While most of Europe has been obsessed with the Greek crisis over the past weeks, another crisis is continuing to threaten the continent with dangers that go well beyond the survival of a common currency.

Ukraine is walking a narrow path between survival and failure while its partners are distracted and its opponents are gathering strength. As we recently marked the anniversary of the barbaric destruction of MH17, it is high time that we recognize the fact that Russia under Vladimir Putin requires that Europe—along with the United States—do more than just help Ukrainians defend themselves. It also requires that we confront the efforts in Moscow to rewrite history and undercut international law.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel and her European Union partners are focused on the Greek drama and President Barack Obama is focused on Iran and the nuclear deal he is trying to secure, Russian military moves in eastern Ukraine have been intensifying in direct violation of a cease-fire agreement. Over many months, Moscow has turned the Minsk agreement into mincemeat.

Over 9,000 Russian troops are now operating in eastern Ukraine, despite Moscow’s denial of their existence. The expectation is that the preparation for an assault on the government-held city of Mariupol is advancing.

Moscow is using its gas deliveries to Ukraine to blackmail Kiev by undercutting stockpile supplies for the coming winter. Meanwhile, Ukraine is running out of economic resources as it races to avoid defaulting on its loans. As another demonstration of comparative priorities, the European Union has offered over $222 billion to help Greece, while offering Ukraine $5.5 billion. In a similar comparison, the United States once gave Mexico $20 billion toward preventing its default and gave over $18 billion for reconstruction in Iraq, but has come up with only $3 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine.

All of these challenges converge at once, yet the Western partners continue to delay any serious military assistance to President Petro Poroshenko’s government, which needs it to stabilize itself and to avoid the fate of being, along with Georgia, another permanent frozen conflict in the middle of Europe.

While the Kremlin’s goal is to destabilize all of Ukraine to the point of political collapse, it can continue to exert pressure from its position in the Donbas for the foreseeable future without necessarily marching into Kiev, especially if Europe and the United States remain limited in their responses. Putin has been rewriting history in order to sell the annexation of Crimea to the Russian public as a justified reclamation of Russian territory. But one thing is clear: Putin attacked Ukraine’s efforts to become an independent democracy open to a European future as a preemptive strike in response to the potential of similar democratization waves emerging in Russia.

Washington has continued to deflect requests by the Ukrainian government for defensive weapons that might help deter more military aggression from Russia and its sponsored supplicants. President Obama continues to defer to Chancellor Merkel, who has maintained her position that giving weapons to Kiev will only cause a further escalation of the conflict.

Although the European Union renewed its economic sanctions against Russia at the G7 meeting in June, it has not chosen to respond to Moscow’s continuing military buildup. We know that Russia’s apparent aim is to make sure that a democratic Ukraine fails. But to counter military aggression only with stabilization credits is not going to be enough in the short or long run.

European countries recognize that amid the Kremlin’s continuing saber-rattling in the Baltic and in the Balkans, there is little reason to believe that the Russian threat is limited to Ukraine.

Both President Obama and Chancellor Merkel remain convinced that supplying the Ukrainian army with more effective defense tools will not prevent a Russian attack and could supply Putin’s propaganda machine with grist to escalate his aggression.

Recognizing that hesitation, Moscow is increasing its pressure on the West by publicly questioning not only the legality of the original transfer of Crimea to the Ukraine by Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, but also raising questions about the independence of the three Baltic States. This latter propaganda tactic could be a prelude to another hybrid warfare initiative as demonstrated in Crimea. Since there is a large number of Russian-speaking minorities in the three Baltic States, it is not impossible to imagine Putin planning such intimidation to test the resolve of the NATO alliance. It is in response to that potential that NATO is stationing new forces in the Baltic States and Poland.

While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, steps taken to secure the borders of the eastern European states, members of both NATO and the EU, should be followed by providing the capabilities for Ukraine to secure its lines of defense under the current circumstances. While the settlement of Ukraine’s political future may take many years, the need for sustaining the government in Kiev and its defense of the territory it now controls is of vital importance. And that cannot be done without Western military as well as economic assistance.

Putin’s narrative of returning Crimea to Mother Russia has appealed to Russian nationalist emotions not only because it demonstrates Putin’s challenge to the United States and the European Union, but also because it was relatively easy to accomplish. Nothing succeeds like success. But his long-term support for the eastern Ukrainian separatists is more difficult.

