04/03/2014 11:05 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

Achieving Long-term Stability in Ukraine Is Key to Navigating Watershed Moment in East-West Relations


In recent days, there has been no shortage of opinions about Ukraine, the escalating crisis over that country's future and the international community's response to Russia's bold takeover of Crimea.

The conversation thus far has largely centered on how the U.S. and its European allies can ease the standoff over Ukraine, convince Russia to scale back the tens of thousands of troops it has reportedly amassed near Ukraine's border and prevent a prolonged crisis in this important part of the world.

Missing from much of the discussion, though, is a frank assessment of what exactly the U.S. and its European allies seek to accomplish outside the more immediate aim of keeping the Russians out of Ukraine. That is, what is our long-term objective with regard to this troubled nation and, if there is one, is it attainable?

Make no mistake: What's happening in Ukraine represents an extremely dangerous crisis, as alarming and precarious as any crisis of the post-Cold War period. Indeed, we are undoubtedly at a watershed moment in East-West relations; regardless of the energy and good-faith effort we put forth, we will not solve this crisis rapidly or easily.

Acknowledging that we must patiently invest in Ukraine over the long haul is the first step toward achieving what I believe should be our primary goal: We must work with our allies and the Russians to build a stable, prosperous and well-governed Ukraine that has a strong, flourishing relationship with its neighboring nations, including Russia. Paramount to this effort will be ensuring that Ukrainians have the right to determine their own fate freely, peacefully and without foreign interference.

Achieving this goal will require taking into account the vastly differing perspectives and interests of the various groups involved in the crisis, including Americans, Europeans, Russians and, yes, Ukrainians themselves.

The large question looming over Ukrainians is whether they can actually help themselves. Ukraine, to be blunt, is a mess. Corruption in the country is rampant. Its economy is anemic, and its armed forces are in disarray. Little in the country's recent history suggests its citizens can step up and help themselves, no matter how much foreign aid they receive. Still, they must be given every opportunity to try. An immediate and large infusion of cash to the Ukrainian government for urgent needs must be followed by more targeted aid conditioned on Ukrainian performance.

For Europeans, the question is whether they will work with the U.S. in rhetorically condemning Russia's aggressive actions toward Ukraine and, more importantly, imposing tough sanctions on all sectors of the Russian economy, including its energy and finance sectors (even though they will require some sacrifice on our part). Thus far, we and the Europeans have taken only modest, largely symbolic actions, while signaling a reluctance to levy stringent sanctions on Russia.

Meanwhile, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has struggled in its search for a new mission in the region since leading the recent military intervention in Afghanistan, needs to be re-energized. The Ukrainians aren't ready to join the alliance, but this crisis may be the jolt it needs to find new relevance. A reaffirmed alliance would also signal to our European allies that we are strongly committed to their security.

The overriding question for Russia is whether President Vladimir Putin will be content with annexing Crimea and leaving Ukraine alone. I do not agree with those who, in the wake of Russia's lightning seizure of Crimea, have described Putin as crazy or delusional. I think his actions are shrewd, calculated and compatible with his interests.

As wily as he is, Putin is unlikely to invade Ukraine; the costs are too high. He's already obtained Crimea, a hugely important area to Russia's national security with its dozen or so military bases. He has shown himself to be an opportunist, and he's largely achieved what he wanted.

In doing so, he has elicited a fair amount of anger from America and its allies. In turn, a number of analysts have called for isolating Russia from the international community as punishment. But cutting off Russia completely would be unwise and shortsighted. Russia is simply too important a player in many critical global debates, including over Iran, Syria and the spread of nuclear weapons. No matter how mad we are in the moment, we will have to collaborate and cooperate with them in the future on areas of common interest.

Keeping open a selective engagement does not mean, however, that the international community should accept Putin's aggressive actions. We should strongly condemn Russia's actions, impose tough sanctions and show Russia that you cannot change national boundaries by force without costs and consequences. At the same time, it's important that we don't overstate what we are prepared to do. The tougher we are with our rhetoric, the tougher it will be to eventually come to agreement with Russia on other important issues of U.S. national security. Russia's bad behavior in Ukraine must not lead us to isolate the country in all areas. Remember, we maintained engagement with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

The Obama administration confronts a major challenge in keeping open a dialogue with Russia, while developing and preserving a united front with Europe against Putin's aggression. We will not -- and should not -- go to war over the occupation of Crimea. However, that occupation should be punished, and Putin should be discouraged from future actions through economic force.

Our policy will have to be selective and nuanced, with a mixture of containment, engagement, isolation and punishment strategies. Our challenge in enacting that policy will be to stay the course and keep our alliances intact. A Russian invasion of Ukraine -- which, thankfully, is appearing increasingly unlikely -- would present us with even more difficult choices. But even then, aggressive economic sanctions would be the strongest possible action America and its allies could take.

As the crisis continues, we will undoubtedly hear more calls for tougher action against Russia. But it is equally vital that we identify and clearly communicate our main objective, which should be supporting, stabilizing and strengthening a free and independent Ukraine.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.