A missile strike against the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Saturday should have awakened Western leaders to the seriousness of Russia’s latest aggression in Ukraine. Some 30 civilians were killed and scores wounded in the attack, which came not long after the chief of the Russian puppet government in occupied Donetsk announced a plan to capture Mariupol as well as other territory. International monitors subsequently confirmed that the missiles were fired from ground held by Russian forces.
The Obama administration and European Union leaders have been slow to react to Vladimir Putin’s new gambit, which came just as the union was debating proposals to re-engage with Moscow and President Obama was touting what he portrayed in his State of the Union address as a successful response to Putin.
Contrary to their wishful thinking, the Russian ruler has been neither deterred by the impending economic crash caused by Western sanctions and declining oil prices nor attracted by the prospect of a reconciliation with the West. His aim appears to be to expand the slice of Ukraine under his control in order to impose terms on the fragile democratic government, rather than implement the peace plan he agreed to in September. To that end, he has dispatched thousands more troops and hundreds of military vehicles across the border since the beginning of 2015.
The Mariupol strike did, at least, get Western leaders talking about an offensive they had mostly ignored for a week. Speaking Sunday during his visit to New Delhi, Obama said the “aggression” had been conducted with “Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops,” and he promised to “look at all additional options that are available to us” to “ratchet up the pressure on Russia.” The European Union scheduled an emergency meeting of foreign ministers for Thursday.
The crucial question is whether the West will now have the fortitude to respond to Putin with tangible measures of deterrence, rather than mere rhetoric. It won’t be easy: A number of European governments, including France, have been agitating to ease sanctions, while the White House insists it will act only in concert with Europe. The president of Latvia, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, was quoted as saying Monday that the union could limit itself to imposing more sanctions on Russian individuals.
That will not be enough. At a minimum the European Union and United States should agree by Thursday to prepare deeper sanctions against the Russian economy and financial system and to set a deadline for making a decision on them. Steps should be considered against sectors that have been exempt until now, such as mining. Meanwhile, Western governments should expand and accelerate aid to the Ukrainian government, which is nearly bankrupt, while helping it reach an accord on reforms with the International Monetary Fund.
In addition, Obama should finally give serious consideration to providing Ukraine with the defensive weapons it has been pleading for — an “option” that has strong bipartisan support in Congress. The point is not to defeat the Russian army but to deter Putin. Russians are already suffering economic privation because of his adventurism; adding the prospect of heavier casualties could alter his calculus — or his political standing.