Recommit to Transatlantic Ideals: Thinking Beyond Deployments, Sanctions, and Visa Bans in Ukraine

WASHINGTON—Today, there is much talk about how the West should respond to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and rightly so. Ukraine is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and sent troops to fight in Afghanistan. The current focus is on deterring further Russian incursions, getting economic support to the new Ukrainian government, avoiding a shooting war with Moscow, and encouraging Ukrainians to create a society that respects its history, ethnicities, and languages.

But beyond the discussion of military alerts, sanctions, and visa controls, events in Kyiv and Crimea also offer a chance for a strategic reassessment, both within the NATO alliance and the broader transatlantic community. A specter of doubt has recently haunted the West. Can our values compete in a world of globalizing “authoritarian democracies”? Is democracy fated to partisan inaction? Does a commitment to the sanctity of the individual stand a chance against extremists who promote a suicide-bombing perversion of this belief?

Ukraine reminds us that the ideas upon which the West was founded — freedom, democracy, rule of law, self-determination — are still values to which others aspire, and for which they are willing to give their lives. When former President Viktor Yanukovych decided that Moscow’s domestic and international design was Ukraine’s destiny, Ukrainians poured into Kyiv’s Independence Square to show that their future was theirs to decide as free people. Many died seeking to live by values that too many in the West today doubt. Their sacrifice is a message for us: values matter. The best way we can honor them is by recommitting ourselves to promoting, defending, and expanding those values.

How can we do that with a longer term, strategic perspective? A first step is to create a relevant and robust vision for NATO. At the next NATO Summit in Wales, U.S. President Barack Obama has the chance to lay out a vision for the alliance and the United States’ role in Europe. Former NATO Secretary General Lord Carrington liked to say: “you don’t stop paying your fire insurance just because you’ve never had a fire.” There will be serious issues to debate and decide, including questions about enlargement, the lessons learned from Afghanistan and the Balkans, and the alliance’s credibility in a world of austerity.

Second, there is a need for a transatlantic energy strategy that reduces the possibility of energy blackmail. This is not a new idea: former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar has long urged NATO to consider energy as a security issue, memorably in a speech at a GMF conference in Riga in December 2006. Diversity of supply was a motivating factor in U.S. support for the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Europeans have reduced their dependence of Russian gas. But more that can be done, such as resurrecting Western support for an East-West energy corridor connecting the Caucasus and Central Asia to world markets and approving the Keystone pipeline as part of a renewed commitment to the North American Energy Initiative with Canada and Mexico. The United States should move as quickly as possible to export U.S.  natural gas in order to increase world supply and reduce the chances of Gazprom blackmail. The U.S. Department of State is already helping Ukraine and other European countries build up natural gas storage and find gas supplies in Africa. While they will not solve today’s challenge, such U.S. energy action sends a strong signal about the changing global gas market.

Third, we can honor our values and the EuroMaidan protesters by recognizing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) for what it is: a strategic investment in the economic and political future of the West. Europe and the United States should complete TTIP negotiations as soon as possible and not let tactical disagreements stop governments from launching what may be the most strategically profound response to Russia’s actions. President Obama can lead this effort by speaking up for TTIP in his talks with world leaders, at the NATO Summit, and at home, including with leaders in Congress who should be persuaded to pass fast track trade promotion authority.

In recent weeks, many Ukrainians risked their lives — and too many lost their lives — because they were attracted to a future based on values the West strives to achieve. It is possible to demonstrate the United States’ and Western world’s commitment to those values without a military confrontation or by neglecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians. We can do so by standing up for the Ukrainian people’s right to live in freedom and choose their alliances and associations. We can also make the strategic choices necessary — at NATO, in our energy policies, and by promoting our prosperity — to strengthen our ability to defend these common ideals.

Ambassador Marc Grossman, vice chairman of The Cohen Group and U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs from 2001 to 2005, is a trustee of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Dan Fata is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a vice president at The Cohen Group.


  • Jim Kolbe

    One of the most eloquent and thoughtful pieces I have read on a topic that is both painful and emotional. I commend the authors for this piece and hope this gets very widespread exposure.

  • Jaroslaw Martyniuk

    This is a thoughtful strategic reassessment outlining wise advice on how the West should respond to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Strengthening NATO, pursuing policies for energy independence and recognizing the value of TTIP are commendable goals. But all three are long term goals that will take time to implement. The crisis in Ukraine is happening now and requires immediate response. The West has already been caught completely off guard by
    the speed of Russian intervention in Crimea. As we speak, Putin is seeding his
    operatives across eastern and southern Ukraine to stir up disturbances to
    create a pretext for the next phase of “fraternal assistance.” Forestalling such
    a move (and surely others to follow) requires action now, not in a few
    months or year. Waiting for long term strategy to take effect will be useless
    when Russian boots are on the ground in, for example, the Baltic States where the Russian minority in percentage terms s higher than in Ukraine.

    The West, particularly the EU, must take immediate action, steps that are easy and relatively pain free to implement: visa bans on travel to Western Europe on the top 100 Russian oligarchs/politicians, followed by a threat of freezing their assets and bank accounts. We must keep in mind that Russia has vastly more to lose than Europe. These moves alone will make the oligarchs turn on Putin. If history is a guide, tyrants not stopped early in the game feel free to raise the stakes. Eventually the situation could spin out of control leading to potentially catastrophic consequences.

  • Robert McFarlane

    Spot on! The focus on the East-West Energy Corridor is especially timely. Consideration should also be given to suspension of the Southstream pipeline, or to developing Ukraine’s significant reserves of coal-bed-methane, or to reversing the flow in existing pipelines (even to Ukraine). Very well done Marc and Dan. Bud

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.

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