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Millennial Letters

Power Politics and Putin

“The only language Russians understand,” asserted Edmundas Jakilaitis during a panel discussion last fall, “is power.” A Lithuanian journalist whose birth certificate bears a hammer and sickle, Jakilaitis knows what he is talking about. 

A combination of plummeting oil prices and international sanctions have sent Russia’s economy into a tailspin. The ruble’s value is collapsing, and the Russian Central Bank has hiked interest rates. Many Russians’ mortgage payments—taken in foreign currency because of the lower interest rates—have skyrocketed as the ruble falls. The Kremlin has launched a $35 billion “anti-crisis” package that seems like it will do more to burn through Russia’s currency reserves than stimulate the economy. Military spending, meanwhile, roars ahead. In his year-end press conference, President Vladimir Putin claimed his country would emerge from the crisis within two years. 

That sounds pretty optimistic. But as Russia’s domestic problems grow, Putin employs a tried-and-true strategy: distraction. Moscow sends tanks, weapons, and uniformless fighters into Ukraine and talks of protecting Russian-speaking minorities. Putin’s real aim is to stoke nationalist pride in the face of rising prices and emptying shelves.

US Secretary of State John Kerry talks of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis—certainly the desired outcome. But Russia is not acting in good faith, and talks should not proceed until it does. When Russian-backed separatists murdered nearly 300 civilians on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last summer, Putin blamed Ukraine and allowed Russian media to spew one conspiracy theory after the last. Then Moscow ignored a September cease-fire agreement. The Kremlin has no shame because the cost of its behavior, while certainly rising, is not yet high enough.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande flew to Moscow on Friday to launch a new diplomatic initiative. Their outreach was a mistake: the simple act of going to Moscow telegraphs who has the upper hand. Putin is very happy to continue talks as long as they delay firmer action by the West; indeed, Merkel called the prospects for peace in Ukraine uncertain after the talks concluded.

NATO must meet power with power, and drive the cost of Putin’s aggression even higher to force Moscow negotiating table in a weakened position. The report issued earlier this week by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, authored by distinguished defense and diplomacy practitioners, is a solid step in the right direction.

The United States should follow the report’s recommendation to provide lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government while continuing sanctions against Russia. Right now, Ukraine is fighting a war against separatist enemies who can tap into a nearly limitless supply of Russian arms. Letting this lopsided math continue only increases Russia’s position. The good news is that Ashton Carter, who will likely succeed Chuck Hagel as US defense secretary, seems disposed to support supplying arms to Ukraine—as is Kerry.

Additionally, NATO should follow through on expected troop enlargements in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They are NATO members all, and by that treaty, NATO is obligated to protect them. Increasing NATO troop levels are not supposed to “defeat” Russia; they act as a trip-wire that forces Russia to decide if risking a much bigger conflict is an acceptable price for regional adventurism.

The only language Putin understands is power, and our inability to recognize that fact and act accordingly will only continue to embolden him. A combination of arms, sanctions, and a collapsing economy will eventually break Putin, but NATO must keep its foot on the gas until the price of his current policy becomes too high. Until then, any diplomatic outreach by the West is a fool’s errand that only rewards Moscow’s bad behavior.

Jim Arkedis is the president of 4DPAC and a Truman National Security Project fellow. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @JimArkedis.

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