Former Ronald Reagan National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane on Thursday called for an awakening of the West in a stirring speech about the Ukraine crisis.
McFarlane, adviser to Reagan from 1983 to 1985, urged U.S. officials to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine with “strength and leadership” during remarks at a Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) event. He was a key architect of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) employed during the Reagan administration to bolster U.S. missile defense and deter the Soviet Union.
McFarlane noted that the United States and its allies were tested several times after World War II. Western allies organized the Berlin airlift in the late 1940s to supply people in West Berlin blockaded by the Soviets, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower later sent 15,000 U.S. troops to Lebanon to prevent the pro-Western government there from falling.
“This kind of strength and leadership has been the glue that has held together this alliance that was founded and based on fidelity to common principles, the rule of law and so forth,” he said.
However, he said the West became complacent after the fall of the Soviet Union and assumed that Russia would automatically become democratic. Eastern European countries that eventually joined the European Union and NATO still relied on the West’s security guarantee.
“There was liberation and hope that freedom, that taste they got, could endure because there was the West—this community of countries devoted to Judeo-Christian principles that had moxie, guts, strength, and leadership and that when challenged, it could be counted upon,” he said.
“You can mark the decline of empires and institutions in various ways but we have seen, since the end of the Cold War, the ease with which the West has taken these [peace] dividends, whistling past the graveyard, wanting to believe that its former adversary was somehow going to morph into us,” he continued.
“We’ve had a very striking, sobering awakening from that I hope.”
Violence escalated in eastern Ukraine on Thursday when about 300 pro-Russian militants attacked a military base in Mariupol, prompting Ukrainian soldiers to open fire and kill three attackers and detain 63 others. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he retains the right to intervene in southern and eastern Ukraine and protect ethnic Russians from “fascist” violence. U.S. and Ukrainian officials have dismissed Putin’s claims as propaganda and accused him of attempting to destabilize Ukraine ahead of presidential elections in May.
Russia has assembled about 40,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, according to NATO.
Reports indicate that the Obama administration is close to authorizing a limited shipment of nonlethal supplies to Ukrainian forces, including medical kits and coats, on top of food rations already sent. The White House rebuffed Ukraine’s request for arms and ammunition.
NATO officials announced on Wednesday that they would step up air patrols over the Baltic nations and conduct military training exercises in Eastern Europe but were not prepared to formally deploy ground forces or open new bases.
Secretary of State John Kerry also reiterated on Thursday that Russia would face “further costs” in terms of economic sanctions if it chose to invade Ukraine or further destabilize the country. Kerry spoke after talks in Geneva between the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and the E.U. The parties issued a joint statement calling on illegal armed groups to disarm and return seized buildings, but it was not clear if Russia would follow the agreement.
Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said that while tougher sanctions are important, they will not be sufficient.
“If we continue to say, ‘If Russia persists we will impose further sanctions,’ they take that as a green light,” he said.
“[Putin] sees seizing territory as permanent and sanctions as temporary,” he added.
Volker said he supported aiding Ukrainian forces with military equipment, defense advisers, and intelligence. NATO should also lead more robust air defense and ground exercises in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, he said.
“Until we put them on the table, Russia believes we are not willing to do so,” he said.
McFarlane said the West must keep all options on the table, including helping Ukraine to develop its domestic energy sources. The Western alliance is at stake, he said.
“This is an opportunity that after the peace dividend and 20 plus years of shielding our eyes from what was bound to happen, we have a shot to bring the West together again at the end of the day,” he said.
“We cannot let this pass.”