armed counter-force — not that of the United States nor any other Western power, but rather of a properly equipped Ukrainian army. That is what Ukrainian leaders have asked for and what the Ukrainian people say they want.

Western leaders have consistently underestimated Putin’s determination and ruthlessness in Ukraine. Russia’s assault on Crimea, which began in late February, just days after the Sochi Olympics, caught the West by surprise. So, too, did the highly capable Spetsnaz forces that seized the peninsula. They are the product of extensive military reforms, which involved replacing poorly performing senior officers and thereafter developing a new doctrine of hybrid warfare and training troops to execute it.

Russia’s assault on Crimea was not just an ad hoc response to the eruption of political unrest in Kiev. It was the product of years of planning. Already in 2005, Putin asserted — to the shock of Western observers — that the break-up of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He then proceeded to develop the means to reverse the humiliation of that catastrophe. Thus, Russian forces fought far more effectively in Ukraine than they did in the Chechen wars, or even in Moscow’s brief 2008 war with Georgia.

Since the Ukraine crisis began, President Obama has operated on the assumption that Putin is a “rational actor” who seeks international respectability for his country and prosperity for his people. The White House believes it can lead the West in manipulating various sticks and carrots, until Putin recognizes that his aggression is counter-productive and takes the “off-ramp” which the West holds out. However, this is a gross misunderstanding of Putin and those historical figures he resembles. The United Nations reports that over 4,300 people have been killed and nearly 10,000 wounded by Putin’s acts of war.

Putin and his progenitors in soi disant pan-nationalism are not shop-keepers, narrowly calculating profit and loss. In this world wretched leaders bent on violent irredentism do exist. Putin exploits a toxic mix we have seen before: a fatigued and distracted West, enamored with politically fashionable appeasement in the face of repeated evidence of its inexorable failure; and a Russian propaganda media state, which fires up his base support with ever more fervor with each perceived injustice.

Putin’s perceived injustices are just that; they are built on wounded national pride, and Putin has gone far in restoring it for a large number of Russians. In the months following the seizure of Crimea and then the aggression in Eastern Ukraine, Putin’s popularity soared to new heights. It peaked in August with an 87 percent domestic approval rating and remains high. Of course, Putin stifles dissent, imprisons and even murders his opponents, but the Russian media is now tightly controlled, and authoritarianism—not liberal democracy—has been the norm in Russian history. If sanctions were to really bite, as Western leaders hope, Putin’s best counter might well be more confrontation.

Indeed, confrontation seems to be coming in any case. In early November, Ukrainian authorities warned that Russia forces were again pouring across the border, as NATO subsequently confirmed. Another Russian-backed rebel offensive is feared, perhaps aiming at grabbing a land bridge to Crimea. It is the most blatant violation to date of the Sept. 5th cease-fire, which Ukraine reluctantly concluded the last time Moscow dispatched forces into Ukraine. This, while Putin consistently denies — as he did at the G-20 summit — that there are any Russian forces in Ukraine.

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