On June 29, 2009, Bernie Madoff, who came to symbolize the vices of the 1 percenters in America, was sentenced to 150 years in prison. He defrauded his clients of $18 billion and got what he deserved when justice finally caught up with him. But imagine a different scenario where there are many Madoffs running various elaborate schemes defrauding the American public, breeding a culture of corruption, embezzling billions of federal or state funds, and then hiding their money in a prosperous distant nation. Imagine too that this faraway land is slow and ineffective in investigating financial criminals. Would this be acceptable to the American people?
Ordinary citizens of Ukraine and Russia are facing exactly this problem: Kleptocrats are plundering our resources, monopolizing most profitable sectors of our economies, and finding plentiful opportunities to hide their earnings in the West. Of course, this isn't a problem America alone can solve, but it is an issue requiring leadership from a broader West in enforcing its anti-corruption, anti-monopoly, and anti-money-laundering laws. This must not be about containing Russia's aggression or supporting Ukraine's fledgling economy. This is simply about upholding the principles on which the EU and the U.S. are founded.
The growing tensions in our region are threatening peace and prosperity for the entire world. Diplomacy is not producing desired results, as Putin is now refusing to take Obama's calls, and Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry seem to be talking past each other. Military assistance to Ukraine is being contemplated, but there is no certainty that it'll make things better and not worse. So what remains? As we try to assess the options, they must not be an outcome of some cost-benefit analysis or half-measures to calm things down for now to push the problem away. What we face is an existential dilemma as much for the West as for Ukraine and Russia. It boils down to this: Is the West prepared to stand up for the values it proclaims? If yes, then no cost is too high. And if no, it is a much bigger problem that it must eventually face.
There are many ways to help Ukraine. Fortunately, and perhaps unexpectedly, policy options to deescalate the crisis that are clearly in the EU's economic interest abound. As I talk to my peer parliamentarians and politicians in Europe, I see a lot of sympathy but not a clear understanding of what must be done. For instance, a common EU-Ukraine energy policy, which the prime minister of Poland advocated in a recent op-ed, is a compelling way for the European nations to address Gazprom's divide-and-conquer strategy. The EU must act on it. The South Stream pipeline project (an instrument dreamed up by Kremlin to use energy as a weapon) has been suspended but should be completely scrapped to convey to the Kremlin that Europe is united in its actions, not just its statements. The less the EU depends on Russia's energy exports, the better it is for the people of Europe, Ukraine and even Russia, where the predatory elites are ripping disproportionate benefits from exploiting country's natural resources.
Secondly, the West should focus on supporting Ukrainian businesses, not the government apparatus. Now that the European market has been widely open to Ukraine, Brussels must encourage more people-to-people exchange and liberalize the visa regime, as was recently done for Moldova. The trade war waged by Russia has caused many Ukrainian businesses to reevaluate their strategies and look for new partners in the West. European companies must be incentivized and encouraged to forge new links in Ukraine. Joint ventures will create synergy for all concerned, and it would be a far better strategy than overburdening Ukraine with more loans and asking European taxpayers to pick up the tab.
Thirdly, the West can help us fight corruption. Condemning the Kremlin's aggression while Western banks welcome the money of Russian plutocrats is counterproductive. The violent separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which has increasingly resorted to terrorist tactics, as it is unable to muster popular support, is widely understood to be financed by Yanukovych and his henchmen. So we must expedite the processes that have been put in motion to deny Yanukovych access to funds he stashed abroad, and promptly return the stolen billions to the people of Ukraine.
Safeguarding and never compromising on our common beliefs is the only way for our continent to move forward. Madoffs in Russia, cheered on by impunity, are as greedy as ever. Reining them in is how the West can prevent a crisis in Ukraine from spreading wider and win the hearts and minds of the Russian and Ukrainian people. A lot more can be accomplished with immediate implementation of a law on public registers of beneficial ownership, as has been proposed by David Cameron, than with loans and other assistance! It is not just sanctions targeting Putin's cronies but a clear message to the ruling elites in Moscow and in Kiev that the leaders of the free world have the political will to act and are going to stand by their values.