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Douglas Cohn: West setting up tripwires to contain Putin on Ukraine

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WASHINGTON — Russian President Putin says he has no additional territorial interest in Ukraine, but a nervous Europe and an appropriately skeptical U.S. president can’t take him at his word. What they can do is slap sanctions on highly placed Russians to prevent them from traveling to the U.S. to shop and see their sons and daughters who attend American schools. It’s a start and it might pinch some of Putin’s people. The Obama administration can also ramp up the rhetoric and saber-rattling, if only to remind Putin that for all his bluster, the U.S. has military assets it can deploy quickly if necessary.

Even so, the administration has to ask itself what it expects to get in return. Putin is not going to return Crimea to Ukraine. Even though Sunday’s referendum was illegal and illegitimate, it expressed the wishes of a majority of Crimeans, who speak Russian and voted affirmatively to become part of the Russian Federation.

The problem for the U.S. and its allies is not secession but the Russian occupying force sent in ahead of the referendum. Putin pretended they were Crimean nationalists and that to the extent Russians were part of the force, they were sent to protect the rights and well-being of ethnic Russians living in Crimea. It was a masquerade, and Putin won, acquiring Crimea without firing a shot.

In Europe, where memories of World War II remain fresh, the relevant question is this: Is Ukraine to the world what Czechoslovakia was to the world in 1938, when Hitler annexed the country’s German-populated Sudetenland and then proclaimed he had no further territorial ambitions? In other words, how much of a threat does Putin pose, and how far should the West go to rebuff him? It’s an article of faith in Washington that the U.S. is not going to war over Ukraine. Even the most hawkish wing of the GOP led by Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is not advocating military action.

At the same time, another article of faith is that Putin must be deterred from further land grabs. How to do that without provoking a military confrontation is the fine line the West is walking in this standoff with Putin. It’s reminiscent of the period after World War II when a small force known as the Berlin Brigade acted as a tripwire to prevent the Soviets from overrunning Berlin. It was more of a psychological deterrence than a military bulwark.

The administration seems to be borrowing a page from that era by setting up a series of tripwires to convey the message to Putin that he will pay unspecified heavy costs if he presses farther into Ukraine. The Ukrainians believe that the U.S. and the U.K. are obligated to defend their sovereignty under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances signed in 1994 when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world.

The terms of that treaty are vague and in dispute and for now the Obama administration is relying on a combination of diplomacy and saber-rattling to contain Putin. Vice President Biden is traveling in Poland and the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania this week to personally assure them, as members of NATO, that their security is protected under NATO, and to denounce on European soil what Biden called Russia’s “blatant disregard of international law.”

Obama travels to Europe next week to attend a long planned meeting that had nothing to do with Ukraine, but that now will center on that country’s precarious financial condition and the threats posed by Russia to its sovereignty. Without military intervention on the table, Obama could become the first 21st century president to return to the containment policy of the last century that proved so successful in ending the Cold War. It took time, decades, and patience, and Putin, a former KGB agent, is bullheaded enough to think he can wait out the West.