The Way Out of the Ukraine Crisis

U.S. leaders need to talk to the Russians, not threaten them.
One of many "lengthy and ineffectual" phone calls between Obama and Putin during the early stages of the Ukraine crisis (White House/Reuters)

MOSCOW—In May, Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill of stunning recklessness that seems specifically designed to destroy what remains of relations between the United States and Russia. The legislation’s very name—the “Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014”—is a misnomer, for its provisions, if enacted, would dramatically heighten tensions between Moscow and Washington. By foreclosing the option of doing what we really need to do—launch a serious dialogue with Russia about how to end the Ukraine crisis—it would deepen the conflict there, augment the human misery spreading as a result, and shove us to the brink of war. In fact, the bill is already doing damage to the prospect of peace by serving Kremlin propagandists as a manifesto of U.S. intent to force Russia to its knees and humiliate its leader. It presents an ultimatum to the Kremlin that no head of state, least of all the famously supercilious Vladimir Putin, would accept.

The Russian Aggression Prevention Act is just a proposed bill, for now. But if the Republicans take the Senate (and retain the House of Representatives) in November’s midterm elections, the legislation shows the direction in which Congress will push President Obama as the current standoff intensifies. Elections aside, the measure represents a hardline approach that the White House is warming to—at a pivotal moment in the months-long crisis when the Ukrainian military is advancing on the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and Russian troops are massing on the border. Corker’s document reveals a grave, even inexplicable (in light of history) misapprehension of how to deal with an assertive Russia.

Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which put Russia’s socialist, expansionist regime at loggerheads with much of the world for most of the 20th century, the West, and especially the United States, has struggled with a confounding question: What to do about Russia? In the 1970s, the Nixon administration found an answer: détente, a policy predicated not on threats, but on dialogue. Russia is too big, too resource-rich, too vital (as an energy supplier to Europe), and too technologically advanced to disregard (or “isolate” as Obama has said he hopes to do). Its nuclear arsenal alone—the only such arsenal capable of destroying the West—imposes an imperative: dialogue, as distasteful as that may be to many. In short, if Russia and the United States are quarreling, global peace is under threat.

Corker’s bill purports to offer a “strategic framework for United States security assistance and cooperation in Europe and Eurasia,” but in fact directs the president to take a number of measures that would imperil both objectives. According to the legislation, the United States and NATO would, in violation of the 1997 Founding Act (concluded between the alliance and Russia), permanently station troops in the alliance member states of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, and “accelerate” (in an unspecified way) “European and NATO missile defense efforts.” (There is much to specify here, since in 2009 the Obama administration, facing strong criticism from Russia and public opposition in the Czech Republic and Poland, the proposed host countries, scaled back plans for missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe.) Unprecedented “major non-NATO ally status” is to be accorded to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Military aid is promised to Ukraine, and cryptic verbiage about providing “defense articles or defense services” leaves open the possibility of doing the same for the other two former Soviet republics.

There are many other troubling provisions, but significantly, the bill instructs the president to block Russian assets and dramatically broaden sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin does not withdraw its military from Crimea and the Ukrainian border, and cease destabilizing the Ukrainian government’s control over its eastern regions. It also directs the U.S. secretary of state to “increase efforts [to] … strengthen democratic institutions and political and civil society organizations in the Russian Federation”—which sounds an awful lot like helping NGOs in Moscow promote regime change. (If Putin harbored any doubts that such NGOs were in the pay of the United States and working to subvert him, the bill neatly resolves them.) The act’s chief clauses would come into force if Putin doesn’t reverse course on Ukraine within seven to 30 days from its enactment.

How would the Russian president react to such an ultimatum? The former FSB chief, whose 14-year tenure in the country’s highest offices has bristled with televised displays of manliness and derring-do, would never submit to it. Sanctions have so far done nothing but consolidate domestic support for him and his Ukraine policy. Truly damaging economic restrictions would foment more anti-Western (and, specifically, anti-American) hostility and strengthen Russians’ conviction—generated by the virulent propaganda streaming forth endlessly over Kremlin-controlled airwaves—that the West is ganging up on Russia and bent on destroying it. Indeed, this perception is already widespread, and has taken root among many Russians who were previously indifferent to politics or hostile to Putin, whose popularity now stands at 87 percent.

The military measures the act proposes are positively dangerous. Providing Western arms, intelligence, and military advisors to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova—all of which are clashing or have clashed with Russia—would make possible scenarios hitherto unimaginable. If American-made bombs or bullets supplied to Ukraine, for example, end up killing Russian troops, or if American intelligence helps Ukraine score significant victories against Russian-backed separatists, Putin would have to respond or risk appearing weak. Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine have never formed part of a Western political, military, or economic alliance, though they have participated in NATO’s symbolic Partnership for Peace program. With the exception of Georgia, they do, however, belong to the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. Just what these countries would bring to the United States and NATO besides trouble is hard to see.

Beyond the Russian Aggression Prevention Act, the Obama administration has shown little aptitude for dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, imposing sanctions that have not prompted Putin to quit Crimea or stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, and spouting rhetoric that has only hardened Putin’s determination to not back down.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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