How to Contain Putin

Defensive measures.

Over the past few weeks, with the world distracted by coalition airstrikes in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy. Europe and the U.S. needn't respond to his every provocation, but they should understand that this challenge is here to stay.

Since Sept. 19, British jets have had to scramble to deflect a Russian long-range bomber encroaching on U.K. airspace. Russia's military has conducted a massive exercise in the Far East that involved 155,000 troops and more than 600 aircraft. And the Russian navy has announced it will at least double the size of the aging Black Sea Fleet by 2020, with 80 new ships. Oh, and Putin sent letters to leaders in Kiev and Brussels, demanding they gut their deal promoting more trade between Ukraine and the European Union.

Not all of this is about Ukraine, nor is any of it especially surprising. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday: "Sometimes in history one has to be prepared for the long haul, and not ask after four months if it still makes sense to keep up our demands." Putin's recent moves and decisions serve as a reminder that it is his long-range plan to assert Russian military might and economic power in Europe.

Russia has been rebuilding its armed forces since at least 2004. Earlier this year, the Russian government said the defense budget, which has almost doubled since 2010, will rise by 18 percent again this year and 22 percent in 2015. Russia is midway through a 30-year aircraft carrier program, and last week, sea trials ended on a third new strategic nuclear submarine.

Defense spending, at 4.2 percent of gross domestic product, is nothing like the 15 percent-plus of the Soviet period. And Russia is entitled, like all sovereign nations, to modernize its military. But Russia is spending more than it can sustain under sanctions without raiding its reserves and pension funds. And when this kind of expansion is used to annex territory and destabilize neighbors, the rest of the world needs to respond.

That means sticking with sanctions for a while. Despite a shaky cease-fire in Ukraine, experience shows it is never wise to assume Putin has renounced military and economic assaults on his neighbors. Negotiations over Russia's genuine issues with Ukraine's trade agreement with the EU are under way, but countries don't have the right to dictate at the barrel of a gun the terms on which other independent countries trade.

The more long-range response, and the more necessary one, is a rethinking of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Member states have to reverse the decline in spending on defense and rebuild some of the defensive forces they have dismantled since 1989. The EU also needs to develop a more unified energy policy. Hungary's decision last week to end natural gas sales to Ukraine under Russian pressure shows why. EU sanctions on Russia will be pointless if its members collude in starving Ukraine of energy.

There is no need for the U.S. and Europe to re-engage in a Cold War-style arms race. To outlast Putin, however, they will need a more robust defense posture -- and a more resilient political will.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net