The Corner

How We Can Make Putin Pay, and Why We Must

The usual voices are arguing against any “excessive” American reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

After all, Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954. True. And many people there are Russian-speaking and not loyal to Kiev. Also true. And given the geography, we have no military options and neither does the Ukrainian government. Right again. And nothing we can do through sanctions will matter as much to Putin as gaining the Crimea and destabilizing the new, pro-European government in Kiev. Correct.

So why should we do anything? Why throw the Russians out of the G-8, and seek trade and financial sanctions on Russia, and undertake any of the steps that analysts have proposed in the last few days? 

There are several powerful arguments for why we must act, even if Putin keeps the Crimea.

First, we don’t know how far he will go — and he probably doesn’t know either. Whether he will seek to break Ukraine in two or place a pro-Putin government in power may depend on the costs we impose. Whether he will in the coming months and years seek to destabilize the Baltic nations — which were also once part of the USSR — may depend on what we do now. It’s wrong to assume Putin has an elaborate plan for 2014 and 2015 that he will follow religiously, and logical to believe that Putin takes advantage of opportunities and weighs costs and benefits.

Second, there is more than Putin to think about. Tyrants in places from Tehran to Beijing will also be wondering about the cost of violating international law and threatening the peace and stability of neighbors. What will China do in neighboring seas, or Iran do in its tiny neighbor Bahrain, if actions like Putin’s go without a response? 

Before Obama, there was a sense of world order that relied in large part on America. When Saddam invaded Kuwait and claimed it as his own, we pushed him out. We intervened in the Balkans to restore peace there. Over the decades, we set rules — like “no Soviet missiles in Cuba” and ”no Cuban troops in Africa.” We did not enforce them all by massive military action, but by combinations of large and small military moves, covert action, sanctions, and diplomacy — in any case, we acted. Often it took a long time to achieve our goals, and often we did not achieve the direct goal, but firm responses by the United States and our allies raised the costs of such actions, and thereby deterred nations from copying or repeating them.

The combination of zero action on Syria despite our own declared “red line” and the weakening of the American military sent a dangerous message, and not just to Putin. That makes it all the more important that we make Putin and Russia pay today.

Some actions will be symbolic, like removing Russia from the G-8 (where it should never have been invited anyway), but the symbolism is useful: Russia is a second-rate state, a dictatorship whose economy and demography suggest further decline. We need to hurt the Russian economy and especially those who have gained (or perhaps stolen) the most from it, the oligarchs and Putin himself. This may help restrain future adventurism by Russia, and will be a warning to other leaders and elites. We need to help protect Poland, Georgia, the Baltic states, and the government in Kiev from Russian political and economic pressure. We need to revive NATO, which was after all largely formed to restrain Russia.

All this is important for American interests even if the Crimea situation is viewed as nearly irreversible. In fact, if we think Putin will keep the Crimea, it’s even more important that we make him pay as high a price as possible for his aggression. 

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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