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Only Western Unity Will Stop Putin

The West has plenty of means to respond to Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. The question is whether it has the will to use them.

The easiest part, paradoxically, involves “hard” – i.e., military – responses. Here, Russia is at a colossal disadvantage. It is outgunned by NATO at every level, from cyber-weapons to nuclear ones. With a combined population of more than 850 million, NATO is six times larger than Russia. With a combined GDP of $40 trillion, it is 20 times wealthier than Russia. NATO’s defense spending alone is $1 trillion – half of Russia’s entire GDP.

Even within current budgetary constraints, NATO members can quickly bolster their military presence in the frontline states – chiefly the Baltics and Poland, and (if Russia’s march through Ukraine continues) Romania. Air and naval deployments will send a clear message to the Kremlin that military adventurism stops at the NATO border. Countries such as Latvia and Lithuania will want to increase their defense spending from current pitiful levels, to match the 2 percent target already reached by Estonia and Poland. Countries such as Sweden and Finland will assuredly now intensify their defense cooperation with the Alliance. They may well feel that it is time to join it, while they still can.

Unfortunately, that is an easy answer to a largely irrelevant question. Even in its current inflamed state of mind, the Russian leadership is not likely to launch a full-scale military assault on NATO’s European members. It is busy in Ukraine, which is not part of NATO, with Georgia and Moldova (also non-NATO) as likely future targets. Beefing up NATO’s defenses is like installing a burglar alarm when your neighbor’s house is being looted: it may make you feel good, but it does not help the victim, or punish the perpetrator.

Protecting Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova is harder. Here the effort must be mainly financial and diplomatic (though sales of air-defense systems would provide some short-term reassurance, as would intensified military training if requested).

Supporting the stricken economy of what may be the rump of a Ukrainian state, deprived of its heavy-industrial eastern base and perhaps its southern ports, will be a big task. This will involve humanitarian aid, loans and generous free-trade agreements. For a decade, the European Union (EU) has been stingy and timid in its policy to its eastern neighbors. We should seize the chance to be bold and generous while we still have neighbors to engage with.

On the diplomatic front, the key to success is unity. When European and American politicians work together, the result is formidable. All too often, they have not. Vladimir Putin has a bloodhound’s nose for disunity and division. He is also good at stoking them, playing divide and rule on trade, investment and energy issues. Harried politicians wanting short-term wins to placate their voters find the Kremlin’s carrots all too tasty.

Shameful examples in the past abound – Gerhard Schröder’s energy diplomacy in Germany, Austrian

laxity towards flows of dirty money from the east, Hungary’s deals on nuclear power and Britain’s new Kremlin-friendly policy following the deal between the country’s most important company, BP, and the Russian energy giant Rosneft .

But it is not too late to change. Ukraine may have paid a terrible price for the West’s education, but the lesson seems to be getting through, in a way it failed to do after the Russia-Georgia War of 2008. Coordinated diplomatic support for the Ukrainian, Moldovan and Georgian governments will be far more effective than individual countries making their own efforts.

As well as carrots for our friends, we must find sticks for our enemies. It is vital to make it clear that we have no quarrel with the Russian people – whether in the Russian Federation itself or in its occupied territories.

The most powerful weapon in our arsenal is one that hurts not the Russian people, but their rulers. The West – meaning the members of the EU and NATO plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other allies – should jointly impose visa bans on all Russian politicians and senior officials, as well as anyone connected with the “power ministries” (defense and interior), the criminal justice system, and the security and intelligence agencies, and people working for state propaganda organizations such as the RT (Russia Today) television channel. This would include the functionaries themselves and their family members.

This would have a huge effect. The people who run Russia do not like their country enough to educate their children there; nor do they choose it for their vacations. If their children and grandchildren cannot study at the West’s top universities, and if their wives can no longer shop and holiday in the world’s most desirable leisure locations, the shock will be total.

More complicated, but even more effective, would be to impose targeted economic sanctions on the elite. How is it possible that senior Russians, on modest official salaries, are able to buy colossally expensive properties in Britain, France, Austria and elsewhere? Money-laundering investigations are long overdue. The banks, lawyers and accountants who handle these clients have betrayed the values of the system. They should be shivering in their expensive shoes at the uncomfortable questions which await them. Russian officials believe that greed has rotted the West’s willpower. It is time to show them that they are wrong. America has already led the way – thanks to pressure from Congress – with the Magnitsky Act sanctions, which imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a handful of officials involved in the death of the whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, and the $230 million fraud against the Russian taxpayer he exposed. Even on the scale of a pinprick this infuriated the Kremlin. Now it is time to turn this weapon into a battering ram.

We can do more on energy policy too. The EU has already made commendable steps in breaking Gazprom’s grip on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The “complaint” (in effect, the charges) against the Russian gas giant for market-rigging behavior and other abuses should now come with the fullest political backing and be enforced with the stiffest penalties. Talk of a “political solution” to Gazprom’s problems should now be off the table.

But even more can be done. The EU can apply competition law toughly to other Russian energy projects, such as the mooted South Stream gas pipeline. It can accelerate the building of interconnectors between countries supplied by Russia – in effect, creating a north-south gas grid between the Baltic and the Black Sea. That will make it far harder for Russia to exert pressure on any individual country.

America can play its part too: President Barack Obama should appeal to Congress for support in immediately lifting curbs on the export of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to EU and NATO members. The unrestricted sale of LNG to Europe would not only ease any supply constraints caused by a Russian energy cut-off . It would also send a powerful message about the continued importance to the United States of European security.

Ultimately, the West’s best chance of victory is soft power: The more we can show that Western practices – rule of law, democratic politics and a Euro-Atlantic orientation – bring a better life, the greater chance we have of contesting the Kremlin narrative of populism, bombast and paranoia. In the short term, this has boosted Putin’s popularity and perhaps even incited him to further recklessness and aggression. In the long term, it leads nowhere. Our job is to prove that, and sooner rather than later.

By Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is Senior Fellow and Contributing Editor at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

 This article first appeared in March 3, 2014 issue of the CED (Central Europe Digest) – Center for European Policy Analysis. Reprinted with permission from CEPA.