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Washington Post: West must make Putin pay

The Washington Post

First Published Aug 30 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 30 2014 09:07 am

If any international norm can still be called uncontroversial, it is the stricture against cross-border aggression by one sovereign state against another. Certainly any failure to enforce it in one place invites violations elsewhere. That is why Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russian forces openly into Ukraine is a watershed, not a mere "continuation of what’s been taking place for months," as President Barack Obama understated the case Thursday. If Putin does not pay a high price for this naked attack on his neighbors, the precedent could sow instability far and wide — from the Baltic Sea, ringed by small, free states with large Russian minorities, to the South China Sea, dotted with islands that China covets but other countries claim.

The reasons for Putin’s escalation, after months of destabilizing Ukraine through more covert means, may be only guessed. Ukraine’s military has made gains against Russian-instigated "separatists" in two key cities, Luhansk and Donetsk, and Putin may have felt that he could not abandon them without incurring political risk in Moscow. The Russian army’s move on Novoazovsk, well to the south of these contested areas, relieved the pressure on them — and perhaps foreshadows seizing a land corridor to Crimea, which Putin absorbed through force and chicanery six months ago but has struggled to resupply by air and sea since. Putin’s strategic goal could be even grander: the takeover of southeastern Ukraine, which he calls "New Russia," and its incorporation into his ballyhooed Eurasian Union.

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What is evident: Putin cares little for diplomatic "off-ramps," as the West calls the various face-saving solutions it has dangled since Putin first began his squeeze on Crimea. To the contrary: Sending his own regulars to seize Ukrainian territory suggests he would rather risk further conflict with the West than see his minions go down to defeat in Donetsk, Luhansk and elsewhere.

There may be some in Washington who conclude from this that Putin’s interest in Ukraine will always be greater than that of the United States, so pressure or sanctions can’t work — and might even be counterproductive, given the need for Russian cooperation on other matters such as Iran’s nuclear program. If the issue were only Russia’s neighborhood, we would still disagree, vehemently, but we would understand the logic.

But given the global repercussions of this struggle, the United States and its allies cannot afford to let Putin break the rules. It is time to hit Russia with the full brunt of financial sanctions, to supply Ukraine with the arms and intelligence it needs to defend its territorial integrity, to halt all military sales to Russia by Western nations — and to bolster the neglected North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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