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Don’t Forget the Russia Sanctions Are Russia’s Fault

Three years ago, Vladimir Putin took his own country down the road to pariah status.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Three years ago this week, disgraced Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his post and fled to Russia after a failed-but-deadly crackdown on protesting Ukrainian citizens. The protests started after Yanukovych suddenly and unexpectedly turned away from an Association Agreement with the European Union in November 2013, reversing his own promises in a move that was widely seen as a capitulation to Russian President Putin.

Fast forward to today: stories about President Trump’s associates conniving with Putin’s henchmen have uncomfortable echoes of Yanukovych’s own shady dealings (and of more than a few Ian Fleming stories). Add to this President Trump’s and his family’s own murky business deals, failure to release tax returns, and bragging about investors from Russia, and the echoes get even louder.

As the sanctions talk continues to bubble up in Washington, and the new administration struggles to find its footing on foreign policy, it’s worth taking a moment to recall why our sanctions against Russia are in place.

Three years ago this week, disgraced Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned his post and fled to Russia after a failed-but-deadly crackdown on protesting Ukrainian citizens. The protests started after Yanukovych suddenly and unexpectedly turned away from an Association Agreement with the European Union in November 2013, reversing his own promises in a move that was widely seen as a capitulation to Russian President Putin.

Fast forward to today: stories about President Trump’s associates conniving with Putin’s henchmen have uncomfortable echoes of Yanukovych’s own shady dealings (and of more than a few Ian Fleming stories). Add to this President Trump’s and his family’s own murky business deals, failure to release tax returns, and bragging about investors from Russia, and the echoes get even louder.

As the sanctions talk continues to bubble up in Washington, and the new administration struggles to find its footing on foreign policy, it’s worth taking a moment to recall why our sanctions against Russia are in place.

In too many discussions about Russia in general and sanctions in particular, there seems to be an unspoken assumption at work: that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is strained because of something we’ve done. That’s baloney. To be specific, it’s Russian baloney, an assumption that Putin and his regime have worked hard to promulgate. Not only is it false, but it also leads to false solutions. It leads us to look for ways to change our behavior in the hopes that this will improve the relationship, rather than to focus on the Kremlin’s actions which damaged Russia’s relationship with the United States and many others in the first place.

Sanctions against Russia are not sanctions for sanctions’ sake, and they are not the product of a peculiar hobby of the Obama administration. They are a response to Russia’s behavior in violation of international law and its own commitments. Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are an example of Putin’s foreign crimes, but they are by no means the only contemporary one; the horrors it perpetrated and supported in Syria are another. However, because Russia’s occupation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine are the reasons for the sanctions in question, it’s worth recapping a bit of what happened there to remember why they were imposed.

(This is a longer piece—if you already know your Ilovaisk from your Debaltseve and your Maidan from your Minsk Agreement, feel free to skip down to #5.)

1. The Maidan Protests (November 2013 to February 2014)

On the cold November 2013 night when Viktor Yanukovych reneged on his promise to sign the EU Association Agreement, a relatively small group of students went to the Maidan, Kyiv’s independence square, to protest. They chanted and waved EU and Ukrainian flags, which, in a serendipitous harmony, share blue and yellow color patterns. The protests remained relatively small but grew in the following days, and the students remained on the Maidan around the clock. A little more than a week after they began, at 4 a.m. on November 30, the students were surrounded by armed security forces and beaten and bloodied in the public square.

Within days, the protests swelled as thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands came to the Maidan. The protestors were horrified by the beatings of the students standing up for European values, and joined their voices to the students’, demanding Yanukovych resign over his betrayal. Over weeks and months, the protests grew to include millions of Ukrainians in Kyiv and throughout the country, and lasted through the bitter cold of winter.

On January 16, 2014, Yanukovych’s government passed legislation that came to be known as the “Dictatorship laws,” which suspended civil rights in an effort to end the protests. (One of these laws banned wearing helmets in public gatherings, making protesters more vulnerable to billy clubs — this prompted the citizens on Maidan to show up with saucepans and colanders on their heads in defiance of the laws.) Secretary of State Kerry and governments across Europe condemned the laws, too.

In the days that followed, there were a number of clashes between protestors and security services, many spurred by government-directed provocateurs. More than 100 Ukrainians lost their lives — many killed by snipers from rooftops of government buildings — as they stood up for freedoms that we take for granted.

EuroMaidan, as the protests came to be called, was unusual for a number of reasons. While it was sparked by the Yanukovych’s rejection of the Association Agreement with the EU, these were not so much protests against his presidency as they were a collective rejection of the pyramid scheme of corruption that infiltrated every aspect of daily existence. People were sick and tired of a system in which Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin subjugated Ukrainian oligarchs and Yanukovych, who, in turn, subjugated the entire population of Ukraine. At the same time, the Maidan demonstrations were demonstrations that were palpably, joyfully, visibly for something: they were demonstrations for institutions and courts operating according to the rule of law, for opportunity determined by fair economic competition rather than cronyism, for human rights, a free press, accountable government, and for an independent Ukraine.

Western leaders were surprised by Yanukovych’s defection on February 21, 2014: earlier the same day, Yanukovych had agreed with democratic opposition leaders to hold early elections. Vladimir Putin (who is believed to have thought of Yanukovych as a useful but doltish thug) was probably surprised by Yanukovych’s sudden departure, too. But he also sensed an opportunity to boost his flagging domestic popularity while continuing to obstruct Ukraine’s closer relationship with Europe.

On February 23, 2014, the people thought a new chapter had begun. With their Russian stooge of a president gone and a temporary government taking shape, it was left to Ukrainians to build the democratic future they had withstood the bitter cold to demand. President Putin had other plans.

2. Russian aggression against Ukraine (February 2014 to present)

Within days, Putin ordered the invasion and seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. He did so by deploying soldiers without identification or insignia (the so-called “little green men”) in violation of international law. They quickly seized control of the territory.

In addition to grabbing Crimea, Putin sought to foment a destabilizing conflict in Ukraine that would tear apart the country and teach its people a lesson. Within weeks, the Russian president launched a campaign of sabotage and destabilization in the industrial heartland of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. As in Crimea, Putin sent in unmarked, heavily armed forces with sophisticated weapons to seize town halls and public buildings in Ukrainian towns. Local criminal gangs and discontents were enlisted, palms greased, to join the disruption and organize protests against the “Nazi junta in Kiev.”

There was, of course, no junta in Kyiv. There was only the temporary government that had been reestablished by the parliament when Yanukovych was declared — by overwhelming majority — unable to serve as president, having abandoned his post. New elections were promptly scheduled for May 25, 2014. Meanwhile, by late spring, Putin’s efforts to consolidate his control over Crimea (aided by the Russian-produced theater of a fake referendum held literally at the barrel of a gun), and to sow conflict elsewhere in Ukraine, were proceeding apace. Paid thugs were dispatched in a number of cities to violently attack and cause chaos wherever Ukrainian citizens came together to demonstrate their unity and to continue to advocate for the values that had inspired Maidan. Heavily armed militia took over police departments and towns, and the fledgling government in Kyiv struggled to push back.

Chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko won the presidential elections and put forward a peace plan that would work in conjunction with legislative efforts to decentralize budgets and control over key government functions. Meanwhile, Putin’s campaign against Ukraine expanded according to plan. By summer, what had begun as a campaign of sabotage and destabilization had grown into a war. Sensing opportunity, the Russian forces, Russian mercenaries, and local thugs began ever-louder talk of seceding from Ukraine, declaring so-called “independent republics” in the areas they held.

When Ukrainian forces attempted to reestablish law and order in Ukrainian sovereign territory, Russian artillery bombarded them from across the border. Russian anti-aircraft guns shot down Ukrainian planes sent to resupply the Ukrainian forces attempting regain control of areas that had been seized by the Russians and their proxies. Weapons and fighters flowed across the border from Russia in massive numbers. MH-17, the Malaysian airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was blown from the sky by a Russian Buk missile from Russian-backed separatist controlled territory — fired either by Russian military or their increasingly well-trained proxies operating on the ground.

By August, the Ukrainian forces were struggling under Russian assault. Putin attempted to humiliate Poroshenko and demoralize Ukrainians when, at the eastern Ukraine town of Ilovaisk, more than 1,000 soldiers found themselves cut off from their compatriots and were forced to negotiate a retreat. Russian forces agreed to allow them to return to their positions, only to renege as the process was underway, killing hundreds as they sought to retreat.

3. The Minsk Agreement(s) (September 2014 and February 2015)

The tragic summer concluded with the agreement by Russia and Ukraine to the Minsk Protocol on September 5, 2014. The Protocol was billed as a marriage of President Poroshenko’s peace plan and some ideas that President Putin had proposed. Russia signed, Ukraine signed, and veteran Swiss Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini signed on behalf of the 57-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk Protocol called for, among other things, an immediate ceasefire, a pull-back of weapons, international observation of the Russian-Ukrainian border, and eventual local elections in “special status” areas that included parts under de facto Russian-separatist control.

In the months that followed, the ceasefire never fully took hold. As fighting escalated, President Poroshenko announced a unilateral ceasefire in early December, attempting to jumpstart the implementation of the Minsk Protocol. But the Kremlin continued to use the conflict in Eastern Ukraine to destabilize Ukraine’s new government and sabotage its attempts at progress. In February of 2015, Presidents Putin and Poroshenko reconvened in Minsk, this time with German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande. In Minsk, a “Package of Measures” meant to get the implementation of the Minsk Agreements back on track was agreed — again by Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. It called for a renewed ceasefire to begin at 12 a.m. on February 15. Within hours of its coming into force, Russian forces and their proxies violated the ceasefire and committed another slaughter in the city of Debaltseve, a strategically important town on the contact line, with Ukraine suffering more than 100 casualties in 48 hours.

The ceasefire continues to be an aspiration, not a reality. Unarmed, civilian monitors from the OSCE were asked to monitor the ceasefire, and they have been operating in the conflict zone for nearly three years. But much of the Russian-separatist controlled areas remain off limits — entire swaths of territory, up to and including the international border, are havens for lawlessness, and the easy movement of Russian fighters and weapons. The OSCE monitors have been shot at, threatened, and had their UAVs shot down or jammed. The vast majority of these threats and restrictions occur on the Russian-separatist side of the contact line. And all the while the fighting has ebbed periodically only to escalate again with a new round of provocations. Of course, as with any ceasefire, both sides are responsible for observing it — however, if you and I agree not to fight, and then you go to strangle me and I fight back to defend myself, we are not equally culpable for violating our pact.

There is much more to recount, but the point is this: President Putin has repeatedly over the last three years attacked the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbor. He has lied and cheated and deceived. Not once, not twice, but many, many times — and the human costs to this chosen tragedy have been enormous. The Russian occupation of Crimea has turned the peninsula into a police state where minorities are targeted, Russian citizenship is forced upon residents, property is seized, torture and enforced disappearances have become common, and any opinions other than the steady diet of Russian propaganda are suppressed. The Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, and the war that it has manufactured there for nearly three years, has cost over 10,000 lives, displaced more than 1.5 million people, and caused tens of billions of dollars of damage.

