The Unfinished Response to Ukraine

With the Ukraine crisis far from over, the United States needs to take several additional steps to bolster its response, including stronger sanctions that may need to remain in place for years.

A column of Ukrainian armored vehicles makes its way along the road between Kharkiv and Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, April 24, 2014. (AP/Manu Brabo)
A column of Ukrainian armored vehicles makes its way along the road between Kharkiv and Slovyansk, Ukraine, Thursday, April 24, 2014. (AP/Manu Brabo)

The crisis in Ukraine is far from being resolved: Russian-led agitation in Eastern Ukraine continues, Russia refuses to implement the Geneva agreement to de-escalate tensions, Ukraine’s path toward constitutional reform and elections is tenuous, and Crimea is being cemented into the Russian Federation after its illegal referendum and annexation.

America’s response is similarly unfinished. Last month, the Center for American Progress recommended a series of steps that the United States should take to support the Ukrainian government and establish a cost for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Several of these steps continue to require U.S. action, including:

  • Expanding sanctions to include Russian state-owned enterprises, the Central Bank, foreign financial transactions, and international business interests.
  • Scrutinizing Russia’s compliance with anti-money-laundering laws.
  • Creating a “Friends of Ukraine” group to help build a successful Ukraine.
  • Authorizing comprehensive economic and security assistance that goes beyond the inadequate package passed by Congress.
  • Passing reforms of the International Monetary Fund into law to improve access to financing for Ukraine and other nations.
  • Developing a long-term strategy to diversify European energy resources.

Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Ukraine advanced several of these areas, including steps toward an energy strategy and additional financial assistance. The deployment of additional U.S. forces to the Baltics and Poland are also good steps, demonstrating NATO’s concern over Russian actions and alliance solidarity. But as CAP stated before the illegal Crimean referendum:

If the Russian government uses the referendum as an excuse to annex Crimea or refuses to withdraw its unauthorized forces from Ukrainian territory, then the United States should coordinate with the European Union and its other allies to penalize violators of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The illegal annexation of Crimea itself requires punitive steps beyond the relatively measured actions already taken, regardless of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin invades and annexes parts of Eastern Ukraine. Washington should begin targeting Russia’s economic elite and key commercial sectors—starting with banking—through investigation and enforcement of anti-money-laundering and illicit finance laws, as well as with sanctions against additional Russian financial institutions and individuals. The United States should encourage the European Union to take the same steps, but it should not wait to follow Europe’s lead.

In terms of security, an all-out Ukrainian offensive to dislodge Russian-backed separatists occupying towns in Eastern Ukraine would be bloody; it also would likely backfire by giving President Putin an excuse for invasion. But Ukraine needs international support to be able to put pressure on separatists by, for example, sealing off access to occupied areas and allowing in only basic humanitarian support. And Ukraine’s military needs help to effectively to reinforce its eastern regions in the event of a Russian invasion. Help from Europe, including bilateral military assistance from countries such as Poland, should be welcomed.

Ukraine also needs creative help now to maintain stability in its remaining Black Sea port, Odessa, not with security but with civic engagement; Odessa is the next likely front in Russia’s campaign of subterfuge and stealth occupation. Ukrainian leaders should partner with civil society and the business community there to celebrate Odessa’s unique history and polyglot culture. They should invite an international civilian presence, including delegations from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to deter Russian aggression. U.S. and European commercial and military ships should visit the port and stay for several weeks. Engaging with civil society now can marginalize right-wing Ukrainian parties and Russian extremists in Odessa and provide some protection against a separatist campaign.

Taking steps to deal with Russia and its actions in Ukraine is not just about managing the current crisis; it’s also about trying to prevent the next crisis. Sanctions are having an impact on Russia already, including capital flight and a downgrade of Russian debt to near-junk status. These consequences and even greater sanctions may not deter Russia from taking further aggressive action, and are unlikely to lead Moscow to negotiate with Ukraine over the Crimea annexation. So the steps the United States takes now to impose costs should be sustainable over several years. For the time being, President Putin will take whatever the West dishes out and try to turn it to his advantage. But long-term sanctions will be a drag on Russian growth that many in Moscow will want to escape once the acute phase of this crisis passes. America should endeavor to make the next phase in this region one in which Ukraine and other states under threat by President Putin are growing stronger and more modern, while Russia’s illegal occupations and regional bullying are scorned by the international community and hurt Russia’s future growth.

Failing to impose a meaningful cost for Russia’s forcible annexation of foreign territory would further embolden Russia to take similar steps in other neighboring states. It would also affect the strategic calculus of other nations in territorial disputes, increasing the willingness of states to use coercion, subterfuge, and military force with less fear of significant international backlash.

Russia is not Iran or North Korea; it cannot be completely isolated. As it did during the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States should try where possible to maintain some avenues of cooperation with Russia on issues of mutual benefit, such as nuclear nonproliferation. But right now, it is critical to show lasting resolve with sanctions and isolation that can continue until President Putin or a future Russian leader decides to start abiding by the rules and norms of the international community. To have sanctions eased, the first step for Russia should be to seek a diplomatic accommodation with the Ukrainian government and Russia’s other neighbors, even if it takes years.

Vikram Singh is the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Ken Sofer is a Policy Analyst with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.

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Vikram Singh

Senior Fellow

Ken Sofer

Senior Policy Adviser