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Former NATO Leader: U.S. Should Arm Ukraine, Ramp Up Russia Sanctions

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WASHINGTON – The United States should strengthen economic sanctions against Russia and provide defensive weapons to Ukraine in response to Russia’s military buildup in Crimea, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday.

Rasmussen, who appeared on a panel at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said the U.S. has a moral obligation to do so because of commitments related to Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament in 1994. That year, Ukraine agreed to destroy its nuclear weapons and join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in exchange for guarantees of assistance from the U.S. and the UK, as well as Russia.

“Russia has violated those commitments, but I think the U.S. has a political, moral obligation to live up to those promises,” Rasmussen said. “(Providing weapons) would make the Ukrainians more capable of defending themselves. I think that would be an appropriate response to the Russian military buildup in Crimea.”

The U.S., the EU and other countries introduced economic sanctions against Russia in 2014, following Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula and Russian backing of rebels in an ongoing Ukrainian conflict that has seen more than 10,000 deaths.

Ambassador Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow, a former deputy secretary general of NATO who appeared on the panel, agreed with the strategy of providing weapons to Ukraine, including anti-tank systems, surface-to-air rockets, and unmanned aerial vehicles. A stronger approach to defense systems, he said, should be paired with a stronger diplomatic strategy from the West to push Russia to live up to its Minsk obligations. He suggested that the Trump administration appoint a high-level special envoy for Russia-Ukraine diplomacy. Vershbow also said it may be time to tighten sanctions against Russia even further, pointing to the de facto integration of the Donbass region of Ukraine into the Russian economy.

Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky, a former undersecretary of state for Democracy and Global Affairs who rounded out the panel, said premature lifting or easing of the sanctions will not only have a significant impact on Europe, but also on the rest of the world. She said easing of sanctions could embolden China, Iran and other powers to pursue expansionist policies.

Vershbow said the sanctions have been successful in limiting Russia’s ability to borrow on the international market, most recently evidenced by the struggles of Vnesheconombank, a Russian government-owned development bank saddled with a reported $20 billion in foreign debt.

“The strength of the sanctions has been through the close U.S.-E.U. coordination,” Vershbow said. “While the regimes aren’t identical, we’ve targeted the same sectors, denying the Russians any ability to exploit loopholes or play us against each other.”

Rasmussen said the sanctions have no doubt prevented Russia from taking more land in Ukraine, while also keeping Russia at the negotiating table within the Minsk framework.

“We have forced the Russians into a dialogue,” Rasmussen said. “It hasn’t been successful so far, but at least we have a forum.”

Vershbow said that the largest success of the sanctions has been the demonstration to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S., the EU and NATO allies have “more staying power in defending” democratic principles than Putin anticipated. The solidarity between the allies, he said, also gives strength to Ukrainian reformation efforts.

Rasmussen, citing a recent report commissioned by his consultancy group Rasmussen Global, said the sanctions have resulted in a decrease of 1.5 percent in Russia’s GDP output. The report, “Sanctions on Russia: Impacts and Economic Costs to the United States,” was delivered by international relations scholars in Europe and published on March 20.

The report suggests that the impact of sanctions against Russia has not been at the expense of economic progress in the U.S. American trading of goods and services with Russia is less than 1 percent of total American trade with the entire world, according to the report, which noted that U.S. trade with Russia is about half the size of its trade with Belgium.