For nearly a month now, Russia has been ominously massing troops and weaponry at its border with Ukraine, the latest in a series of periodic military buildups that could presage another Russian offensive into the country it illegally invaded in 2014. While the world waits to see if President Vladimir Putin is planning another invasion or posturing to secure another summit with his American counterpart, a worrisome debate has emerged about how to handle the Russian leader's threatening behavior toward Ukraine, a friend to the United States and Europe that has for the better part of a decade been ravaged by war and partial Russian occupation.
In a much-discussed recent piece in POLITICO Magazine, RAND Corporation political scientist Samuel Charap argued in favor of an "unsavory compromise" to address Russia's troop buildup. He recommends pressing the Ukrainians to implement parts of the discredited Minsk agreement - which was imposed forcibly on Ukraine - arguing that this "might actually invite de-escalation from Russia and reinvigorate the languishing peace process." This, Charap acknowledged, would be doing the "aggressor's bidding contrary to U.S. principles."
Charap posits that violating U.S. principles in this manner is necessary to prevent a conflict, as the U.S. is out of viable options for pressuring Russia. We disagree strongly. It would be wrong both morally and strategically to force Ukrainians to make concessions while Putin is holding a gun to their heads. It would damage U.S. credibility, weaken President Joe Biden politically and diplomatically and hurt U.S.-Ukrainian relations, as well as America's standing with other allies. Perhaps most problematically - contrary to what Charap suggests - handing Putin this sort of concession would reward his behavior and encourage more of it. If the U.S. is to ask any country for concessions, it should push Russia - the invading and occupying power - to withdraw from Ukrainian territory, not ask Ukraine, the victim, to give in.
Those from Europe's "Bloodlands", the parts of the continent that suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets in the 20th century, recall agreements in 1938 (Munich) and 1945 (Yalta) that essentially traded countries first to Adolf Hitler and then to Joseph Stalin in the hopes of sating these murderous leaders' appetites. Instead, those appetites grew with the eating. Americans and Western Europeans forget how indelible these memories are among the more than 100 million people who live in Central and Eastern Europe. Repeating those mistakes now, by forcing Ukrainians to make sacrifices in hopes of placating Putin, would, to paraphrase George Santayana, condemn Ukrainians and the rest of us to relive the past.
Recent history is replete with examples of how failing to push back adequately against Putin's aggression only encourages more dangerous behavior. From the poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 to the invasion of Georgia in 2008 to more recent transgressions such as murdering dissidents in broad daylight in Berlin and blowing up a Czech armory, the West has done little in response to Russia's challenges.
Even after Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, the sanctions imposed by the West had an initial impact but were never ramped up in a serious way. Putin has repeatedly drawn the conclusion that he can get away with aggression and possibly even be rewarded for it - or even the threat of it.
The response should not be to pressure the victim of that aggression to compromise by implementing the dreadful and discredited Minsk agreement, which - as Charap acknowledges - Ukraine signed under tremendous duress. Specifically, Charap suggests the U.S. nudge Ukraine to move toward granting special status and more autonomy to the region under Russian occupation. Meanwhile, Russia has fulfilled none of its commitments under Minsk, which, notably, calls for the "withdrawal of all foreign armed forces, military equipment, as well as mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine." A ceasefire and Russian withdrawal are prerequisites before movement on other Minsk provisions, but that's hard to do when the Kremlin denies it has any forces occupying Ukrainian territory.
Demanding that Ukraine live up to commitments under Minsk without first demanding anything from Russia is both immoral and strategically ill-advised. In addition to encouraging Putin, pushing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to make concessions would finish him politically - itself a Kremlin goal - and would further tarnish America's reputation as a partner to those in need.
Pressuring Ukraine would also damage the Euro-Atlantic architecture that has more or less kept the peace on the continent for the past seven-plus decades. Various international conventions - the UN Charter (1945), the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the Paris Charter (1990) - forbid the use of force to change borders, yet that is exactly what Putin did when he illegally annexed Crimea and then invaded Ukraine's Donbas region. In addition, other regimes are carefully watching the Western response to Putin's challenge; observers in Beijing, for example, might conclude that they could get away with similar moves against Taiwan.
Finally, Charap makes the case that Putin will "up the ante" and move toward an invasion unless Ukraine caves under pressure from Moscow - and Washington. While a major Russian push into Ukraine does seem more likely this time, it is not a foregone conclusion. Putin realizes that Ukraine's military is strong and capable, and that lots of Russians returning in body bags will not be popular in a country already reeling from the pandemic and a stagnant economy. What if Putin is once again bluffing, either to keep the Ukrainians off balance or to secure another summit with Biden?
What, then, should the United States and Europe do about Ukraine? Charap implies that we have tried every coercive measure against Putin and that these have not worked. In fact, the West has by no means exhausted the available options for pressuring Russia.
Putin built up a threatening military presence on Ukraine's border this past spring, and Biden responded by inviting the Russian leader to a summit. Putin seems eager to hold another summit, according to reports. Meeting on the world stage one-on-one means a lot to Putin as it elevates his stature and equalizes his relationship with the United States. Biden met with Putin without any preconditions in June. This time, he should insist that before a meeting, Russia must withdraw all of its forces along the Ukrainian border in a verifiable way. No withdrawal, no meeting.
If Putin complies and the leaders meet, Biden should make clear that the return of Russian forces to the border would trigger new, hard-hitting sanctions immediately, rather than waiting to see whether they cross into Ukrainian territory. These measures would include expelling Russia from the SWIFT banking system, ending the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, sanctioning Russia's primary and (more importantly for Russia's financial sector) secondary debt markets, and most significantly, sanctioning Putin himself and those immediately around him.
That last type of penalty is the one most likely to get Putin's attention, as it will inflict financial harm on his ill-gotten gains and those compliant oligarchs who do his bidding. Seizing any assets they have in the West would mean they could no longer stash money in Western banks, real estate or sports teams. This will help the West clean up its own house as well. Putin's greatest export is corruption, but if we stop importing and enabling it, he has nowhere to go. Frankly, the U.S. should do this anyway, regardless of Putin's actions toward Ukraine - but has refrained thus far, largely due to unrealistic hopes of securing cooperation from Russia on other issues.
Pushback and strength are the only things Putin understands and respects. Russia backed down in 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian military plane that crossed into Turkish territory, showing it wasn't afraid to use force against Putin. The West needs to make clear that the costs of re-invading would be punishing and immediate. The UK has sent several dozen military trainers to help Ukrainian forces. The United States and other NATO allies should do the same, creating a kind of tripwire wherein Putin would know that an attack on Ukraine could implicate NATO personnel on the ground and trigger a major response.
The United States should be providing additional military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-ship, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles as well as drones, radar and real-time intelligence. This would still pale in comparison to the 100,000 Russian troops and armor currently surrounding Ukraine. But it's the most reliable way to get Putin to back down, because he doesn't want to risk a war with NATO. Meanwhile, the United States should beef up its military presence in nearby NATO member states.
Nobody wants military conflict with Russia, and the Ukrainians are not asking American soldiers to fight their war for them. But we should not sacrifice our principles, and a partner country's sovereignty, in the vain pursuit of preventing conflict. The objective is to prevent another Russian invasion while preparing to use targeted economic, military and diplomatic measures short of all-out conflict in case Putin is not bluffing. We must stand with Ukraine and stand up to Putin. Easier said than done, for sure, but much better than doing the aggressor's bidding.