Russia’s illegal and blatant invasion of Ukraine “surprised” Western leaders who have been at a loss to respond. The refrain from American and Western politicians and opinion makers has repeatedly focused on “limited options” to help Ukraine free itself from the Russian occupation that has taken over Crimea and threatens to envelop the entire country. Russia’s retribution for Ukraine’s insubordination to the Kremlin’s plans is only the beginning. Russia has openly hinted at disrupting Ukraine’s gas supply, blocking trade, and inflicting other retaliatory measures, which it has successfully used in the past. Both morally and on the basis of national interests, the West must offer more than empty threats to Russia; it must enact any and all measures to support Ukraine’s efforts — so courageously advanced by its citizens over the last several months — to build a functioning Western-style democracy outside of Russia’s grip
In fact, even within the “limited options” at hand, the United States and its European and NATO partners have several effective tools at their disposal that stop short of military involvement. Options include the already-proposed exclusion of Russia from the G-8 club of Western industrialized democracies (Russia’s inclusion was highly controversial in the first place); targeted sanctions against Russian institutions, officials, oligarchs, and other individuals who have participated in human-rights violations in Russia and abroad; forward deployment of troops to the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and possibly Poland; and stepped-up financial assistance to Ukraine through the IMF and other multilateral financial institutions. A key tool, however, and one that is most urgent and crucial, is increasing military assistance to Ukraine that can be channeled through NATO allies that would be glad to support Ukraine in defending its borders against its eastern neighbor.
The West must send a clear message that it will not tolerate Moscow’s bellicose behavior toward its neighbors. Enough is enough. Many of Russia’s neighbors that had been part of the Soviet Union have embarked on democratic paths, albeit with mixed success, toward self-determination. Russia’s multi-faceted interference has largely reeled them away from instituting thoroughgoing reform measures. The West must quickly indicate through both words and actions that we stand on the side of those movements that seek to strengthen sovereignty, self-determination, and ordered liberty — cornerstones of Western values.
The most sensible way to curb Russian aggression and to support these countries’ independence and democratization efforts is to embrace their desire to join the European community through the EU and NATO. Ten years ago, the West welcomed the Baltic states into both organizations. Since then, no other former Soviet country has joined, not for lack of enthusiasm on their part but largely because the West hesitated to upset Russia. For years the West has promised Georgia and Ukraine that they will be able to join NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before full membership in NATO; these promises have not been kept.
Moscow views these prospective NATO alliances as threats to its imperialist anti-Western ambitions in Eurasia, and it has already tried to instill hostility toward these organizations in particular (and the West in general) through its well-funded media, which reaches audiences within and beyond Russia’s borders. Putin’s steps to establish the “Eurasian Union” are his direct response to the West’s desire to extend the EU and NATO umbrella over former-Soviet regions. But if more countries from the former Soviet Union join the Western community of democratic nations, a new anti-Western, Kremlin-dominated Eurasian Union is unlikely to take root. Surrounding Russia with NATO members will not only curb Moscow’s imperialist ambitions, it will also strengthen the cause of democracy inside Russia. The activists of the pro-democracy movement in Russia are now embattled; most of them are either under constant threat of imprisonment or already in jail. When Russian citizens see greater political freedom and stability as well as economic development in their neighboring countries, their desire for political change and freedom is only likely to grow. This will hasten the collapse of the corrupt oligarchic regime that now controls Russia.
Inviting Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO’s MAP is also practical because events over the last year and a half in both countries have demonstrated that they are ready and well positioned for future NATO membership. Georgia had its first truly democratic transition of power in October 2012, when the elections, instituted transparently and democratically, brought about a peaceful change in leadership. Today Georgia is headed by a coalition government that comprises diverse political parties. Georgia’s citizens, whether they’re part of the government or the opposition, broadly favor NATO membership. The country’s military is active in numerous NATO missions around the world — as of June 2013, it was the top non-NATO contributor to forces in Afghanistan.
Similarly, the Ukrainians showed great political courage when they stood up to former president Victor Yanukovych. Through peaceful grassroots protest, and without any real support from centralized political forces, they defended their desire for a future in Europe. Most important, the Ukrainian military refused Yanukovych’s orders to administer martial law, thus honoring the political will of the people.
There’s another concrete step the U.S can immediately take to support Ukraine: Enforce already-existing legislation, such as the Magnitsky Act, which places sanctions on Russian government officials and other individuals who are responsible for human-rights abuses. Congress should also pass similar legislation targeting Ukrainians guilty of similar crimes, including those committed during recent protests. The United States cannot afford to remain stunned and standing on the sidelines when Ukraine needs it most.
American political leaders from both sides of the aisle and European leaders from across the political spectrum have already spoken out strongly in support of Ukrainians. But words can have only a limited effect, and empty promises often do more harm than good. Standing up to aggression takes courage. Russian troops have already landed en masse on Ukrainian territory and are threatening to engulf Ukraine in an unprecedented civil war. The consequences could be horrific not only for the region but also for the world. Winston Churchill reportedly said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” We have tried everything else, including the failed “reset” in U.S–Russian relations. Now it’s time to do the right thing.
— Irakly George Arison Areshidze is the author of Democracy and Autocracy in Eurasia: Georgia in Transition. He is currently a technology entrepreneur. Elena Suhir is an independent analyst on democracy in Eurasia. She has worked extensively with civil-society activists and policymakers across the former Soviet Union to raise support for democratic values and establish viable democratic institutions.