On Monday night when G7 leaders meet at an emergency meeting in The Hague to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, let us hope that they finally show some spine.
Russian defiance, as the New York Times reported on Friday, is reaping huge political dividends for Putin that go well beyond Crimea and the Russian people. It has “bolstered the confidence of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria,” driven a knife into the stalled Geneva talks, and reinforced the perception that the West is feeble and feckless.
Whatever strategic gains the U.S. hoped to derive from its “reset” five years ago have been dashed, whether in Syria where Assad clearly now has the upper hand, or in Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions remain unchecked.
At The Hague meeting, President Barack Obama has a chance to take hold of events directly and inject some rigour into the Western response. This would include consolidating a meaningful package of sanctions on the energy and banking interests of Russia –- those announced, especially those by the EU, are risible —- and offering more than just rhetorical support to Ukraine and other nervous neighbours of Russia.
In addition to shoring up Ukraine’s finances with a substantial bailout package, Western leaders should also move quickly to accede to Ukraine’s request for military assistance while beefing up NATO forces in those countries that border Russia. Russia’s acquiescence to sending a team of OSCE observers to Ukraine, but not to Crimea, and Putin’s assurances that he has no further designs on Ukraine mean little.
Russia continues to mass its forces along the border of southeastern Ukraine and the deployment of additional airborne and air defence units should be ringing alarm bells.
Western leaders must also put in place a longer-term plan to reduce Europe’s vulnerability to Russian blackmail on energy. What are needed now are leadership, indispensable U.S. leadership, and collective resolve.
Autocrats persist in the absence of challenge, using nationalistic bombast to anchor their motives, but their systems of governance are hollow at the core.
A strong, collective response by the G7 will, one can hope, have some therapeutic effect on Putin eliciting less revanchism and setting the stage for some quiet diplomacy. The Russian stock market and the ruble are feeling the impact, even if Putin is not.
Meanwhile, if any semblance of stability and rational governance can be mustered in Kiev, the new leadership must look west rather than east for inspiration and tangible support. Prime Minister’s Harper’s visit to Kiev on Saturday sent the right message that Canada and the West are willing to open their wallets and support Ukraine, but that its new leaders must also undertake to reform Ukraine’s political and economic institutions as part of the bargain.
Those Cold War dinosaurs who prefer to see Great Power “spheres of influence” reconstituted and crave “neutrality” for Ukraine might well ask themselves why the Ukrainians should not be allowed to make up their own minds on how their prosperity and security can best be safe-guarded. By removing some two million pro-Russians in Crimea from the Ukrainian equation, Putin has actually limited his appeal and that of his compatriots to what is left of Ukraine.
The Crimean takeover and Putin’s tirades against America and the West have widespread domestic support. But Putin may be ‘riding a tiger’ on the home front. Muscovites cheering him today could, if the West stands up and Russia’s economy continues with its downward spiral, just as easily turn on him as Ukrainians did with Yanukovitch. Putin’s own kleptocratic ways would also finally be open to scrutiny.
At the moment, the Russian media is almost totally muzzled, but bad news travels easily outside “official” media channels, even in Russia.
Putin has benefitted from the limp western response to date, but he is isolating himself from the global respect he craves. He does have gas, geography and military prowess as trump cards and he is playing them cleverly for now, but he could become more vulnerable as events unfold. By capturing Crimea, Putin may well have gambled to win the short term spoils while losing his larger, strategic objective –- co-opting or cajoling Ukraine into becoming a more pliant satellite.
As Prime Minister Harper also pointed out in his press conference in Kiev, Putin’s land grab violates the 1994 Budapest agreement under which Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal. Putin’s actions will undermine efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons if the Crimean precedent is allowed to stand.
That is why the West must stand firm. Putin must be shown that the eventual loser from the crisis he has provoked will be Putin himself.