Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Op-Ed
Opinion Op-Ed

How the West is losing Ukraine

There are heated debates here and abroad about what exact policies should be put in place in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to violate Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity by sending Russian troops to Crimea. And although that debate is obviously important, we shouldn't ignore the lessons from the past that brought us to this point and, in turn, should help guide policies going forward.

The first is that Putin paid no price for the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. And he has paid no price for the virtual annexation of the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Nearly one-fifth of Georgia still sits under Russian occupation, and the Russian military set up permanent bases in violation of the cease-fire agreement. But Western capitals, including Washington, have acted as though there was never an invasion of a fellow democracy at all.

PHOTOS: A peek inside 5 doomed dictators' opulent lifestyles

In short, why wouldn't Putin think slicing off part of Ukraine was a relatively cost-free exercise?

The second lesson is that, as important as the European Union's "soft" power tools of trade and diplomacy have been in helping stabilize Central and Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era, that has been accomplished in conjunction with, and more often than not in the wake of, the "hard" security guarantees provided by NATO expansion.

Arguably, the current crisis had its start with the EU offering a free-trade agreement with Ukraine, which Kiev was about to sign until Moscow stepped in with billions to buy off the government and its officials. This is not to say that the EU's wooing of Ukraine was wrong; quite the opposite. But it is a useful reminder that efforts to create a Europe "whole and free" absent the assistance of the transatlantic alliance is a far iffier proposition.

To paraphrase Josef Stalin's famous remark to Winston Churchill when the British prime minister cautioned the Soviet leader about not ignoring the Vatican when it came to the postwar settlement of Eastern Europe, "How many divisions does Brussels have?"

The third lesson is that there is no getting around the character of the Putin government in trying to "reset" relations. President Obama came into office wanting to focus on domestic affairs. This meant not only ending the wars America was in but also creating a less troublesome set of relations with China and Russia.

The president and his advisors hoped there would be a sufficient number of overlapping interests so that other disagreements could be put aside, even if not solved. However, the problem with this strategy has always been that whatever common interests there might be — for example, in reaching an arms control agreement — the greater and overriding priority for Putin was always reclaiming Russia's great-power status. In other words, Washington and Moscow were never truly on the same page when it came to the reset of U.S.-Russian relations.

And, finally, Washington has let its budget hopes drive its strategic decisions. In January 2012, the Pentagon, at the White House's direction, issued a new strategic policy guidance that famously announced the military's "pivot" to Asia. What drove it was the administration's desire to put forward a new global strategy that would square with existing and pending cuts in defense spending.

But this new guidance depended on two assumptions: that there would be declining involvement in the Middle East, and that Europe was now a continent devoid of strategic competition.

Whether the former assumption can be maintained is an open question, given the chaos in Syria and Iran's hegemonic designs, but certainly for our treaty allies in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, the latter holds no water — indeed, if it ever did.

No doubt in the days ahead there will be proposals to revoke Russian visas, freeze assets, recall ambassadors, cancel the Group of 8 meeting in Sochi and, generally, isolate Putin diplomatically. And there will be calls to provide economic and military assistance to Ukraine so that it can halt the salami slicing of its territory. All steps that should be taken.

Over the longer term, those measures will be insufficient if the larger lessons of the past are not understood and made to underpin the strategies the U.S. adopts toward Ukraine and Russia.

There will be no peace for Ukraine until and unless Putin sees the cost for his behavior as being greater than the rewards, and there will be no permanent stability in Eastern Europe absent NATO expansion. And neither of those can occur until the U.S. puts aside the idea that the Russian government is just like any other government and accepts the fact that, in the absence of a strong American military presence, its competitors and adversaries will fill that vacuum.

Gary Schmitt is director of the American Enterprise Institute's Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • When rulers go bad: A peek inside 5 doomed dictators' opulent lifestyles

    When rulers go bad: A peek inside 5 doomed dictators' opulent lifestyles

    By Sara Lessley, guest blogger Well, what a surprise: Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovich had a palace. A really, really nice country estate a few miles out of town. That thousands of previously banned average Ukrainians stampeded to check out after he, uh, left town in a big hurry in late February....

  • Ukraine should put Russia to the test

    Ukraine should put Russia to the test

    Ukraine is now strong enough to seize the initiative to create a lasting cease-fire in its Donbas Rust Belt, currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. And Russia may be weak enough to be receptive. It is in Kiev's interest to do so. A state of permanent war with Russia would damage Ukraine's...

  • What makes Putin tick? A primer for presidential candidates

    What makes Putin tick? A primer for presidential candidates

    Foreign policy is traditionally not a hot topic for presidential primary candidates this early in the game, so I was surprised to receive a request recently to talk about Russia from one of the often-mentioned candidates. But, of course, it is not too early. The United States no longer has the...

  • Europe needs to provide for its own defense

    Europe needs to provide for its own defense

    In response to the Russian threat, Western leaders at the recent NATO summit reiterated their commitment to defending alliance members in the Baltic and Eastern Europe from aggression. This reaffirmation of NATO's core promise is essential in the short term. But it requires fundamental reconsideration...

  • Should Ukraine rewrite history and reacquire nuclear weapons? No and no.

    Should Ukraine rewrite history and reacquire nuclear weapons? No and no.

    Twenty years ago in Budapest, Hungary, leaders of the United States, Russia, Britain and Ukraine signed a memorandum on nuclear weapons and Ukrainian security. It committed Ukraine to remove nuclear arms from its territory and join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear-weapon state...

  • Why the U.S. has an obligation to help Ukraine defend itself

    Why the U.S. has an obligation to help Ukraine defend itself

    With Russian tanks and other military equipment rolling into Ukraine, Kiev is learning the hard way that when you reside in a nasty neighborhood it doesn't pay to get rid of nuclear weapons without ironclad security guarantees. But that is exactly what it did in December 1994 when it agreed to...

  • Kiev, not Moscow, should be the choice for marking V-E Day

    Kiev, not Moscow, should be the choice for marking V-E Day

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have rightly turned down Vladimir Putin's invitation to go to Moscow on May 9 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies' victory in Europe, and President Obama may soon follow suit.

  • Agreement on Ukraine could vindicate use of economic sanctions

    Agreement on Ukraine could vindicate use of economic sanctions

    Assuming it doesn't unravel — a big assumption — the agreement on the future of Ukraine announced Thursday is preferable to the continuation of a conflict in which 5,000 people have died and nearly a million have been displaced. The deal, negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, calls...

Comments
Loading
89°