Sanctions alone sent Putin a message that the West is weak

As we watch with increased concern the Ukrainian crisis play out, we can’t help but feel great empathy for their citizens. They have been bullied and beaten down by Putin for years. In 2014, he annexed Crimea without anyone laying a hand on him. Since then, in a bloody rebellion waged in the eastern part of the country, 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed.

They have sadly fought alone.

Now, history is repeating itself in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. And with 150,000 to 190,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine on three flanks, the worst may yet unfold. It’s the most serious military threat facing the European continent since World War II.

During my 25 years in public life, I can safely say that I was never a warmonger. I always believed that peace and diplomatic efforts should be thoroughly exhausted in an effort to avoid death and destruction. But candidly, I’m not convinced that Putin, an intelligent but devious bully, would be deterred by sanctions. He is arguably one of the wealthiest persons in the world, and his money is undoubtedly safely hidden. Granted, you can make life more complicated for his friends, the oligarchs, but they have made huge fortunes under his rule. And in regards to Russian citizens, since when has he or the old Soviet leaders cared genuinely about their welfare?

Putin would, however, be concerned about a potential collapse of his nation’s economy. However, while China is playing both sides, I believe that their potent economy could be leveraged to prop up the Russian economy and avoid a disaster. Thus, Putin could be prepared to risk the imposition of Western sanctions while pursuing his geopolitical strategy vis a vis Ukraine and possibly other parts of Europe.

Ukraine is not part of NATO, and I have serious doubts they will ever be granted membership. I sense that NATO would not want to poke the Bear any more than they have already. But I believe that NATO should have considered the option of moving troops and serious weaponry into Ukraine to help bolster their army and the defense of their nation. It would have sent a powerful message to Putin. That, more than sanctions, would have made him think twice about his twisted game plan.

I recognize that this alternative would run the risk of a military donnybrook in Europe. That it could escalate out of control and draw in more participants. But it was also extremely dangerous to let Russia freely dictate the terms of their invasion and possible control of Ukraine. To have them openly flaunt international law and the sovereignty of Ukraine. And to embolden him to consider doing the same elsewhere.

Moreover, this is more than just a strategic game of military chess with Russia. The Chinese are watching closely. So are the Iranians and the North Koreans. They and other dreadful actors will be judging the resolve of the West. If they detect weakness, they will be encouraged to consider their own geopolitical strikes. Would that lead China to think more aggressively about one day attacking and claiming Taiwan? Or, would Iran and North Korea not consider ramping up their nuclear capabilities? If they believed that the West would lack the courage to engage, you know they would.

That would have the precarious effect of rendering the global order that much more fragile.

The West sent troops into Afghanistan after 9/11. They also entered Iraq. They spent years in these two quagmires, costing far too much blood and treasure. Yet, the rationale was that allowing terrorism to run amok without a direct response was far too dangerous.

How much different is that from Putin terrorizing his neighbours and intimidating NATO and Europe in the process?

More broadly, the Russian president has also declared war against democracy and the rule of international law. They have invaded its neighbour, despite the fact that they, the US, UK, and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, which guaranteed Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Ukraine gave up all its nuclear weapons as part of the deal. Now, they have been laid naked before a heartless invader.

Hitler started in the same vein, gobbling up one country at a time. But, the Allies met him head-on, and the Nazis were defeated. We rejected a policy of appeasement. Yes, we tragically lost too many young men and women. But we argued that it was worth the ultimate sacrifice because we saved democracy from what would have certainly been a dark and ugly chapter.

As the crisis has intensified during the last several weeks, Western leaders have been unified in calling for “firm action” against Russia. But what does that mean?  Does applying sanctions only, while dismissing the possibility of fighting the Russians in the trenches, constitute “firm action.” Or, can it be argued that it represents a modern-day form of appeasement?

History has taught us repeatedly that there is only one way to confront bullies who insist on getting their way. From the schoolyards to the battlefields, aggressors must be challenged. Fighting fire with fire. It may not be politically correct. Nor does it seem sensitive to our young soldiers and their families. Indeed, sending our soldiers in harm’s way is the heaviest burden facing any leader. It’s a very lonely and painful judgment call.

However, protecting our citizens and our way of life from those who wish to destroy it also happens to be the first duty of any leader.

If unchallenged, serial aggressors will only grow bigger, bolder, and more dangerous. It will also create copycats. Before you know it, democracy will be on its hind legs.

For these reasons, I would have felt better – for the Ukrainian people and democratic principles globally — if NATO had seriously contemplated taking on the Russian Army. The message to rogue leaders and countries would have been unmistakable.

And who knows, that threat alone may have helped keep the peace.

Photo: @ODN