Skip to main content

How to make Putin back down

By Leon Aron
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
At a press conference on Thursday, August 28, Dutch Brig. Gen. Nico Tak, a senior NATO commander, revealed satellite images of what NATO says are Russian combat forces engaged in military operations in or near Ukrainian territory. NATO said this image shows Russian self-propelled artillery units set up in firing positions near Krasnodon, in eastern Ukraine. At a press conference on Thursday, August 28, Dutch Brig. Gen. Nico Tak, a senior NATO commander, revealed satellite images of what NATO says are Russian combat forces engaged in military operations in or near Ukrainian territory. NATO said this image shows Russian self-propelled artillery units set up in firing positions near Krasnodon, in eastern Ukraine.
HIDE CAPTION
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Leon Aron: Unable to win by proxy or to retreat in Ukraine, it appears Putin sent troops
  • He says U.S., Europe mulling sanctions, but only ones left will also hurt own financial interests
  • He says West can help Ukraine win by sending support like radar jamming technology
  • Aron: If Russia sees casualties, Russian patriotic support for Putin, and war, will drop

Editor's note: Leon Aron is a resident scholar and the Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Unable either to win the war in Ukraine by proxy or to retreat from the conflict because of the enormous blow a defeat would deliver to his regime's legitimacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be sending in regular troops to attack Ukraine. The action is south of rebel-held Donetsk, which, until Russia's heightened involvement this week, was on the verge of being retaken by the Ukrainian army.

It is likely that in response to Russia's escalation, the United States and European Union will contemplate more sanctions. The problem is that all the relatively "painless" economic measures have already been taken. So both the U.S. and Europe are now left looking at actions that will hurt their own industries and financial institutions.

Take the previous round of sanctions, which targeted only select Russian banks. This time, it may well have to be the entire Russian financial system: That is, U.S. and EU banks will have to sever relations with any bank that does business with their Russian counterparts. Another example: Previously, only future investments in technology and transfers to the Russian energy sector were banned. Now, the West may have to block the hundreds of billions of dollars in investment and equipment already in the "pipeline" to Russia as a result of the pre-existing contracts between the Russian oil giant Rosneft and its Western counterparts.

Moscow will undoubtedly fight in international courts to overrule such bans and will also likely retaliate by curtailing gas deliveries to Europe, just in time for winter. Never mind that energy exports are the backbone of the Russian treasury. As Putin has shown with the food import embargo, the regime is ready to harm its own people if necessary.

Which brings us to the key problem with economic sanctions: They rarely work in the short, or even medium term. When a regime's popularity or even legitimacy depends on staying the course (as it certainly does in the case of Ukraine) and with the patriotic hysteria and paranoia whipped up by state-controlled television, Moscow is likely to persist for a significant amount of time before sanctions show any effect. Western leaders should therefore not oversell the sanctions' effectiveness.

Russia denies images of troops are real
Russia accused of invading Ukraine
Russian convoy move raises tensions

There is, however, something the West can do to change Putin's mind much quicker, namely help Ukraine to win a just war against a foreign aggressor. Sending guns and bullets is not necessary -- Ukraine has enough. What Kiev needs is radar jamming and detection equipment to protect its planes from Russia's anti-aircraft systems (the same kind that shot down the Malaysian Airliner) as well as purely defensive weapons such as anti-tank missiles and some intelligence sharing by the West, including satellite data.

But perhaps just as important, as any weaker nation facing a much bigger aggressor can attest, the Ukrainians need moral support. And nothing will boost it more than effective gestures of battlefield solidarity.

Of course, as noted earlier, retreat is not an option for Putin. This is only true, however, as long as Russian troops do not begin to sustain significant casualties. The memory of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is still very much alive in the minds of the fathers and mothers of today's soldiers. And, unlike the 1980s, Moscow may not be able to engineer secret burials of zinc coffins welded shut, or force the relatives of the deceased to keep quiet. A video appeal by Russian mothers asking Putin to bring their sons back from the battlefield in Ukraine went viral just this week.

One hopes, of course, that Russian soldiers will not have to die en masse for their commander in chief to adjust his policy. Providing military-to-military assistance to Ukraine seems to be the only way the West can help stop this war relatively quickly. The alternative is the taking of ever more Ukrainian and Russian lives -- with no end in sight.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT