Putin Will Understand Only One Response: Escalation


By Eli Lake

Alexey Navalny is undoubtedly right. Russia’s aggression against three Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov, the Putin antagonist and anti-corruption activist tweeted Sunday, was an attempt to create a distraction.

It’s straight out of the dictator’s handbook: Create an international crisis when the people at home get restless. In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s case, there is much restlessness, from protests over pension reform to the recent arrest and release of a popular rapper. Most Russians, according to a poll taken last month, hold Putin “fully responsible” for the country’s problems.

So it’s tempting for the West to respond with caution. A few tough statements to signal displeasure, but no actual change in policy. Don’t push too hard. Don’t mistake Putin’s latest ploy as preparation for a broader war.

Such caution is sometimes wise, but not now. It’s important not to mistake the status quo between Ukraine and Russia for stability. Tensions between the two countries in the Sea of Azov have been simmering for months, and half measures would invite further escalation from Russia. The moment demands escalation from the West.

The West has to deter Putin from defying international law and norms, says Stephen Nix, the Eurasia director of the International Republican Institute. It cannot allow Russia to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty again, as it did with its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But what would that look like? Nix recommends a mix of sanctions and more robust military measures. For example, the U.S. could lead an international convoy of military vessels to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to escort Ukrainian ships. The U.S. could also sell more advanced radar and weaponry to Ukraine’s navy, helping it to better detect and defend against Russian vessels at sea. If Putin believes the Russian navy gets a free shot against Ukrainian ships, it’s important for NATO countries to disabuse him of this notion.

The U.S. should also increase a campaign of diplomatic isolation. The easiest step here would be to kick Russia out of the Council of Europe. Since 2014, Russia’s membership has been suspended. After the Azof affair, Russia should be expelled.

Some would go even further. Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Brookings Institution, recommends that the U.S. and Europe prohibit ships leaving from Russian ports in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea from entering their ports if Russia does not reopen the Kerch Strait immediately. Toomas Hendrick Ilves, the former president of Estonia, recommends more restrictions on visas for Russian officials visiting Europe or America.

Most important, these penalties against Putin should be accompanied by a public campaign to explain them to the Russian people. It’s delusional to think the U.S. can foment civil unrest in Russia. At the same time, Russians who are fed up with Putin’s authoritarian rule deserve to know how and why his actions have invited international isolation.

Finally, the U.S. needs to reassess diplomacy that is too reliant on Putin’s good will. It’s all well and good to talk about restarting arms control negotiations or driving a wedge between Russia and Iran. But Moscow will use these U.S. goals as leverage to get away with bullying neighbors like Ukraine. In light of Russia’s aggression, President Donald Trump should cancel plans for Putin to come to Washington in the spring until he lives up to the terms of the 2003 treaty between Ukraine and Russia to share the Sea of Azov. Otherwise he would be repeating the mistake of former President Barack Obama, who so needed Russia’s cooperation in nuclear talks with Iran that he failed to deter Russia’s advances in Syria.

Unfortunately, the U.S. response to Russia’s latest aggression has been muted. Trump tweeted Sunday his usual refrain urging European allies to pay more for their national defense. But he has yet to use his preferred platform to condemn Putin. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, did call out Russia’s actions, but it’s not enough.

Russia’s firing on Ukrainian vessels is its most significant act of international aggression since the 2014 stealth invasion of Ukraine. Denunciation is no substitute for deterrence. The price Putin pays must be steeper than he expects.

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