Sometimes it takes a sudden, flagrant breach of the international order to dispel a president’s naïveté about a foreign adversary. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had that effect on President Carter. One can only hope that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will have a similar impact on President Obama.
As recently as September, the president was still trumpeting his Russian “reset” as a success — which is to say, he was still calling the reset a success even after the Putin-Medvedev regime had (1) brutalized domestic human-rights activists, (2) tortured and murdered the anti-corruption whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, (3) unleashed a barrage of anti-American propaganda, (4) threatened to target U.S. missile-defense sites with offensive weapons, (5) vetoed multiple United Nations resolutions on Syria, (6) ignored U.S. demands to stop aiding Bashar Assad, (7) denounced U.S. sanctions against Iran as “undisguised blackmail,” (8) expelled USAID from Russia, (9) pulled out of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, (10) banned American citizens from adopting Russian children, (11) reportedly violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and (12) offered asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Of the three biggest U.S. diplomatic “victories” often attributed to the reset — greater Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, the New START arms-control treaty, and Russian support for fresh U.N. sanctions on Iran — only the first one (persuading Moscow to let our Afghan supply routes pass through Russian territory) looks like a genuine, durable achievement from the vantage point of March 2014. (We should remember, however, that Russia has a strong national interest in Afghan stability.) The New START Treaty was a dangerous giveaway that, in addition to jeopardizing U.S. missile-defense plans, reduced the number of American nuclear launchers and warheads while allowing Russia to increase its own arsenal. As for the Iran sanctions endorsed by U.N. Security Council members in June 2010, these were less significant than the unilateral U.S. sanctions that Congress forced President Obama to sign, despite his objections, in December 2011. For that matter, the administration recently decided to loosen U.S. sanctions — and thereby relinquish some of our best leverage with Tehran — in return for minor concessions and hollow promises.
Like other U.S. adversaries, the Iranians are no doubt watching the Ukraine crisis to see how President Obama responds. In the modern era, cross-border military invasions of sovereign states have been a blessedly rare occurrence, yet Vladimir Putin has now launched two such invasions in less than six years. (The first one came in August 2008, when Russian forces occupied two Georgian provinces. They’re still occupying those provinces today.) No less than Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and current secretary general of NATO, has called Russia’s armed seizure of Crimea “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War.”
President Obama’s initial response — sanctioning eleven Russians and Ukrainians but leaving Putin’s inner circle and his favorite oligarchs mostly untouched — drew mocking rebukes from the Kremlin. On Thursday, however, the administration introduced new sanctions that went much further, targeting 16 government officials (including Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov), four oligarchs (including Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire oil trader, and Yuri Kovalchuk, a billionaire banker and Putin adviser), and a prominent Putin-linked financial institution (Bank Rossiya). President Obama also declared that he had “signed a new executive order today that gives us the authority to impose sanctions not just on individuals but on key sectors of the Russian economy.” In my view, our sanctions should also target Rosoboronexport, a state-owned Russian arms exporter that has been supplying the Assad regime and has become a Grand Central Station of corruption. (The Pentagon has inexplicably been buying Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport to supply the Afghan military, despite numerous alternative options.)
But sanctions alone aren’t enough. They should be accompanied by at least three additional U.S. policy moves.
First, Washington should assess the military needs of Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, and then swiftly dispatch — or facilitate the purchase of — whatever resources may be required. (Offering military ration kits rather than serious military assistance is an insult to our friends in Kiev.)
Second, we should enhance and expand our European missile-defense system, with upgrades such as a new X-band radar. We should also increase our overall missile-defense budget.
Third, we should dramatically accelerate the approval process for U.S. companies seeking to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to nations with which America does not have free-trade agreements (FTAs). Such exports — that is, LNG exports to non-FTA countries — have to be approved by the federal government, thanks to an antiquated statute passed during the Great Depression. Congress should amend the relevant 1938 law to speed up the process. Even if, in the short term, most of our LNG exports would go to Asia rather than to Europe, expediting and expanding those exports would increase global supply, push down global prices, and signal to Putin that Washington is determined to squeeze his gas revenues and break his energy stranglehold on Eastern Europe.
Indeed, all of the actions listed above would send a powerful message to Moscow and help maximize our diplomatic leverage in the current crisis. The March 20 sanctions were a good start. Now it’s time to do more.
— Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) is the Republican whip.