To stop Russia, the West needs to raise the stakes

Two days ago Russia sent troops to the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics on Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia has threatened Ukraine with military conflict for months already. It accused the West of fearmongering when Western leaders said a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. Meanwhile it assured us that it didn’t seek a military conflict with Ukraine and that it was pulling back its troops. Unsurprisingly, the Russian leadership was full of lies again.

I’ve written about how the West dealt with Russia before, around April last year. Back then Russia intimidated Ukraine with a massive build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border for several weeks, but ultimately decided to pull back. Back then I already wrote that the West was being too soft on Russia. This time West is responding more severely and stated that sanctions will be tougher. Canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial transaction system for banks is no joke. Arms were shipped to Ukraine as well to make an invasion more costly for Russia. However, the message of the West was still that if Ukraine was invaded, it’s on its own.

That refusal to aid Ukraine militarily is cowardice. Russia’s dictator Putin isn’t impressed by the sanctions I just mentioned, even if they are more harsh than before. His calculation is that he can deal with them and that it will blow over, just like it did after the invasion of Crimea. Even if Russia gets cut off from SWIFT and Nord Stream 2 gets canceled, Europe will still want to buy Russian gas. Putin has never been seriously opposed by the West and he can escalate tensions as much as he wants. If de-escalation doesn’t work on him, the West must start escalating itself. Any action taken by the West must threaten Putin with significant negative outcomes. If the West wants peace, it needs to prepare for war; si vis pacem, para bellum.

Here’s what I would do. First of all, the West should station military forces on Ukraine’s territory. Just tell the Russians that it’s for a military exercise and that they don’t need to worry. It’s the same as the Russians have been telling us all the time when they were building up forces near the Ukrainian border. The goal is not to start a military conflict, but to deter Russia from invading Ukraine any further. If Russia would do so, it would risk a big war with the West. That’s not something Putin would be willing to risk. I’m tired of hearing this excuse that direct military support can’t be given because Ukraine is not a NATO-member; nothing is holding back Western states from offering direct military support to Ukraine on an individual basis instead of via NATO.

Next, the West should abandon its reluctance to offer NATO-membership to Ukraine in spite of the Russian occupation of parts of its territory. Threaten Russia that Ukraine will be invited to join if Russia doesn’t back down. Ukrainian NATO membership is exactly what Russia wants to avoid.

Then, threaten Russia with two absolutely crushing sanctions: closing off the Bosporus and the Danish straits for all shipping to and from Russia. Because Russia’s largest ports and naval bases are all situated in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, it would be devastating for its economy and navy. These measures are feasible because even the Øresund between Denmark and Sweden is no wider than four kilometers at its narrowest point. Sure, it would require shelving the Montreux Convention and the Copenhagen Convention which made these straits international waterways open to all. But both Turkey and Denmark are NATO-members which are not on good terms with Russia. Only Sweden isn’t, but perhaps they could be persuaded.

Of course the West should entice Russia to back down by proposing an attractive compromise so Russia can save face. This compromise would require Russia to abandon the lands it occupies in Ukraine and Georgia. In return, Russia is promised that Ukraine and Georgia will not become NATO-members. Russia also gets a free lease of its naval base in Sevastopol (in the Crimea) for something like fifty years. It already leased the Sevastopol naval base before the pro-Western revolution in Ukraine. Of course more detailed agreements about arms control and troop deployments on the borders of NATO members and Russia should be included as well. The aforementioned threats to compel Russia to accept this compromise should be discussed behind closed doors so that Russia is not humiliated publicly. Russia could then present its gains from the compromise with its head held high.

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