Mr. Altman argues that economic sanctions should trump military defensive assistance to Ukraine. (“Stopping Putin Without Firing A Shot”, WSJ February 10, 2015.) While it’s encouraging that a prominent player in the US financial market generally understands the gravity of the matter, his argument is untenable. Sanctions are an adjunct to military assistance, but cannot be in substitution for it. Standing alone, they are a siren song for digression and compounding of the inevitable.
Preliminarily, Mr. Altman posits that providing defensive arms to Ukraine “might give Moscow a further basis for its historical aggrievement .” This unwittingly endorses a pivotal component of Putin’s long-standing dezinformatsia. Rafael Lemkin, author of the UN Genocide Convention, saw Russia as the apex predator state, the ultimate killer of nations. How else did it bloat out to become the largest country in the world, occupying fully one third of Asia? Kolyma, one of several a sub-regions of one of its regions (Siberia), is larger than France, Spain, Japan, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Greece, Sweden and North Korea, combined; and Kolyma was only one of several concentration camp regions. It is Ukraine, the Baltic nations, Byelorus, the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia that have a “historical aggrievement” against Russia for centuries of conquest, mass murder, slave ships, death marches, atrocities, war crimes, homicidal russification, recreational torture, assassinations, genocide of all stripes, plunder, predation, experimental executions, gang rape, stupefying terror, thought crime and forced starvation. Russia’s “historical aggrievances” reverses that history, condemns the victim as the perpetrator and sanctifies the perpetrator as victim. The prime exemplar of virtual reality, a hologram floating on air.
The springboard for the sanctions argument is that for Putin the consequences of Western sanctions are or can be made greater than the consequences of Ukraine existing as a democratic, sovereign state. That assumption is wrong, and to the very opposite effect. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and anchors one of Europe’s oldest democratic traditions. More than seventy years before Philadelphia, Ukraine produced a constitution incorporating the very essentials of democratic governance that were later repeated in the US constitution. Moscow’s conquest and rule over Ukraine was pivotal to the formation and viability of the Soviet Union. The bookend is that Ukraine’s renewal of its independence in 1991 (stunningly, in opposition to Washington’s wishes), catalyzed the dissolution of the USSR. Ukraine saved the West. The existence of a free and democratic Ukraine thus expands the prospects for liberty in Russia itself. Putin would then become an unperson with greater alacrity than in the face of the “pressures” that sanctions presumably would cause.
Second, Western profit imperative fueled its embrace of the Russian economy and financial system. The resulting dependency of Russia, Mr. Altman says in essence, allows for the very leverage of Western sanctions. And what of the opposite dependency? Western democracies will abandon their petty parochialisms in the interest of stronger, longer lasting and more consequential sanctions? At the expense of their own economies and opinion polls? Even with the modest sanctions thus far, we have seen the centrifugal forces at work and growing in Europe; and not only on the economic side, but the political as well. As of this writing, France’s delivery to Russia of its Mistral attack ships is evidently back on track.
Moreover, there is nothing in the historical experience of Western/Soviet/Russian relations that supports Mr. Altman’s argument. Historically, it was Western technology and capital, with the US in the lead, that laid the economic and financial bases for the Soviet Union, and thereafter periodically supplied it with a life support system of technology and other assistance. In the 1920’s and 30’s it was the American engineer who, after the Great Sun, was god in the Soviet Union. Ford’s River Rouge Plant became the Gorki Auto Works, manufacturing cars for the NKVD. US Steel’s Fairless Plant became the Magnitagorsk Iron & Steel Works, and the TVA’s Appalachian Electrification Project became the Dnipro Hydroelectric Complex. Calvin Coolidge said “the business of American is business,” and sooner than later the business and financial lobby will hold sway.
Third, as to the efficacy of Western sanctions thus far, Mr. Altman asserts that the sanctions “are working” and recites their impact on the Russian economy. The statistics may scroll impressively across a financial news screen. But where is the nexus between the sanctions and their effect on the Russian invasion, occupation, annexation, atrocities and terror? We are offered none. Is the point perhaps that without the sanctions already in effect the situation on the ground would have been even more egregious? No, that is surmise, speculation and conjecture. The facts are that in the face of sanctions, the horrors not only continue but have accelerated. How, exactly, will sanctions stop the Kremlin, and then compel Putin to–somehow–undergo an epiphany and go home? The “somehow” is merely an assumption, a hope, that sanctions will lead to consequential pressure (whatever that means) on Putin. If so, then what of the very same “pressure” if Putin simply puts on his shirt and puts his horse in reverse? That pressure was 80% positive when he had it in drive.
Fourth, what if sanctions don’t work? Never mind defining what that means, at a certain point reality intrudes. Then what? At that point . . . finally . . . provide Ukraine with defensive weapons? Too late.
Fifth, although once in his article Mr. Altman mentions a Russian “pull back”, as thus far implemented and as further articulated by Mr. Altman, sanctions address only the sustainability of aggression. With such a limited formulation, sanctions sanction (read, accept) aggression up to date. The title, after all, of Mr. Altman’s piece is “Stopping Putin”, not reversing his conquest. If, as Mr. Altman writes, sanctions will lead to the epiphany that “further aggression isn’t sustainable,” what about the aggression and atrocities up to date? How, exactly, will sanctions reattach the body parts from Malaysia Flt. MH-17?
We shuffle our feet, clear our throats, and with furrowed brow profess concern over renewed Russian treachery and aggression. But after WWI, the US and Europe ignored Ukraine’s call for assistance as it was invaded by Russia, international treaties be damned. Thereafter, on November 16, 1933, the US extended diplomatic recognition to the USSR, at the very time that Stalin was forcibly starving millions of Ukrainians death in order, as wrote Oxford’s Norman Davies, to forever inter any notion of statehood. After WWII, survivors of that horror who had fled to the West were forcibly “repatriated” to the rodina and death. With the dissolution of the USSR having been triggered by Ukrainian independence, Washington stripped Ukraine of virtually its entire weaponry, destroying it or turning it over to Ukraine’s historic persecutor. Karl Marx had it right: “The ignorance, the laziness, the pusillanimity, the perpetual fickleness and the credulousness of Western governments enabled Russia to achieve successively every one of her aims.” If we don’t get it straight this time, if the West yet again condemns Ukraine to the coffin air of Lubyanka, then the West will ricochet back to the past, to M(utual)A(ssured)D(estruction) (remember that?), with all its implications. This time, however, add ISIS, China and North Korea to the brew.
Victor Rud, Esq.
Chairman, Committee on International Affairs & Foreign Policy
Ukrainian American Bar Association.