With Russian troops amassed along its border and Kremlin-backed separatists in control of major cities in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev is facing the gravest threat to its survival since the breakup of the former Soviet Union a generation ago. Unless the U.S. and its allies can convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to step back from using the unrest there as a pretext for military intervention, it looks more likely than ever that eastern Ukraine could suffer the same fate as Crimea, which Russia annexed last month in a blatant violation of international law.
There's virtually no chance that the United Nations will honor Ukrainian authorities' appeal for troops to support the weak and disorganized government in Kiev. Russia is one of five permanent members on the Security Council and would surely veto any such resolution. Nor is NATO likely to come to Kiev's aid. If Ukraine is to oust the militants and prevent them from further dismembering the country, it will have to do so on its own, but Washington and the European Union need to give it all the support they can muster through diplomacy, money and non-lethal military aid.
On Tuesday Ukrainian authorities announced they were sending army units to drive Russia's proxies from the government buildings and facilities they occupy in the country's eastern region. It was the first offensive operation the government has undertaken to block a reprise of Moscow's takeover of Crimea, which it accomplished virtually without firing a shot. But if the operation results in heavy civilian casualties — as it easily could given that the "separatists" include Russian special operations troops masquerading as local citizens — it risks bolstering the Kremlin narrative that the region's Russian-speaking population is in danger and needs Moscow's protection.
President Putin obviously feels he has the upper hand in the situation despite the imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union on assets held abroad by a handful of his close advisers and sycophants. But Mr. Putin might feel differently if Western governments went after Russia's real oligarchs, the billionaires who buy assets in the West like expensive real estate in London, New York and Miami for the sole purpose of having a place to stash their ill-gotten gains — and who could care less about Ukraine. It's those people who Mr. Putin needs to keep happy, and they won't be if Western governments start freezing their bank accounts and seizing their condos and cars.
President Obama has been criticized by conservatives for not waving the bloody shirt and rattling sabers to make a show of his resolve. But blundering into a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia would be a losing hand for the U.S. and NATO; eventually the West would have to back down, leaving Mr. Putin in a stronger position than he was before. Instead, Mr. Obama's strategy should be to make Mr. Putin the one who has to back down by using the crisis to demonstrate the Russian president's failures as a leader and political weakness at home. Even more than stripping Russia's oligarchs of their wealth, tough Western sanctions against the country's energy sector and arms manufacturers would have a devastating effect on an economy based on extractive industries.
The West needs to make clear to Mr. Putin that it not only has the capacity to bring Russia's primary economic engine to a grinding halt but that if it does, the repercussions will be severe enough to threaten even his own hold on power. That ultimately may be the only thing Mr. Putin really cares about, which is why U.S. and European leaders need to speak with one voice to convince him the West absolutely is not bluffing about what will happen if he continues his reckless military adventure in Ukraine. That's a far more serious challenge to his position than any Western military move could pose, and over the long run it's also a gambit the West is certain to win.
President Obama has given Mr. Putin an "off ramp" from the disaster he's courting, and if he chooses to take it the West should be gracious in allowing him to save face. But if not, the U.S. and the European Union need to be ready to pound the stuffing out of the Russian economy and isolate Mr. Putin politically at home and abroad so that even his control of state media won't be able to undo the damage to his power and prestige. Kicking him out of the G-8 was a good first step in that direction. Sooner or later the long-suffering Russian people will realize for themselves how little the Kremlin's corrupt and autocratic rule has done for them, and Russia's economy is Mr. Putin's Achilles heel.
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