Let’s Go “All In” on Ukraine

In October 1949, as the defeated forces of Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Republicans in Congress blamed Harry S. Truman for losing China. Some demanded a pivot from Europe to Asia in US foreign policy. Truman might have been persuaded a few years earlier when US relations with the USSR were cordial. After meeting Joseph Stalin in Potsdam in 1945, the American President wrote, “I like Stalin. He is straightforward. Knows what he wants and will compromise when he can’t get it.”

We know something about misreading Russian leaders. Having famously “got a sense of his soul,” former President George W. Bush initially found Russian President Vladimir Putin “straightforward and trustworthy.” President Barack Obama, having in his words “succeeded in resetting” US-Russian relations—and eager to withdraw US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan—pivoted in his first term to Asia.

Over the last fifteen years we’ve pivoted twice from Europe, first after 9/11. What have the results been? Georgia and Ukraine have been invaded, Europe has become divided, NATO finds itself in peril, and a September 11 generation of legislators, Hill staffers, policymakers, and think tank scholars in Washington know more about the Middle East and Asia than Russia and Eastern Europe. US foreign policy needs to balance, not pivot. And it’s time to balance back to NATO and Europe.

In the 1990s, we had a vision of Europe—whole and free—and a clear strategy. The prospect of NATO and European Union membership would incentivize post-communist countries to establish multi-party systems and introduce free elections, rule of law, and market economies. The enlargement of the EU and NATO would extend zones of prosperity and security to Central and Eastern Europe. Much was accomplished. But social transformation is not a simple engineering problem. The legacy of communism—with its mad distortion of the economy and wholesale destruction of civil society—was not so easily overcome.

Enter Putin. In a September 2001 speech to the German Bundestag, Putin called for wide-ranging cooperation between Russia and the West. The Russian leader assured German lawmakers that “the Cold War [was] over.” But Putin is an opportunist. As the former Soviet empire struggled and we turned our attention elsewhere, Putin quickly grasped how to undermine progress and returned to the Kremlin game of manipulation and domination. Russia uses propaganda to fan the flames of populism and anti-western sentiment. Russia has supported extremist parties of the left and the right, both in Europe and Russia. And Moscow’s energy policies have fostered internal division and dependency.

Putin’s methods are insidious. His vision of a divided Europe is not ours. To get back to a vision of a Europe whole and free we need to do three things.

First, arm Ukraine. Through military force—and exceptionally brazen mendacity—Russia has been allowed to break a sovereign country in two. Russian aggression must not be allowed to stand. Nor should we harbor illusions. Ukraine is politically and economically weak. Key parts of eastern Ukraine, under the control of Russian-backed separatists, will not be relinquished anytime soon. An increasing number of ethnic Russians in the Donbas region, by most accounts not fond of Putin a year ago, now see the Kremlin leader as their protector against Kyiv’s “genocide.” Russian propaganda has been effective. Arming Ukraine must be one element of a larger, long-term strategy—with robust economic and political dimensions—aimed at getting Ukraine back on a European path. Sectoral sanctions and visa bans are good. Even better: family visa bans—including plans to deport the children and spouses of top Russian officials from the United States, Britain, and other European countries—should Moscow escalate its aggression. Short-term success means holding Russia at bay, while driving up the costs of Moscow’s intervention.

Second, return to a strategy for Europe whole and free. Current NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe deserve our fullest political and military support. The Baltic States face increasing intimidation and high levels of infiltration. Russian spying has returned to Cold War levels. Two days after Obama’s speech in Tallinn in September 2014, Russian agents kidnapped Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver from Estonia. He remains illegally detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. We should demand Kohver’s immediate release. Unless the alliance is cohesive and resolute, in all things large and small, it’s inconceivable that we can keep NATO and EU doors open to Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

Third, develop a multi-faceted strategy to move Russia toward rule of law at home and responsible behavior abroad. We can start by enhancing the capabilities of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America. It has become nearly impossible to operate from inside Russia. That’s no reason to give up. But we need to return to broadcasting from the outside as well. Television is important. Let’s dare the Russian government to jam us. In addition, let’s garner support for the broadcast reform bill sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and ranking minority member Eliot L. Engel (D-NY). Once passed by the Senate and signed into law, it will streamline US international broadcasting and allow us much greater flexibility to push back against Russian propaganda and advance our own agenda.

Let’s declare ourselves all in, and for the long haul. The day Russia has an accountable government is the day when Ukraine’s peaceful, democratic future becomes genuinely possible, and our vision of Europe, whole and free, has a chance of enduring success.

Jeffrey Gedmin is chairman, global politics and security, at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; senior advisor, Blue Star Strategies; and co-director, the Transatlantic Renewal Project.

Image: An army helicopter flies over tanks and armored vehicles during the "Wind Spring 15" military exercises at Smardan shooting range April 21, 2015. Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa said the exercises, in which some 2,200 Romanian, U.S., British and Moldovan troops are participating, are part of a plan approved at NATO's 2014 summit to reinforce the eastern flank of NATO and the EU, which borders Ukraine. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti