Ukraine: Europe Needs to Stand Up

KIEV, UKRAINE - MARCH 2: People attend a rally against Russia on Kiev's Independence square on March 2, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine
KIEV, UKRAINE - MARCH 2: People attend a rally against Russia on Kiev's Independence square on March 2, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. The new government of Ukraine has appealed to the United Nations Security Council for help against growing Russian intervention in Crimea, where thousands of Russian troops reportedly arrived in recent days at Russian military bases and also occupy key government and other installations. World leaders are scrambling to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to refrain from further escalation in Ukraine. Ukraine has put its armed forces on combat alert. (Photo by Vladislav Sodel/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images)

The situation in Ukraine holds grave consequences for the security of Europe and the rest of the world. By introducing troops into Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, Russia has violated at least five international agreements, including the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which underpins the very notion of state sovereignty on which European peace depends.

Most worryingly for global security, Russia has also reneged on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Under this agreement, Ukraine traded its Soviet-era nuclear weapons for promises to respect its territorial integrity and refrain from the use of force.

What could, therefore, be dismissed as a local European issue is actually the world's nonproliferation problem, with far-reaching ramifications for regions from the Middle East to the Northeast Asia.

Containment of Russian forces on the Crimean peninsula is an unsustainable and dangerous proposition. By acceding to Russian occupation, the United States and Europe would be effectively writing off the peninsula. Acquiescence to these aggressive actions could invite a further land grab into eastern Ukraine.

It would also leave the Crimean Tatar minority, harboring memories of Stalinist deportations, to its fate -- a decision that has the potential to invite the kind of violence not seen in Europe since the fragmentation of Yugoslavia.

The ultimate aim of diplomacy should, therefore, be to ensure the phased withdrawal of Russian troops under international observation back to the bases covered by the existing agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

In order to get there, the United States and Europe need to make their rhetoric of "costs" a reality. With very few military options, their main sticks are financial and economic. The U.S. Congress is well positioned to extend existing legislation that bans travel and freezes the bank accounts of officials implicated in the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who was investigating alleged fraud perpetrated by the Russian security services. The U.S. government is reportedly preparing a sanctions package.

It is Europe, however, that has the most potential to punish Russian actions. Numerous commentators, most notably journalist Ben Judah and Yale historian Timothy Snyder, have pointed to the way wealthy and powerful Russians travel to and invest in Europe, enjoying the fruits of democratic accountability and the rule of law even as they trample on these principles at home.

Prior experience with sanctions against Iran has shown that those targeted at the elite can help. Bank accounts and other assets should be frozen. Cash is probably already on the way out to offshore havens, but other assets -- most notably property -- are harder to shift quickly. Magnitsky-style travel bans should also be imposed on members of the Federation Council who voted for Russian military intervention, as well as responsible officials in the Russian government and presidency.

It is true that Europe is also the most vulnerable to the consequences of sanctions. The Russians could cut off gas supplies; the emerging-market oligarchs from China to Africa and the Middle East, may shy away from Europe's financial centers for fear of similar retaliation. London, Frankfurt and Paris could feel the consequences for years, if not decades. There are already indications that the UK and Germany may be wavering in the face of the potential economic repercussions.

The dangers of such economic consequences are real; however, this is one of those rare moments in history when the foreign policy decisions that European governments make today determine the kind of countries their citizens wake up in tomorrow. As it stands, they face a choice between becoming financial satrapies of an increasingly aggressive and authoritarian Russia, or standing up for the principles that have underwritten the security and prosperity of Europe for decades. Selling out is not an option.


James Cameron is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University.