Our View: Diplomacy, sanctions can defend Ukraine without starting another war

March 3, 2014 

Secretary of State John Kerry’s scheduled arrival in Kiev today is the right move, emphasizing that diplomacy and sanctions – not hotheaded military intervention – must be used to pry Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands from around Ukraine’s neck.

Today, President Barack Obama’s administration will announce $1 billion in aid and loans to help stabilize the Ukraine government and economy.

The administration took the symbolic step of announcing that it wouldn’t send a presidential delegation to the Sochi Paralympics, following the lead of British Prime Minister David Cameron.

All that is a start, and a puny one at that. Putin will pay scant attention. So much more can and should be done, though the steps should not include draining the treasury or sending in the Marines.

Whatever international goodwill Russia gained during the Sochi Olympics evaporated when Putin sent troops to Crimea. The blitzkrieg speed with which Russia struck suggests Putin was planning the assault even as athletes were building goodwill.

The Ukrainian people have been independent for 22 years and have the right to self-determination. The U.S. must help ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty, while striving to avoid a new Cold War. To do that, the U.S. and its European allies must keep communications open with Putin and the Ukraine, with an eye toward providing Putin with a path to de-escalate the situation he created.

As Kerry has said, the U.S. and European allies have options, including imposing travel and trade restrictions, freezing Russian assets, and limiting Russian banks’ access to capital markets. All would be inconvenient for the oligarchs who support Putin.

Russia is one of the Group of Eight nations, along with the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada. At a minimum, the G-8 ought to relocate its June conference away from Sochi. If Russia continues to occupy Ukraine, the Group of Eight should become the G-7.

Monday, the Ukrainian government requested $15 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Ukraine’s acting finance minister, Yuriy Kolobov, said the country needs $35 billion. Uncle Sam should not be expected to shoulder the cost of any bailout. But an international aid package might be warranted, assuming Putin does not worsen an already bad situation by storming into Kiev.

Obama has stumbled on foreign policy, most notably when he declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a red line. When he backed away from that line, he emboldened Putin. But he has also had some successes, defanging al-Qaida and bringing Iran to the bargaining table and lessening the bloodshed of revolutions in Libya and Egypt.

One thing he cannot do is bow to the reactionaries who are demanding a military response. These are the same people who put us in Iraq with no reason; who invaded Afghanistan and then whiled away years as the mess got worse. They would have us rely on a military that is stretched thin and relies too much on private companies who do not answer to our military commanders. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is ubiquitous on cable news shows as he faces a tough re-election fight, has been particularly critical of Obama, calling him weak and indecisive.

Graham and his friend, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., should take a constructive approach by helping line up Republican votes, to the extent that the administration must turn to Congress for approval of various sanctions.

No one should long for a return to the Cold War. Nor should Obama allow Putin to drag this country and Europe back to the 19th century. The U.S.-European response must be clear-eyed and calm. But there must be a response, and it must be meaningful.

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