Enough with the niceties with Russia

AS THE West tries to curb Russia’s thuggish behavior, leaders should look to history for guidance and inspiration.

The US-led effort needs the fog-clearing clarity of an Adlai Stevenson missile-crisis moment. And the Western world needs to display some of the gritty determination that made the Berlin Airlift a success.

Serving as US ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stevenson confronted the Soviet Union’s UN ambassador, Valerian Zorin, during an emergency session of the Security Council.


“Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba?” he demanded. “Yes or no — don’t wait for the translation — yes or no?”

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When Zorin replied that he wasn’t in a court of law, and that Stevenson would have to wait for his answer, Adlai replied: “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision. And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.” His aides then unveiled photographs of Soviet missiles and missile sites in Cuba. Stevenson had revealed the USSR’s dishonesty and double-talk in full world view.

Like the Soviet leaders of that era, President Vladimir Putin is engaged in a campaign of obfuscation. Russian officials have suggested that Ukraine’s military shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Putin, meanwhile, has tried to blame the hostilities that gave rise to the airline’s downing on Ukraine rather than the rebel movement Russia has encouraged and enabled.

President Obama may have to take a careful tone, at least for now. But that shouldn’t temper what Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power have to say. They need to speak with force and clarity about the strong evidence that the anti-aircraft missile came from Russia, and about the role Russia has played in fueling the war in Ukraine. Ultimately, it shouldn’t be done simply piecemeal or in passing TV interviews. The United States needs to present its case on a high-profile world stage such as the United Nations.

Europe, meanwhile, urgently needs to grow a backbone. Until recently, sanctions on Russia had consisted mostly of travel bans and freezing the assets of Putin’s inner circle. Tougher measures, which Obama announced last week before the airliner was downed, target arms and energy companies and their financing.


But for those and further sanctions to be fully felt, Europe has to join in. On Tuesday, the European Union demurred.

Why the hesitancy? Some nations have lucrative trade or military contracts with Russia; others worry Russia might respond by closing the spigot on the natural gas they depend on.

That, however, is unlikely. Russia needs the gas revenues as badly as the customers do the gas.

“The Russian economy is essentially a one-trick pony,” says Admiral James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and former supreme allied commander at NATO. “If Russia suddenly cut off the gas tap, that would be the equivalent of the Russians hitting themselves in the face with a cast-iron frying pan.”

Lost trade and military contracts would still hurt Europe. But that’s where the West needs to summon some of the resolve that fueled the Berlin Airlift. With Germany divided after the war, and Berlin isolated deep inside the Soviet-controlled eastern region, the USSR thought it had the upper hand as tensions with the West grew. On June 24, 1948, it closed road, rail, and water access to Berlin, whereupon the United States and Britain, with help from other allies, decided to supply their sectors of the city by air. Almost 11 months later, a thwarted Soviet Union lifted the blockade. To build up supplies, the airlift continued until Sept. 30, by which time the allies had flown nearly 300,000 missions, delivering some 2.3 million tons of coal, food, and supplies, at a cost of more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.


If, with US help, the West could muster a fraction of that resoluteness today, it could teach Russia a necessary lesson: Military options aren’t the only way to tame a rogue nation. Not when the Western world is united and determined anyway.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.