Russia’s seizure of Crimea is the most naked example of peacetime aggression that Europe has witnessed since Nazi Germany invaded the Sudetenland in 1938.
It may be fashionable to belittle the “lessons of Munich,” when Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier appeased Hitler, deferring to his claims on Czechoslovakia. But if the West acquiesces to Crimea’s annexation – after Russia’s seizure of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 – today’s democratic leaders will surely regret their inaction.
In Western capitals, the response has been mixed. The punishments being considered – expulsion from the G-8, for example – would be laughable were the threat to Europe’s peace not so grave. Russian President Vladimir Putin regards the Soviet Union’s breakup as the greatest catastrophe of modern times and has sought to refashion Russia’s lost empire. If the West intends to be taken seriously, it must act as decisively as Putin.
Putin’s successes in his imperial project have come virtually without cost. His Eurasian Economic Community has corralled energy-rich states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan into Russia’s camp. Georgia was dismembered in 2008. Armenia’s government was bullied into spurning a European Union Association Agreement.
Now the greatest geostrategic prize of all – Ukraine – may fall into Putin’s hands. Russia without Ukraine, former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote, “ceases to be an empire, but Russia with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, automatically becomes an empire.” With the majority of Ukrainians having no desire to join Putin’s empire, we can be certain that the state he will lead would be highly militarized, rather like the Soviet Union but without the Communist Party.
Given the scale of Putin’s adventurism, the world’s response must be commensurate. Canceled summits, trade deals or membership in diplomatic talking shops are not enough. Only actions that impose economic sanctions that affect Russian citizens – who have voted Putin into power time and again – offer any hope of steering the Kremlin away from its expansionist course.
Which sanctions might work? First, Turkey should close the Dardanelles to Russian shipping, as it did after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Back then, Turkey closed access to the Black Sea to prevent the U.S. from intervening, though Washington, it is now clear, had no intention of doing so. Today, it should close the straits not only to Russian warships, but to all commercial vessels bound for Russia’s Black Sea ports. The impact on Russia’s economy would be considerable.
Turkey is permitted to close the Dardanelles under a 1982 amendment to the 1936 Montreux Convention. Indeed, it could turn Putin’s justification for seizing Crimea – that he is protecting ethnic Russians – against him, by arguing that it is protecting its Turkic Tatar kin, who are anxious to remain part of Ukraine.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu flew to Kiev last week to offer support to the new interim government. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, no pushover himself, should follow up on that gesture by closing the straits to Russian shipping – until Putin recalls all troops. And Turkey should be offered a guarantee from NATO should Russia seek to intimidate it.
Second, U.S. President Barack Obama should impose the type of financial sanctions on Russia that he has imposed on Iran for its nuclear program. Those sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy. Similarly, denying any bank that does business with a Russian bank or company access to the U.S. financial system would create the kind of economic chaos last seen in Russia after the fall of communism. Ordinary Russians should be made to understand that permitting Putin to continue will cost dearly.
Third, Obama should emphasize to the Chinese their stake in Eurasian stability. Putin may regard the USSR’s disintegration as a tragedy, but for China it was a great geostrategic gift. At a stroke, the empire that stole millions of hectares of Chinese territory over the centuries, and that threatened the People’s Republic with nuclear annihilation, vanished.
Since then, Central Asia’s states, and even Ukraine, have become strong trading partners for China. Russia’s conquests in Georgia greatly displeased China, as was seen at the postwar summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia pushed the SCO to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the SCO balked. The group’s Central Asian members – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – would not have stood firm without China’s support.
Today, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping may need to be less cryptic in his response to Putin’s adventurism. The real test of China’s claim that it is a responsible stakeholder in the world will come soon at the U.N. Will it back Putin’s flouting of international law, or will it back Ukraine’s territorial integrity?
There are other possible punitive measures. Visas can be denied for Russian officials. Assets can be frozen, particularly those laundered by oligarchs close to Putin. Only when the pain becomes intolerable, particularly for the elite, will Putin’s kampf be defeated.
The cost of inaction is high. Countless countries, from Japan to Israel, rely on America’s commitment to act robustly against grave breaches of the peace. Moreover, when Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arms in 1994, it did so with the express understanding that the U.S. (and the U.K., France and Russia) would guarantee its integrity. Should Crimea be annexed, no one should gainsay Ukraine if it re-nuclearized its defense (which it retains the capacity to do).
When Chamberlain returned from Munich, Winston Churchill said, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Obama and other leaders face a similar choice. If they choose dishonor, it is certain that an undeterred Putin will eventually give them war.
Charles Tannock is a member of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).