Given the rising burden of that support, Putin cannot sell as easily a potentially substantial increase in casualties in the face of a strengthened Ukrainian defense capacity, despite his popularity. There is already discontent about the loss of Russian soldiers in this war, while Moscow still denies its existence in eastern Ukraine. Although Putin has presented the Russian presence in Ukraine as helping a separatist uprising, he has since admitted that his troops participated in the military annexation of Crimea in a well-prepared military operation including the potential use of nuclear weapons. His presence in celebrating the annexation of Crimea with massive military hardware on display underlined that narrative. But a longer and bloodier path in eastern Ukraine would not be as festive.

The devastation in eastern Ukraine is already horrendous. Hundreds of thousands have fled the area. Many of them have ended up in western Ukraine.

Again, Putin attacked Ukraine’s democratic breakthrough as a preemptive strike against democratization in Russia. Rather than a sign of political strength, this was proof of his political weakness and fear of political contagion.

The people of Ukraine and their European neighbors face a critical turning point. Moscow currently seeks to create a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine and has introduced significant amounts of heavy weapons to maintain it.

In response, Western sanctions are critical but not by themselves sufficient. The West needs to provide Ukraine with the tools to sustain itself. These tools include radar systems, UAVs, communications capabilities, armored Humvees, and medical support equipment. Some of these have been promised but are exceedingly slow to arrive. Other tools include anti-armor missiles to counter the large numbers of armored vehicles that the Russians have introduced.

This cannot and should not be carried out by the United States alone. NATO members should combine their resources to underline their commitment to helping Ukraine, while demonstrating the resolve which Putin questions.

Nor can or should these measures be taken to counter the search for a peaceful, political solution, which all agree is the most viable tool to stop this conflict. But only if Putin recognizes the risks and costs of his aggression will he engage in that effort.

In his recent confirmation hearing in Washington, General Joe Dunford, President Obama’s nominee to become the Pentagon’s top military officer, said that he believes Russia poses the biggest threat to U.S. national security and that Ukraine won’t be able to counter Russian aggression unless it is provided with lethal military assistance.

The West has the capacity and the necessity to stop further Russian threats to both Europe and the transatlantic alliance. It now needs to marshall the political commitment to act.

  • RSHouck3

    1. I agree that Russia is a real threat. Too bad Putin is so short and his economy is so bad.
    2. It is not “blackmail” to refuse to sell gas to someone. Especially not to someone who cannot pay.
    3. The amounts paid to Greece and Mexico and for the (stupid, unnecessary) war in Iraq cannot be compared to support for (or absence of support for) Ukraine.
    4. What do Americans care about International Law? We don’t need no stinkin international law – to sort of cite The Treasure of Sierra Madre. We’re Americans.
    Your weak arguments detract from the strong ones – which SHOULD be enough.

  • JGoettgens

    I think nobody denies the facts given in the article and the aggressivity of the Russian foreign politics. From the outside many things are not detectable to a layman; I still have a few remarks, though.

    It was recently reported, based on Russian statistical data, that the American foreign trade with Russia increased in 2014 by 6% compared to 2013. Given Putin’s love for unique narratives, this could be a Münschhausen story, but I did not find any serious objection to these numbers anywhere. There should not be the impression that the American side demonstrates the invalidity of the sanctions by skilfully undermining them.

    The degree to which historic narratives are utilized in the Ukrainian crisis is remarkable. One can go through the Ukrainian, Russian, Polish-Western and Jewish narratives and find only a few matches. The Kievan Rus’ is one, yet not everybody pays much attention to the single “s”. But parts of the Ukraine accept the Russian narrative about WWII as the Great Patriotic War. Putin orchestrates this conflict subtly as an extension of this superlative, which explains why they insist that the Ukraine is governed by fascists. Unfortunately there is a lot of resonance for that in Russia and elsewhere these days.

    Victor Erofeyev’s essay in the FAZ (5/272014) then gives an interesting view into the Russian hearts. The popularity of Griboyedov’s comedy “Woe from Wit”, which could as well be The Donald’s life motto, overdraws the Western culture as a culture of pantywaists. I think real solutions will only be possible when this jingoistic phase will have chilled down in Russia and there will be mutual respect.

    Weapons for the Ukraine will likely make things worse, because I think that the West will not be willing to pay the price in the end. There’s a lot more at stake for the Russians. I am neither convinced by Merkel’s passive strategic patience. A hybrid war should probably be answered with hybrid counter-measures and I don’t see that the homework is done yet. Among other things, one could try to integrate the Russian minorities better in the Baltic states. The German-speaking Community of Belgium never wanted to be reunited with Germany, which was a somewhat comparable situation. This question is obsolete nowadays.

    Anyway, someone should come up with a convincing hybrid master plan, which probably has more to do with Russia than the Ukraine, for Ukraine’s sake.