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Oksana Bashuk Hepburn: How to ensure Putin’s withdrawal from Ukraine

January 16, 2022 6:29 PM 4 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manezh exhibition hall in central Moscow on Dec. 23, 2021. (
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Russia’s president made strong self-serving demands recently. Among them seeking security guarantees from the United States, its allies and NATO, determining NATO’s membership, and withholding military co-operation to the now independent former USSR states. Otherwise the Zircons will fly, he threatened.

President Joe Biden shot back. Ukraine’s sovereignty is sacred and Russia will not dictate NATO membership nor international arrangements of sovereign states. And if President Vladimir Putin moves to occupy more of Ukraine, there will be “serious consequences.”

So far last week’s hours of diplomatic talk addressing these and other concerns changed nothing. The threat of punishing Russia’s future advances on Ukraine — if, when, maybe — only reaffirm the status quo: Russia is illegally occupying sovereign land.

Meanwhile, the threat of future punishment after seven years of annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas, confirms Russia’s victory over democracy and rule of law. It serves as a pitiful commentary on our own indifference to our values and politics and the disregard for our own security.

It is criminally inadequate to punish Russia for its sins in Ukraine only if it commits a few more; occupies more of  Ukraine. The West must do better. To win against President Putin’s international lawlessness and mockery of global law and order means nothing less than Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine.

This calls for immediate punishment with “serious consequences.” Punishing sanctions cannot wait till Russia advances further. Punishment is needed now especially as Putin’s war of words escalates and worms its way into our own hearts and minds, making us ready accomplices.

It would help, for instance, if the West stopped humouring President Putin’s moans that Russia deserves a great power status. History is history. Austro-Hungary was a great power, so was Great Britain. Rome came and went as did the USSR. Russia’s claim to greatness, as if it were a right regardless of its third-world reality — it’s per capita income is $12,000 — is a mind game, not a fact. Russia decided to become a pariah state by invading sovereign Ukraine. No “great power” act here, but the act of a historic colonial throwback. Putin’s to blame for Russia’s bad reputation and no amount of wishful thinking about past history changes that.

Then there are Russia’s false claims of security threats from the U.S., NATO and Ukraine to its sovereignty. These, too, are mind games designed to create fear at home and extract maximum concessions from those that Putin fears and wants to cut down.

It must never be forgotten that Russia is the invader. It needs to remove its occupational forces from Ukraine and withdraw its menacing troops from Europe’s borders. Putin is the security threat to his neighbors — Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan; Ukraine, and to Russia: to all of us!

Despite its one-sided aggression, Putin has the audacity to make demands. He wants “legal” security guarantees for Russia, determination on NATO’s expansion, and a stop of military assistance to former USSR states — now free from Moscow’s yoke — plus Poland and the Baltics too. He claims that the seas surrounding the former USSR territory are “ours.” So is the Arctic.

It’s shameless arrogance! Most U.S., NATO and allies see it for what it is. But some politicians, officials, media “experts” accept Moscow’s propaganda spins to become accomplices in his war on democracy. Among the current favorites of Putin-speak is justifying Russia’s false claims for self defense and treating Nord Stream 2 as a purely economic play rather than a threat to Europe.

Internal problems may be a reason why Putin is getting more hysterical with his outlandish threats coupled with the military build-up on Europe’s border. He’s creating external enemies to bolster his faltering political support. Among his biggest fears are increased rifts with the oligarchs due to more sanctions. They care little about Russia’s “greatness,” its security, people, or his war in Ukraine. They are international “bizznessmen” with multiple passports and residences abroad.

They support him as long as his aggression does not affect their financial holdings negatively, restrict their international travel or denies them banking security via SWIFT. Once this he’s a dispensable liability. Recently, a daughter of one of them was denied a visa to study at a European university. This sort of pain matters.

Putin has boxed himself in. He will be punished with serious sanctions from the West if he advances on Ukraine and by his cronies once the sanctions start stinging.

This is President Putin’s Achilles heel and the United States, its allies and NATO need to make the most of it. To get results. To get him out of Ukraine and bring him to heel to global law and order — the threat of serious sanctions must be moved forward. Now. Time is of the essence. They cannot wait on his whim to advance or not advance his war. It must not be his call. He must not be allowed to be in charge again when it comes to dealing with his crimes as was done with the Minsk agreements.

However, Minsk may yet become an opportunity. Written hastily in 2014 after Russia invaded Donbas, it is deeply flawed and favors the aggressor. It needs serious corrections including firm timelines for Russia’s de-occupation.  Very importantly, it must stipulate the cost — the serious sanctions — for non-compliance. Otherwise — as in the current Minsk — the lack of punishment ensures that Putin will not budge.

The new peace agreement needs clout to counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and recognize Putin for what he is given his latest threats against the United States, Europe and NATO: a common enemy.  This means getting tough with Russia to ensure that it will not be able to wiggle out of its commitments as it is doing now.

Among others the peace plan will require Russia to remove its occupational forces by a stipulated time — say April 2022. Then, the plan needs to state clearly that failure to do so means automatic membership for Ukraine in NATO.  Also specify that given the high cost to Ukraine’s military — some 14,000 military killed despite the Minsk peace arrangements — it’s automatic membership in NATO should another Ukrainian soldier be wounded or killed, a civilian is abducted, or political prisoner tortured. And, of course, serious sanctions are in effect immediately if Russia fails to meet the de-occupation deadline.

President Putin’s long-lasting and mounting violence and cock-sure demands require a steel-like response. Let him have it.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, formerly a long-term senior policy adviser with the Government of Canada and president of U*CAN, a consulting firm brokering interests for Ukraine, comments in international media on its determination to be a free European country.

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