Ukraine has made mistakes along the way, to be sure, but the fact remains that there is a victim and an aggressor here, and that the crucial ingredient in this ongoing conflict is the Kremlin’s willingness to make it continue and its unwillingness to facilitate a quick resolution. All of the ingredients for a political solution to the conflict have been on the table since the Minsk Protocol was signed two and a half years ago. Ukraine has every interest in ending the conflict so it can devote full attention to the much needed economic and political reforms that are the country’s best long-term strategy for security and prosperity. But Putin has constantly used the conflict as a way to retard the progress of what he sees as a major threat: a successful, democratic Ukraine. After all, if Ukrainians can build a European-style democracy, it will expose the lie that Putin’s authoritarianism depends on: the notion that Russians cannot.

4. What’s in it for us? And how do sanctions fit in?

Obviously it is the people of Ukraine who have borne the greatest costs of the Kremlin’s crimes (though plenty of Russian families have suffered too, as their sons perished on the Ukrainian battlefield in a war their government denies they were participating in). But what’s happening in Ukraine matters for all of us.

America learned the cost of European wars twice in the 20th century, and the relative peace of Europe in the last 70 years has been a boon to U.S. security and prosperity and can be attributed to a security framework — encoded in the U.N. Charter and the Helsinki Final Act — that establishes international rules-of-the-road. Those rules include not invading your neighbors, and not using military force to attempt to resolve political disputes. Putin violates these rules, and challenges the system of which they are a part, and in doing so, the violence he commits in Ukraine does violence to a system on which we all depend.

The United States, in partnership with the European Union, Canada, and other partners, maintains two sets of sanctions on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine, each with various specific components. The first set, for the attempted annexation of Crimea, targets those complicit in that attempt to redraw the borders of Europe by force. The second set of sanctions was imposed in close coordination with the EU, Canada and others in response to Russia’s persistent failure to implement — and outright contravention of — the Minsk Agreements and its ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Let’s be clear: No one likes sanctions — they have costs, at least in the short term, and they are technically difficult to impose and maintain. We wish they weren’t necessary. But they are, essentially, a tool of international law enforcement that serves as an alternative to less desirable tools, such as the deployment of military force. And just as we pay taxes to fund our police departments domestically, international law enforcement also has some costs. But the cost of sanctions is a pittance compared to the benefits in terms of security and prosperity that we get from an international system that operates according to rules.

To end sanctions now, while Putin persists in fomenting violence in Ukraine and occupying Ukrainian territory, would be an error on two fronts. First, it would send the message that the United States has given up on upholding the rules of the international system, thereby undermining global confidence in the rules, and sending a dangerous message to the Kremlin that it can commit egregious crimes and need only wait a mere 36 months before the world gets tired and distracted. Second, it would be to unilaterally discard one of the incentives that we can offer the Kremlin for making good on its commitments. The sanctions have not achieved their desired outcome so far, but that does not mean that they have not had an impact. Putin wants them lifted. He knows that the Russian economy has been sapped of dynamism by the corruption that enriched him and his cronies and an overreliance on oil. He knows that he has elections coming up, and that each percentage point drop in his popularity is another percentage point that he has to steal at the ballot box through fraud, abuse of administrative resources, voter suppression, or other means. To abandon the sanctions for Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine without fully releasing Ukraine from the yoke of Russian aggression, would be a mistake.

Policies become established facts in Washington, and it can be helpful, from time to time, to review the reasons why they were pursued in the first place, and to assess whether they continue to make sense. The sanctions that have been imposed by the U.S. and our partners on Russia represent a successful example of the coordinated, principled, substantive deployment of a policy tool. The way we were able to move in tandem with our European partners, despite technical differences in our laws and very different political processes, was truly impressive. And the sanctions continue to be a reasonable and judicious element of U.S. (and European) policy.

As we mark the third anniversary of Yanukovych’s flight, the people of Ukraine are still working on and fighting for many of the reforms that were the promise of Maidan and what has come to be called the Revolution of Dignity. They deserve our support — including in the form of sanctions and other efforts to curtail Russian aggression — as they pursue the democratic progress that will help them attain that most universal of human aspirations: the yearning to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/TASS/Getty Images

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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