Yuri Yarim-Agaev: The West's response to Putin's Ukraine policy has been murky
He says some are looking to Putin as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine battle
Author: Putin is the cause of the Ukraine conflict and should be treated that way
He says the West needs to take a much firmer stance against Russia's actions
Editor’s Note: Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a scientist and human rights activist who was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1980 after he took a prominent role in the dissident movement. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
I grew up on the border, at the site of today’s humanitarian crisis involving tens of thousands of immigrant children seeking asylum. Even though I was born in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, my family and I lived on the Mexican side of the river for seven years of my childhood. There I saw poverty firsthand, right around the corner from our house, in the streets, by the bridge, in the countryside.
The main problem with our reaction to Russian aggression is not even the mildness of our sanctions, but the lack of clarity of their purpose. Our message to Putin is very confused. Do we want him completely out of Ukraine, or do we want his help in dealing with that country? They are two very different requests.
Despite Putin’s offenses, Western leaders apparently still want him to play an active role in securing peace and stability. According to the White House, on July 17, “President Obama called on President Putin to take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation, including pressing separatists to agree to a cease-fire.”
After the Malaysian airliner was shot down, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Putin to use his influence with the rebels to ensure a cease-fire. In recent appearances on several TV shows, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked Putin to take “immediate and clear action to reduce tensions in Ukraine,” “to step up and make a difference,” and “to use all his influence.”
Despite their harsh words for Putin, leaders of the West still want his help. British Prime Minister David Cameron summed it up best when he said: “We sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us.”
Putin is only too glad to put on sheep’s clothing and assume the role of peacemaker that he has pretended to be throughout the war that he himself started. According to him, annexing Crimea, shooting down airplanes and supporting separatists has only one purpose: to protect the Ukrainian people from alleged right-wing extremists.
If you want Putin’s help, beware of what you are asking. He would be glad to broker a “diplomatic solution” with the separatists, thus legitimizing his terrorists and entrenching them on Ukrainian territory.
If that option doesn’t work, we can imagine the following completely different scenario: Russian tanks roll over Donetsk. Instead of supporting the separatists, Putin arrests leaders of the Donetsk republic and persecutes them for terrorizing the local population. Blaming the Ukrainian government for its inability to protect people from the terrorists, he establishes full control over the territory, and leaves Russian troops there to secure law, order and tranquility.
How would the world react to such a “peacekeeping mission”? Would the Ukrainian army fight Russian troops? Would Western political leaders accept this as a plausible option? I do not know. But what is more important, Putin doesn’t know either. We should make very clear that we would not accept Putin as a peacekeeper and we want him out of Ukraine.
Western governments should not implicitly accept the aggressive doctrine called the “Russian World,” which was endorsed by Putin, and which gives him the right to intervene into the affairs of virtually any sovereign nation, as he did in Ukraine, using the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking citizens.
The major concern of Western leaders is that by taking a strong stand against Putin, we may lose him as a useful partner in the world arena. We shouldn’t worry about that. History clearly demonstrates that in all major international trouble spots in which we accepted Putin as our partner, Russia has always taken the side of the West’s enemy. Such has been the case with Iraq, North Korea, Syria and Iran.
It was only natural for Putin to use any invitation on our part as an opportunity to damage us. One should not expect anything different from a person with the background of a KGB officer, for whom America always has been enemy No. 1, and for whom anti-Americanism is a pillar of his power.
If America is Russia’s enemy, Putin’s Russia cannot be our ally. Whether we like it or not, such relations are reciprocal. And from an enemy we do not need help. We need only check its aggression. For that purpose we should take the following steps:
1. Publicly recognize that Putin is not our ally or partner, but rather our foe, and make this position clear to him and to the rest of the world.
2. Ensure that our demands to Russia be absolutely clear. Stop supporting separatists in Ukraine. We do not need Putin as a broker or peacemaker. Putin must completely get out of Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian politics.
3. Make clear that Putin’s help is not needed in any other part of the world. Exclude Russia as our partner or as a mediator from any international arrangements and negotiations.
4. Reiterate our position of not accepting the annexation of Crimea. Demand that it be returned to Ukraine.
5. Stop propagating Putin’s propaganda. Instead, counter it with all the power of America’s media. Expand broadcasts by Radio Liberty and other radio stations.
6. Make it clear that we consider the “Russian World” policy a threat to world peace and stability. Insist that Russia officially renounce that doctrine and repeal supporting legislation as necessary conditions for Russia’s readmission to the community of civilized nations.
7. To stop aggression against Ukraine and to prevent aggressions against other countries, make Russia pay a high price by introducing sector and other serious economic sanctions. Be ready to accept the cost of those sanctions.
8. Take immediate steps to reduce that cost and any dependence on Russia. Develop new energy sources and transportation systems in America and Europe.
9. Provide help, including military assistance, to those who are under immediate attack or potential aggression by Russia.
10. Revisit communism, an ideology that remains important in Russia as well as other countries. Educate new generations about its atrocities and bankrupt ideology.
Opponents of strong action against an aggressor wrongly equate political confrontation with war. They believe that admitting that the second largest nuclear power is our enemy would usher in another Cold War and make the situation much more dangerous.
History teaches us, however, that to ignore reality and appease our enemy is a more dangerous approach than to clearly articulate our principles and disagreements.
When in 1983 the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Ronald Reagan denounced them as enemies of the United States and the entire world. Reagan’s strong stand against the Soviet communism that threatened us for decades with nuclear war helped stop its expansion and eventually led to its complete capitulation. If we could stand against the mighty Soviet Union, we can manage Putin’s much weaker Russia.
In February 2000, only two months into his presidency, Vladimir Putin presented one of his first state awards to Air Force Gen. Anatoly Kornukov. In 1983, Kornukov was commander of Sokol Airbase in Sakhalin. His order to the fighter pilot was: “Destroy the target!”
The target was Korean Air Lines Flight 007.