Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia

Robert Gates urges more a more forceful response from the West to Russian aggression.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010 (DoD/Cherie Cullen)

It has been nearly a month since Russian president Vladimir Putin, in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich, ordered thousands of Russian soldiers into the Crimean. Seemingly caught off guard by Putin’s moves, which came despite American intelligence assessments that he would not enter into Ukraine by force, the Obama Administration has been forced to react to the situation largely on the fly.

Republican lawmakers in Washington DC have attempted to use the crisis in Ukraine to bolster their narrative of Barack Obama as a president who is unable to anticipate events or demonstrate strong leadership during times of crisis and unwilling to send a visible message to America’s adversaries that bad behavior will be met with stern consequences. The government, assisted by Democratic Party allies, has fought back against such accusations. And, despite poor approval ratings and concern in Democratic circles that Republicans could pick up more seats in the congressional elections this fall, President Obama has brushed aside criticisms as partisan and contrary to the facts.

But when a former cabinet official starts to question the president’s policy, the criticism seems less partisan and more substantive.

Robert Gates, one of America’s most seasoned intelligence professionals and the secretary of defense during Obama’s first term, took a swipe at the administration’s response to Putin’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimea in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Unfortunately for President Obama, many of his complaints are roughly in line with what congressional Republicans have been saying for the past month: that his administration needs to be far more aggressive on the sanctions front, more supportive of its Eastern European allies militarily and less Western-centric when it tries to determine what Putin will do next.

“The only way to counter Mr Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game,” Gates argues. “That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that [Putin’s] worldview and goals — and his means of achieving them — over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.”

Rather than simply sanctioning Russian officials who may have had direct or indirect involvement in their country’s annexation of the Crimea, Gates urges the United States and its European partners to ramp up the pressure through a package of penalties that would hit at the heart of Russia;s economy. “Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas must be reduced,” he counsels, “and truly meaningful economic sanctions must be imposed, knowing there may be costs to the West as well.”

In addition to diplomatic isolation and sanctions, the United States and NATO must reassure allies along Russia’s periphery that they are protected from any encroachment on their own territory, Gates adds. What the west is currently doing is too lax and, in his words, “anemic.” Putin will not pay attention if the consequences can be brushed aside.

The Obama Administration has prepared the groundwork for much of what Gates is calling for. The president’s most recent executive order, for example, allow the United States to sanction Russia’s defense, energy and financial sectors in the event that Putin decides to mimic his Crimea operation in eastern Ukraine. Although those sanctions have not been executed to full effect, the administration is using them as a trump card, hoping to convince Russia that more military moves inside Ukraine will further isolate it.

For seasoned professionals like Robert Gates, however, simply waiting is an invitation for an even greater regional crisis.

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