Needless to say, a war in Ukraine would be costly and unpredictable for all. As I have previously written, Putin in his March 18 speech used the rhetoric of Nazi Germany in 1938, so the free world must make sure that we do not arrive at 1939. Accordingly, all sanctions short of war are appropriate. Putin’s speech made it impossible for him to withdraw Russian troops from Crimea without losing face, so there is no need to find a face-saving way out of this crisis, as some have suggested.
Another common argument in Washington is that the West should be restrained because there remains a need for help from Moscow on other matters, including Iran. But that consideration has been obliterated by the military annexation of Crimea. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, has lost meaning after Russia’s aggression. In December 1994, Ukraine—then the world’s third strongest nuclear power—agreed to give up all its nuclear arms in the Budapest Memorandum. Its abandonment of these weapons was a great achievement of the NPT. But Russia’s security assurances in that memorandum have proved futile. Now Ukrainians may draw the logical conclusion that it was a major mistake to give up their nuclear arms, because if Ukraine still had them, Russia would never have attacked. This conclusion will not be lost on Iran or other potential nuclear powers. Thus, the United States has little else to discuss with Moscow until Russia ends its military aggression against Ukraine.
There is no point in building up sanctions gradually. Instead, the West needs to come up with truly devastating sanctions upfront, an economic version of the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force—”shock and awe”—because the alternative is a devastating major war in Europe. The mere threat of further tough sanctions will not convince Putin after the fiasco of the “red lines” drawn in Syria, which eroded President Obama’s credibility in Russian eyes and the eyes of the rest of the world.