There's no going back with Putin

York Dispatch editorial board

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s original goal in invading Ukraine was rapid regime change — the installation of a puppet government that would redirect the nation away from its recent westward leanings and back in the direction of Moscow.

The conflict will, indeed, result in the redefinition of government operations, but that government will be Russia’s. Because regardless of how events play out in Ukraine, the civilized world can no longer accept the Russian strongman as a legitimate leader on the global stage.

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That civilized world, it must be pointed out, is partially to blame for the carnage that is now raining down on Ukraine. Whether out of fear of provoking a nuclear power or simply a desire to avoid direct conflict, the western world deferred to the Russian dictator-in-all-but-name for far too long.

Remember, Russian forces helped seize control of parts of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donblas region of eastern Ukraine back in 2014. (Protecting ethnic Russians in this region was one of the many cover stories Putin floated as a pretext for the current hostilities.)

Before that, there was the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the bombing of Grozny in 1999 — the latter a response to bombings in Moscow that a former Russian security service agent said were actually carried out by Putin’s government (the agent was poisoned to death in 2006).

Despite this past, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 drew little in the way of serious reprisals, despite international condemnation. Even its 2016 meddling in the U.S. presidential election was met with a tame response, thanks largely to Republican refusal to condemn the acts before the election and incessant attempts to dilute the findings ever since. (Indeed, conservative media stars like Fox’s Tucker Carson to this day soft-pedal Putin’s crimes to the point where the Kremlin has directed Russian media to rebroadcast his program.) 

The bombardment of Ukraine has elicited a far more serious international response. Sanctions have been far reaching and hard hitting, from freezing the financial assets of Russia’s leaders to impounding the private yachts and jets of its oligarchs, from banning Russian oil and gas imports to closing airspace to Russian aircraft, from blocking Russia’s access to the SWIFT international payment system to a mass exodus from the country by private businesses like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and international sports organizations.

In short, the world is finally treating Russia’s leader as the political pariah he has long deserved to be. And unless world leaders want to encourage similar Russian aggression in the future, they will think long and hard about easing of sanctions and restrictions when and if the Ukraine crisis is resolved.

Because the bottom line is: There is no going back. The United States, the business world and the family of nations can never resume a “business as usual” posture with a Putin-led Russia. He has ceded the right to be treated as anything more than a hostile aggressor.

This will come with costs — they are already being seen at gas pumps and supermarket cash registers and they may well get worse. Still, they are nothing compared to the toll being paid by Ukrainians, of whom hundreds have been killed and millions displaced.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his cabinet have shown remarkable courage and leadership. They have refused to let Putin and his forces roll over them without a fight. They have shown that the only way to respond to a bully is to stand up to him.

World leaders must emulate this example for as long as Putin retains his grasp on Russia. He must not be coddled. He must not be emboldened. He must be marginalized economically, confronted politically and shunned internationally.