Opinion: Columnists

Russia won't stop in Ukraine until sanctions start to hurt

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,John Kerry,Russia,National Security,Vladimir Putin,Foreign Policy,Sanctions,Ukraine,Magazine

Last Friday, the Black Sea port of Odessa saw the worst fighting and loss of life since the Ukrainian crisis began in February.

About 40 people were killed when a pro-Russian mob of about 2,000 attacked a police headquarters and dozens were barricaded in a building that was set afire. The Kiev government continues to blame Russian security forces for the fighting but the world's reaction is entirely blasé. It's as if the Western world has already accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin's action in taking the Crimea by force and subversion, and is now prepared to accept him doing the same to the entire Ukraine.

Ukraine is not, as the headlines tell us, descending into civil war. Rather, it’s defending against a Russian-instigated insurgency, a bloodier version of what Russia did to take over the Crimea. Let’s remember that the crisis began when Ukrainians revolted against their pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Moscow when protests against his effort to strengthen ties to Russia ignited a rebellion.

Putin crafted an insurgency that deployed Russian special forces troops in key spots in the Crimea and quickly forced the Ukrainian government, by then headed by interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, to withdraw from the entire peninsula.

Last week, Yatsenyuk blamed Russian security services for the loss of life, saying, “What happened in Odessa was part of a plan by the Russian Federation to destroy Ukraine and its statehood.” He is obviously correct. Russia -- Putin, that is -- is patiently and determinately taking over the Ukraine. His forces -- special operations troops and others, wearing masks and no identification on their uniforms -- continue to propel the insurgency.

As NATO commander US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove predicted last week, what we’re most likely to see in the coming weeks is for Putin to “…continue doing what he's doing, discrediting the [Ukrainian] government, creating unrest, trying to set the stage for a separatist movement" to ensure Moscow maintained a hold on eastern Ukraine.

But wait a minute: Doesn't this violate the written agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated with his Russian counterpart?

Of course it does. It was only four weeks ago that Kerry, emerging from the talks in Geneva that led to the agreement, proclaimed his version of “mission accomplished.” He said, "We fully expect the Russians, as they said they would here today, to demonstrate their seriousness by insisting that pro-Russian separatists, who they've been supporting, lay down their arms, leave the buildings, and pursue their political objectives through the constitutional processes that the agreement guarantees. No more incidents of this kind should occur, and if they do, it will be clear that it will elicit a response.”

And, he said, if Russia didn’t comply, America would have no choice but to "impose further cost on Russia.”

Apparently, Putin wasn’t much impressed by the threat. Since Kerry’s proclamation, the Russians have propelled their insurgency beyond the Dnieper River (into Odessa) which the Russian experts had assured us was the limit of his ambition.

It isn't as if we haven't had enough experience with the Soviets -- and now Putin's neo-Soviet Russia -- to learn that they only abide by agreements when it suits them. Ukraine is learning, to its despair, that Kerry doesn't grasp even that much of reality. Forget Geneva -- the administration isn't even talking about the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Bill Clinton, in which the Russians pledged in writing to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The sanctions the U.S. and the Europeans have placed on Russia so far are just diplomatic flatulence. They are obviously having no effect whatsoever on Russian actions or ambitions.

We should not take military action in defense of Ukraine, but real sanctions — such barring Russian banks from conducting transactions with or through our banking system — should be undertaken quickly. Unless we do, Putin will not believe there are any limitations on what he can do.

Right now, there aren’t any.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.
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