via Daily News
In this age of instantaneous global communications, people don’t give a second thought to finding out what is happening on the other side of the world. A missing plane in Asia, a gory murder trial in Africa: It’s all there with one click of the mouse or turn of the page.
Knowing, however, is not the same as caring, and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is the latest test of whether or not Americans can, or should, care about events far from home. War-weary and debt-saddled, it would appear that America has good reasons to sit out a conflict where it is hard to find vital national interests.
There are many easy excuses for not intervening, and in recent days here in my adopted home of New York City, I’ve heard them all:
“Let the Europeans handle it, it’s their backyard.” “Why mess with Vladimir Putin over Crimea, what’s it to us?” “There’s not much we can do anyway.”
It’s hard to argue with that first one, actually. The European Union has more at stake, has more leverage over Russia and has more responsibility as a neighbor to Ukraine.
But this doesn’t mean the United States should stay out, and it has been good to hear President Obama and John Kerry in recent days sending the message that America is ready to take action to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
As for American interests and responsibilities, I should first say that my perspective is partly born from looking at America from where I was raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the Soviet Union.
The United States of America as the “shining city upon a hill,” a Biblical phrase popularized by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, may seem like tired political rhetoric to many Americans, or as dangerous imperialistic American exceptionalism to others, but it was quite real to many of us behind the Iron Curtain.
It mattered to know someone outside cared about our plight and was fighting for us. It mattered when Reagan called the USSR out as the evil empire we knew it to be. His uncompromising approach to negotiations with the Soviets led to the fall of the Iron Curtain and freedom for many millions of people, a legacy that every American should be proud of.
It is an inheritance to embrace, not discard.
Trying to ignore the world’s dangers and dictators never works for long, and the situation in Ukraine will be harder to deal with the longer strong measures are delayed.
Vladimir Putin is not someone who can or should be ignored. Last Thursday, the largest opposition news websites in Russia were shut down by the Kremlin in the blink of an eye.
With television and print under strict control, the Internet has long been the last refuge of free speech in Putin’s police state, so despite the many warning signs this sudden blackout came as shock.
The news site run by my organization, Kasparov.ru, is included on the list of sites blocked for, to use the censor’s exact language, “information containing appeals to mass riots, extremist activities, and participation in mass (public) actions held with infringement of the established order.”
Translation: Telling the truth and reporting the facts about Putin’s Russia will not be tolerated.
The timing of these shutdowns could not be more ominous. Russian troops invaded Crimea, part of Ukraine, last week, and Russian forces have been massing on the border of eastern Ukraine. Internal Russian propaganda about the need to “protect” ethnic Russians inside Ukraine has reached fever pitch.
Putin is preparing for war and once again raising the stakes in his decade-long confrontation with the United States and Europe over his attempt to patch together a Frankenstein version of the Soviet Union by using bribery, extortion and brute force.
Every politician knows that banging the war drums can do wonders for a sagging approval rating, and you could say that Putin’s career was launched with this technique. An undistinguished Yeltsin administration functionary from the security services with no public profile, Putin came to prominence and power in 1999 after being put in charge of the second war in Chechnya, which he carried out with astonishing viciousness.
Looking tough is even more important for a dictator, who does not rely on party alliances or the support of voters.
Without the validation of democracy, Putin must regularly lash out to show his supporters inside and outside of Russia that he can still protect them and that he is still good for business.
Western responses to Putin’s aggression should therefore focus on proving him wrong by showing his gang of oligarchs and his western partners that he cannot shield them this time.
Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Reagan knew they were putting many lives on the line when they stood strong against Communist aggression. The Cold War was an existential threat, as anyone from my generation on either side remembers from all the duck-and-cover safety drills in school.
Today, military action is unlikely to be required at all. Putin is a tough guy, but he’ll back down if his hold on power is credibly threatened. He knows what happens to tyrants like him when they fall hard, and it doesn’t involve a pleasant retirement.
For deterrence to work, Putin must know that the U.S. administration has the means and the will to follow through with the harshest sanctions. Otherwise it could end up as another “red-line moment” that exposes President Obama’s tough talk as empty rhetoric.
Dump Russia from the international institutions Putin abuses. Target the finances of his allies and expose their companies as the global criminal enterprises they are. Take a close look at what America and Europe get from Russia — oil, gas, Afghan supply lines, space launches — and develop substitutions for them. If Putin’s Russia proceeds as a rogue nation, there is the “Iran 1979” option, freezing the hundreds of billions of dollars of Russia’s vaunted cash reserves.
If appeals to morality and values do not move you, America does indeed have vital interests in Ukraine, albeit indirect ones. As the world’s largest economy, military power and energy consumer, the United States reaps great benefits from global stability. (While big fossil fuel exporters like Russia benefit from instability, which tends to raise the price of oil.)
Even if you are a cynical realist or a libertarian isolationist, it is cheaper and more practical to take a stand now over Ukraine than to let it go and then have to worry constantly about even stronger American commitments to the Baltics and Poland, which are NATO members.
Failing to push back against Putin over Ukraine will also have far-reaching repercussions that cannot fail to affect American interests. A world where American security guarantees are worthless is a more dangerous place for all.
And while it’s true that the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by the U.S., U.K. and Russia to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity is not a binding military treaty, its purpose was clear. I wonder what my fellow adopted New Yorker, Bill Clinton, thinks about his signature on that document today as Russia, the fourth signatory, attempts to dismember Ukraine.
I already know what Ukrainians think about it.
Dictators and terrorists will not hate you less for ignoring them or appeasing them. They see it as weakness and as an opportunity to go on the offensive and to move into the vacuum.
As 9/11 so painfully reminded us, history did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is nonsensical to blame the victims of a dictator or to spend time wondering how best to avoid his wrath.
Putin is not a wild beast who cannot be held responsible for his actions. He must be held responsible or his list of victims will only grow longer.
Putin believes it is better to be feared than loved or respected. America, in contrast, thrives when it is admired. After all, immigration is a concrete benefit of America’s success and its tradition of promoting its values abroad.
Soviet families like that of Google founder Sergey Brin did not come to America because they thought the streets were paved with gold. They came because they wanted their children to grow up in a free country.
Ukrainians want the same for their children and proved themselves willing to die for the privilege during the Kiev protests that brought down the government of Putin stooge Viktor Yanukovych two weeks ago.
Now Ukrainians are faced with overwhelming force from a Russian regime that refuses to let them go without a fight. It is a fight that is not of America’s making, but there are both moral and practical reasons for fighting it.
When the leader of the free world stands up to oppression and insists that personal freedom matters for all, we will sleep better in a safer world, and with a cleaner conscience.
Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, based in New York City. He was the 13th world chess champion.