The Putin problem: Sanctions can't stop Russia, the West needs a forceful NATO strategy

Last week’s cover story in the Economist, “A web of lies,” focused partly on the responses by Russia's President Vladimir Putin and the Russian media to the July 17 killing of 298 civilian passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

‘NATO shot down the plane,’ ‘MH17 was mistaken for Putin’s personal jet,’ ‘A Ukrainian fighter jet fired the missile’  were among the theories offered by disinformation experts in Moscow. No official there will ever admit that Kremlin-backed fighters in Ukraine shot MH17 down with a Russia-supplied missile.

The day of the catastrophe, Russian intelligence officer Igor Strelkov, who heads the Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, reported the downing of what he thought was a Ukrainian cargo plane. Before learning it was a civilian flight, he boasted in a popular Russian social media site in his language: “We warned them—don’t fly in ‘our sky.’”

Probably, neither Putin nor his agents in Ukraine intended to shoot down a passenger plane, but the tragedy occurred because of conditions both created. The weapon, a Buk SA-11 missile, was provided to rebels by the Russian military without also supplying a radar capable of identifying a targeted aircraft.

[ David Jones: Russia holds all the cards, the West has to learn to live with it ]

Unfortunately, the dead passengers are victims as well in a larger confrontation, which has included blocking access for international investigators to the crash site. From the outset, they were only collateral damage for Putin in his larger goal of creating anarchy in Ukraine. The rule of law-based world responded so weakly after his unlawful annexation of Crimea that he concluded Ukrainians could be further tormented.

During almost 15 years, Putin demonized the West while rebuilding Russia’s military, largely with oil and gas revenues from customers in Europe.

Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and democrat, noted in Slate (July 23): “The enemy against which ( Putin's Russia) has united is the West and its contemporary values, which are seen as threatening Russia and its traditional values. It is a war of civilizations…Russia is...protecting not just itself and local Russian speakers but the world from the spread of what they call ‘homosfascism’ by which they mean an insistence on the universality of human rights.”

Sanctions are unlikely to work well now because the Russian nationalism unleashed by Putin seems likely to trump all economic considerations.

In her book, Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton notes with the realism of hindsight: “Putin’s worldview is shaped by his admiration for the powerful czars of Russian history …(he) proved over time to be ... autocratic, resenting criticism and eventually cracking down on dissent and debate, including from a free press and NGOs…Among the most egregious …were attacks on the press…between 2000 and 2009 nearly twenty journalists were killed in Russia, and in only one case was the killer convicted.”

One was the much admired writer, Anna Politkovskaya, murdered at her home in Moscow on Putin’s birthday in 2006. She had repeatedly warned her readers and the world about what she called Putin’s “bloody” leadership, insisting that his regime was corrupt, brutal and represented the worst demons of the Soviet past.

Leaders of democratic governments finally appear to ‘get’ Mr. Putin. Stephen Harper, who did so early on, is expanding Canada’s sanctions to include the Ukrainian rebels, Russian energy companies, banks and arms makers. The U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is siding with the E.U. on Putin instead of the Euro-skeptics, but should now sanction smartly the Russian oligarchs living in London. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel finally seems ready to impose longer-term sanctions.

This past week, the E.U., U.S. and Canada approved dramatically stronger economic sanctions to pressure Putin to end support for rebels in Ukraine. More than sanctions are necessary. Ukraine needs much assistance and will for some time. The German experience with integrating East Germany will be helpful to encouraging an economic boom in Ukraine in two or three years. To help fund it, the West should become serious about finding and seizing the billions of dollars Yanukovych stole from the country. NATO should buy the war ships built in France for Putin.

Putin’s renewed shelling of eastern Ukraine from Russia appears aimed at achieving control of a large swath of the country and to make transition to democracy difficult. Sanctions are unlikely to work well now because the Russian nationalism unleashed by Putin seems likely to trump all economic considerations, no matter how much ordinary Russians and 150 or so oligarchs might suffer.

Ukraine could prove to be a domino in central-east Europe, illustrating again that unless tyrants are confronted early and forcefully they become much worse.

A viable NATO strategy for deterrence and if necessary response to aggression is needed now, argues Andrew Michta, director of the Warsaw branch of the German Marshall Fund. He adds that a new containment strategy has risks, but will “offer Russia a chance to rebuild its relations with the West down the line.”

Michta is correct.

(Photos courtesy of Reuters, CP/AP)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.