US, allies must check Putin’s latest move against Ukraine

US, allies must check Putin’s latest move against Ukraine
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This weekend at the 2018 Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Buenos Aires, Russia’s most recent attack on Ukraine will move to the forefront of this gathering focused on the international financial system. Even by the not-so-lofty standards of President Vladimir Putin, it was the height of hypocrisy for Russia to fire upon and seize Ukrainian vessels in violation of international law and a 2004 bilateral treaty with Ukraine, then blame the act of aggression on President Petro Poroshenko’s government.

Make no mistake: this was another of Putin’s calculated moves on the chessboard, designed to target first and foremost Ukraine’s territorial integrity but also by extension the European Union (EU), NATO and most especially Russia’s “main enemy,” the United States.


Putin wants to assert Russian tactical control over the Kerch strait, a shallow, strategically located stretch of water that connects the Azov and Black seas and serves as Ukraine’s economic lifeline, including to its besieged Donbass city of Mariupol. Cognizant that Sevastopol is Russia’s only warm water port, Putin wants to ensure Russia exercises control over the strategic Black and Azov seas.

Putin was, of course, well aware of the upcoming G-20 meeting, which he likely sees as an opportunity to build his stature by neutering any international pressure designed to counter Russia’s latest move in a long history of aggression towards Ukraine. Putin wants to demonstrate to Poroshenko and his citizens that Western nations are unreliable allies, who failed to prevent Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea; massive cyber attacks on Ukraine’s media, electric power grid and government ministries; and violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity through Russia’s support to the Donbass separatists.   

For Putin, democracy is an existential threat, especially in the former Soviet Union, whose collapse Putin once called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Nothing threatens Putin’s regime security more than Ukraine, a democratic neighbor with a bright economic future and sizable Russian-speaking population. To make matters worse for Putin, Ukraine is an aspiring member of the EU, with which Ukraine signed a free-trade agreement in 2016, as well as NATO, which is assisting Ukraine with its cyber defense.   

In the short term, Putin wants to ensure Ukraine is so politically dismembered and territorially fractured that NATO and EU membership are out of the question. He does not want Ukraine to succeed as a democracy, which would serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration for his own domestic opponents who are denied basic civil liberties, including freedom of expression and assembly. Putin’s long-term objective is the destruction of Ukraine as a state.  

Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the West imposed sanctions and the G-8 suspended Russia’s participation. In May 2018, the Trump administration delivered javelin anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine with a small team of “basic skill trainers” who advise Ukrainian forces. In spite of these measures, Ukraine is under increasingly intense and dangerous Russian siege.

During the G-20, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE has an opportunity take the lead, with NATO support, by delivering a powerful, public rebuke of Putin’s brazen violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and pledging a commitment to Ukraine’s independence.   

As we learned from the Obama administration’s experience, warning Putin without imposing policy measures to influence a change in Russia’s nefarious behavior only encourages more aggressive Russian military and espionage operations. President Trump should, therefore, work with the Congress on a comprehensive series of military, intelligence, diplomatic and economic measures designed to enhance Ukraine’s capability to deter future Russian aggression.

The United States and its European allies might consider additional persona non grata against Russian officials, a NATO deployment to Ukraine, and provision of lethal maritime equipment and weapons to Ukraine.  

Putin’s KGB past makes him a natural-born hypocrite and purveyor of lies. The United States and its allies also need to mount a full-court press in the public sphere, including inside Russia, to expose Putin’s nefarious Ukraine policy, which so negatively impacts Russia’s and the region’s economy.  

Since mounting a massive cyber attack against Estonia in 2007, Russia has invaded Georgia; violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in air, sea, land and cyberspace; downed a civilian airliner; became a co-conspirator in Syria’s and Iran’s attacks on civilians in Syria; poisoned former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent; and interfered in elections in the United States and Europe.

Containment and deterrence are vestiges of the Cold War, which effectively countered the Soviet Union. They are similarly applicable today because Putin — the KGB operative in the Kremlin reviving the ethos of the Soviet evil empire — would best be countered with a 21st century version of President Reagan’s “peace through strength” strategy.  

Ukraine is on the front lines of defense against Russia’s pernicious espionage, military, cyber and economic attacks. The time is ripe for U.S. leadership, and Ukraine’s sovereignty is where we should draw and enforce a red line.

Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.